Written in Tegel Prison, Berlin December 1944
Threefold Bondage and Liberation
The same thing applies to the Advent of prayer as to the Advent of life. All hopes and all hindrances are rolled together into one great weight just before the veil lifts. Before our perspective widens and reveals the fullness of reality, we enter into an experience where all is veiled and dark. Life is like this now more than ever, and especially our lives. Yet at the same time, the fervent confidence, the pressing expectation, and the rightfulness of the promise gather themselves together into one great victorious impulse. Day will be victorious and will compel night to acknowledge its powerlessness and to be downgraded to a demonic-but-powerless facade, or to be transformed into a temple of light. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent gather together one more time everything that is veiled, and all that hinders us, for a great and ultimate introduction of light. This is a final offer that recognizes our fetters and hopelessness; and yet, it already senses and feels and assures us of the flowing power of the creative graces to come.
The Threefold Law of Fetters
The Law of Guilt
“Quod nostra peccata prsepediunt: salvation that is still hindered by our sins” (Collect). This sets aside the whole jargon of destiny, and so on, the whole passive response to misfortune and to life being shaken. This unites the road through the night, which we must travel, to the important decisions of our hearts. We have to take this consideration seriously. It applies to all those processes that begin with a decision favoring the night of arrogance and self-will. It applies to all times, eras, and generations for whom the old precept applies: “Salvation and destruction arrive by means of the same road.” Wrong decisions of the heart and blindness of the mind curse the hands to wretched, destructive actions; and the opposite also holds true. The metanoia of the heart brings about the enlightenment of reflection and return to God, the consecration to healing and blessed work.
That also applies to our personal lives. These events in which we are caught up are interwoven in two ways. The first is that of a general historical causality, the logical connectedness of apparently inevitable necessity. Yet the other existential connectedness, with its aim of trial and testing, the purification and sanctification of our personal lives, is much more final and conclusive. It is here in this existential and personal significance and willingness that the decision about the value or lack of value of our experiences lies. This is where man is given power over every destiny. At this point of the innermost reality of the facts, a door opens to the bright room of meaning. Destiny loses its power as soon as we make sense of it. And here, too, man has the power to strike hard, cold, cruel stone and compel redeeming and refreshing springs to gush forth.
We absolutely must find and proclaim this recognition and these connections today. Our life has become hard and harmful to an extent that far exceeds the natural measure of hardship and distress that were always part of life. The causes are gruesome cruelty and obstructed, fettered salvation. The liberation must begin with the great conversion—the silent transformation of hearts that happens in the fruitful silence necessary to all authentic transformation—which, gathering itself to a mighty strength, will break through the frost-encrusted ground of adversity overnight.
The Law of History
No life is unhistorical or beyond history—no religious life and no secular life. History is the means of man’s existence. Development and growth: these shape the sphere of our existence, whether guided by the streams of interior mission or by self-willed decision. We may try to exist beyond history, outside of our actual situation, or to escape or react out of a false perspective, but these are temptations. Emigration and reaction do not belong to the categories of human life. “Hic Rhodus [Here is Rhodes]” applies and is a duty. Anything else is escapism and calls a curse upon itself.
The Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Lk 3:1-6) reports history. It enumerates the power brokers who determined the structure of the small sphere where the light was about to appear and salvation would be proclaimed.
You have to remember the historical context of these names in order to know that a hopeless moment in history is signaled here. It was hopeless from Caesar’s throne all the way down to the guards of the temple sanctuary. The visible priesthood was corrupt and entrenched in power politics, nepotism, and a hidebound clericalism.
Hopeless: that is the fetter history so often uses to bind salvation’s hands. It discourages the hearts of those who know and sense what is happening, bringing them to trembling and despair, to cheap silence and weary resignation.
Our bondage through history, and to history, is something man needs to know, and Christians need to know. Trying to live outside history is lifelessness and a shadow existence. History is not the ultimate thing, but the Ultimate can be seen only in the context of history. Otherwise, life revolves around an idol that deceives; an idol with which we deceive ourselves and seek cheap consolation.
