out of Despair
may ask why God has sent us into this time, why God has send
this whirlwind over the earth, why God keeps us in this chaos
where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to
be no end in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps
that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit
Delp, German priest executed in 1945 on charges of treason,
written in prison
This time of year always gets to me. Christmas and Hanukkah,
still weeks ahead, share the common image of redemption—the
miraculous birth, the miraculous light—both set amidst historical
chaos and oppression. Both events celebrate fulfillment, deliverance,
But you can only long for fulfillment, deliverance, and endurance
if you have first felt abandonment, fear and weakness.
This time of year, these dark weeks before the celebrations
of light always intensify, in fits and starts, that perpetual
wrestling in my soul between heady, undiluted joy and a cowing
readiness to despair.
I don’t live my life in either extreme. But during these weeks
of early winter darkness, I seem to see more clearly the radical
pull of both.
In part I am fueled by pleasure and preparation. I want my
small house glowing, my table full, my loved ones close. I
cook and write and plan and dream.
may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.
I can’t shut out the world. The early winter darkness reminds
me of all the questions I can’t answer, all the random and
senseless evil around us, how powerless I feel. And the news
is full of woe: Lies pass as truth. Wars rage. Toxins abound.
We live as aliens, far east of Eden.
can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
stumbled upon Alfred Delp a few years ago flipping through
a book of essays on Advent. I couldn’t believe I had never
heard of him before. I Googled him. He’s well known in Germany,
but not so much here.
Eventually I found the few facts that are relevant: Distressed
at what he saw happening in his country, he joined with the
Kreisau Circle, a social justice group that opposed the policies
of the Third Reich.
After the failure of the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt
on Hitler, the Gestapo rounded up members of the Kreisau Circle,
Delp among them. There was no evidence to incriminate Delp
in the assassination plot, but he was hanged nonetheless,
in part for opposition to the prevailing regime, in part because
he was a Jesuit priest.
In other words, he did nothing wrong. He was hanged because
the will-to-power changes the rules. Hate makes room for torture
and killing—or as Delp himself said in one of his last letters
from prison, his death was “simply the carrying out of the
determination to destroy.”
A part of what makes Delp’s death, as well as his writing,
so powerful was that he wasn’t anybody particularly
special. He didn’t do heroic deeds. He didn’t have a high
He simply opposed his country’s policies. He was simply the
wrong kind of religion.
And in his essay, “The Shaking Reality of Advent,” Delp doesn’t
sugarcoat the state of the world in order to assure us that
God’s got it all on a string. In fact, he’s pretty hard on
the world. (“We believed that with our own forces we could
avert the dangers and banish night. . . . We believed that
we could harness everything and fit it into a final order
that would stand.”)
But why shouldn’t he be hard on the world? By the time he’s
writing these words, he’s a condemned man, beaten, interrogated,
shut up in a cell and shackled. He’s got no reason not to
believed that we could harness everything and fit it into
a final order that would stand.
There’s a timeless sentence.
So why shouldn’t Delp despair? He is not in denial about his
impending death, God’s awful distance or the messy wreck of
the world. And “The Shaking Reality of Advent” isn’t a theological
treatise; at this point Delp is well beyond more than a cursory
nod at doctrine.
He has nothing—after he puts on the striped garb prisoners
wear for their killings, he must sign a paper listing what
articles of clothing he leaves behind.
Yet even in his prison stripes, he is naked, except for hope.
Shaking Reality of Advent” is about nothing other than hope.
Not the pat hope of conventional religiosity, but a bracing
sense that joy does come in the morning, that we will
not be in a strange land forever.
How he manages it—that hope—all alone “walking up and down
in my cell, three paces this way and three paces that way,
with my hands in irons and ahead of me an uncertain fate,”
I really don’t understand. And I hope never to have to understand
But if the knife-sharp words of a wrongly condemned man are
words of hope, then I can’t ignore them. In the velvet, early
winter darkness, I can’t court the luxury of despair.
is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation,
the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of
despair and helplessness. But just beyond the horizon the
eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There
shines on us the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment
>From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and singing children,
not yet discernible as song. It is all far-off still, and
only just announced and foretold. But it is happening.”