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Hope out of Despair

We 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 security.

—Alfred 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, endurance.

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.

Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Nevertheless, 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.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

I 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 profile.

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 be honest.

We 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.

“The 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 it.

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.

“Space 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 to come.

>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.”

—Jo Page


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