The Law of the Mysteries
In Goethe’s opinion, “If it’s into the infinite you wish to stride, go into the finite on every side.” The old man from Weimar proclaimed some great truths, but with respect to their metaphysical background, he was not very original. He translated Spinoza’s pantheistic thoughts into lyrics and into ostensible experiences. And yet, despite all his freedom and joy in experiencing the world, there is almost no more systematic and pessimistic dogmatist than Goethe regarding the deepest attitudes and assessments. The tension with Schiller, for example, was really nothing other than the inability to reconcile Kant with Spinoza.
That is just an aside. “Into the finite on every side” unveils nothing human. Rather, it reveals either the bond to an a priori assumption; or the recognition, the experience of a limit, of something veiled, of something ineffable and silent: the mystery.
It is precisely this “entering into the finite all around us”, a universal grasp with which some great minds are gifted, that wakes man up to the consciousness of journeying through mysteries, being surrounded by them, and interiorly filled with them. In the end, the questions remain and the answers are lacking. The symbols remain and the interpretations are lacking. The events remain and the explanations for them are lacking.
Man makes every effort to pull this thorn out of the body of a smooth, comfortable existence. He overlooks exterior signs of reality, and dulls his senses with daily routine until the avalanche of life drives him out of the cozy homes and well-tended gardens into the streets of distress and wandering. Or else he keeps thinking up new categories he wants to impose upon reality: categories of reason, emotion, sense, or nonsense. He attempts this with skepticism, or with heroic pessimism, with progressus infinitus, or with Faustian ambition. Finally, he must either resign himself or invent a new category to distract him for a brief moment from the seriousness of his situation and the relentlessness of the unresolved questions.
Life happens within a greater context than man can cope with or understand. Life brings greater burdens and bears a richer cargo than we can cope with, comprehend, or manage alone. Everything that man would like to regard and attain to as the final end unveils itself as a preliminary, a new sign of the message, a new word of the message, a new question, a new assignment. In spite of being alert and willing, from an earthly perspective and earthly strength, life ultimately remains veiled, silent, taciturn, a mystery. It is secret and mysterious and, as such, uncanny.
The Threefold Law of Freedom
Man becomes truly himself only when he rises above himself. Only beyond himself do the power and strength exist, which he needs to be himself and to attain freedom—that freedom he needs as much as air and light for self-realization. Yet the fact remains that this power and strength become available and effective only through certain decisions—decisions made by and within the individual.
Overcoming the Law of Guilt
The liberating victory over the law of guilt is not to be found in the human heart just by calling for it. Insight and transformation of heart are preconditions man must fulfill in order to call upon and to encounter the supernatural, redeeming power that lies beyond himself. Nor does Advent call the converted heart to liberation in that way. “Excita potentiam tuam, per auxilium gratia tua [Awaken Your power; accompany us with Your grace].” It is God Himself who stands in opposition to our guilt. Guilt is like fetters, which can be released only by the one who holds the key. And that person does not have the strong yearning that my heart has. Guilt is like my cell door. The key would not help me, even if I had one. There is no inside keyhole. The door can be opened only from the outside.
God stands in opposition to our guilt. He stands as Accuser and Judge when we persist in sin. He stands as Liberator and Savior when we turn to Him, uniting with Him against our sin. This means that the time of the great intercessors has come. They will lift up our need and our night to God and, at the same time, through the disposition and vigor of their hearts, they will bring our times into a deep union with God. The great outcry to God must begin and not let up. We must take Him at His word. After all, He wrote the law of prayer Himself. Compare Matthew 21:18ff., Luke 17:5, Luke 11: 5ff., and many other Scripture passages that apply to the survival of the world. There is a confidence that calls out to Him, a confidence from which He likes to be called upon. The realization of many great things, of many genuine miracles, depends only upon our trust in God’s great generosity. He will not always do a show-stopping miracle, although the show of power will sometimes be there. But He can and will, with divine sovereignty, so dispose the thousand small things of inner-world causality and logic, that in the end His will is accomplished. Anyone possessed of this confidence would be certain of the results; he would leave the means up to the Lord God. And anyone whose own self-reliance is overcome by the Lord in this way is left standing speechless and astonished.
The time of the great intercessors has come. Prayer does not mean some Quietist approach dispensing us from action and responsibility. To the contrary, this is a much harder principle of action. The time of pure action, simultaneously consecrated from within, has come. The precept of Ignatius, “interiora sunt. . .”, says that the interior life must fill and support the exterior efforts and make them fruitful. That is the precept for this time. Today more than ever, action, commitment, and achievement must unfold from devoted worship.
There is no reason to lose heart or give up and be depressed. Instead this is a time for confidence and for tirelessly calling on God. We must unite ourselves with God against our distress. Take these words seriously: “Fiat misericordia tua super nos, quamadmodum speravimus in te [Let your mercy be upon us who have placed our hope in you].” That establishes the measure to which God commits Himself. His nearness is as intimate as our longing is genuine. His mercy is as great as our call to Him is earnest. His liberation is as near and effective as our faith in Him and in His coming is unshaken and unshakable. That’s the truth!
Liberation from the Law of History
Beyond history, there is only One who is real and capable of all life: the pure Spirit, the Almighty God, the Lord of all history. Running away from history is not the great liberation. Liberation is, rather, the covenant with God within history, for the fulfillment of history.
You have to reread the Gospel in order to experience this. While this group and that group represented the law of history, while history was so hopeless and unspiritual all the way into the sanctuary of the Lord, then the Word of the Lord came to John.
And the result? The voice rings out, the people are set in motion, and the waters of the Jordan become a bath of liberation. The great breakthrough is proclaimed, and life is granted a tremendous promise. The narrowness falls away, and windows are forced open to reveal the view into the distance. In other words, it worked.
In history, testing includes both the departure, the journey into the desert to solitude and separation, and the return to the narrow streets of life. But the desert is not a place of refuge or a value in itself. Instead, it is a place of preparation, of waiting, of readiness, of listening for the word of commission.
These have been the laws of testing in history. Testing begins with a preparation for the mission, listening and being awake to the word, confidence and courageous confession of faith. And all this happens in one particular, historical moment; not at some moment one might wish for or imagine. This is where the law of devoted worship, audibly and visibly unfolding within history, is applied. That is what it is about.
And where this law is invoked upon history, history comes under judgment and is called back to the duty of all creatures, the praise of the Lord. Here, as prison and fetters, history is overcome. For the Word of God is not fettered, not even when all human values lie in the chains of anxiety, and fear, and despondency, and weariness, and habitual compromise.
Prepare the way. This is a call to enter into history. Again and again, history will yield herself to those loyal to this call, because she senses the presence of the Lord with this call and naturally tends toward lasting union with her true Source.
Overcoming the Law of the Mysteries
The message of the Fourth Sunday of Advent releases even this torturous fetter, in three ways. It impels us to recognition. Such is our life: “dispensatores mysteriorum—administrators of the mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1). It is a trial, to know about the mysteries, to bear the mysteries. This is a part of genuine worship, to know that Deus semper maior [God is always greater]. We must take this seriously, even when it starts with the hardship and incomprehensibility of anxious everyday life.
The news proclaims the consecration, proclaims that things are consecrated and, through God’s nearness and God’s intimacy of existence, the special mysteries are present among us. It fills time and circumstances with the blessedness of divine cargo. That is both merciful reality and, simultaneously, a special symbol of the whole. Dispensatores: as administrators of the mysteries, we must endure and speak out. This refers to mission again. Once we accept the night, light will come. Once we accept history, it will hear the news of the Redeemer.
“Quoadusque veniat. . .” [Do not judge . . . before He comes . . .] (1 Cor 4:5). All of this is waiting and keeping watch for the coming of the Lord. “Dominus est” [It is the Lord who judges] (1 Cor 4:4). We must know the intimacy of God, the certainty of God within life. This great virtue of tirelessness is called for here: the tirelessness, which is touched by the Lord and, with the strength from His touch, keeps rubbing the sleep from its eyes and stays awake. Quoadusque: keep journeying and keep awake. This is the law of the successful and liberated life.
God’s are the day and the night, the fetters and the freedom, the prison and the wide world. In each of these, the deep sense of an encounter with God should fulfill itself. Only, one must demand the ultimate meaning of everything, ask every question down to the last. Our questions unveil themselves as questions seeking God and, at the same time, questions posed by God. Proclaim every answer down to the last. They unveil themselves as the message and annunciation of God. Endure every night until its middle. It unveils itself as Christ-Mass, the Consecration-Night of God’s arrival. The knowers, the watchers, and the callers—those who know about God and His order, those who are awake and watching for Him, and those who are tirelessly calling Him—they will transform the fetters into a sacrament of freedom.