by Laura Fabrycky
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
I first visited Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s house four months after our family moved to Berlin for my husband’s diplomatic assignment at the U.S. embassy. As I worked to settle our family of five into our new residence, I found myself growing strangely unsettled inside by the fraying bonds of civic affection as my home country battled through an election year. When I discovered that our house wasn’t too far from the Bonhoeffer family residence, I scheduled an appointment for our family of five to visit. I hoped Bonhoeffer’s life of faith in the madness of Nazi Germany would give me inspiring wisdom and perspective on living faithfully in the crazy times of my American one.
We visitors that morning heard the familiar parts of Bonhoeffer’s story, with all its eventful heroism. But I found myself growing captivated more by the moments in his life when he seemed less certain about what living as a faithful Christian meant for him in his time and place. As a way to put my life into conversation with his, I served as a volunteer guide at the Bonhoeffer-Haus for our remaining two years in Berlin, learning to tell his story to visitors from around the world who came to visit this memorialized home.
One of my favorite places to pause with visitors was at the wooden desk tucked under Bonhoeffer’s third-floor window, flanked by his books and clavichord. It was here that he had written a famous essay to fellow believers in the resistance. I’d explain: “He gave that essay – ‘After Ten Years’ – as a Christmas gift to them in 1942, before their plot to bring Hitler’s brutal rule in Europe to an end. In it, he reflected on how they had learned to see history ‘from below,’ and ‘from the perspective of those who suffer.’”
As Bonhoeffer wrote that reflective letter, he did not know how his life and world would turn out, and his choices and actions in life are all the more remarkable from that perspective. Of course, Bonhoeffer understood early that Hitler was a mortal danger to Germany and its people. He worked actively to resist Nazi ideology and subvert its policies, which made him a target in 1939, as Europe stood on the brink of another German-launched war, friends in the United States offered Bonhoeffer a chance to escape Nazi Germany. That he received permission to go seemed a clear answer to their prayers.
But as Bonhoeffer journeyed away from danger into apparent safety, the questions within him only grew. His first weeks in America were marked by a hollowing sense of inner disorientation. Had he made a mistake in leaving his fellow Christians in their suffering in Nazi Germany? What did God want him to do? Only after weeks of inner torment, spiritual wrestling and prayer, did he feel the fog lift. Following in Christ’s footsteps meant, for him, returning to Nazi Germany, possibly to suffer and die.
I was especially captivated how God used Bonhoeffer’s brief journey in the United States as a powerful moment of spiritual sifting—the meaning of the Greek word for “crisis.” Having met with God in a crucible of perplexity, Bonhoeffer emerged refined. Only after that inner, personal crisis was he equipped to enter more faithfully into other bigger and murkier realities.
The more I told Bonhoeffer’s story, I began to face the difficult truth that neither his inner victory of obedience nor the rightness of his cause were guarantees of success – at least in the way that word is usually understood. When he returned to Germany, Bonhoeffer joined the political conspiracy against Hitler, but the plot ended in failure. Like many of his fellow conspirators, Bonhoeffer was put to death in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39.
Many visitors to the Haus are drawn to Bonhoeffer’s story because they too have faced crisis and found perspective from his story. Bonhoeffer knew the presence of Jesus who himself knew what it meant to see life “from below,” as we all do, and who so closely identified with those who suffer that he commanded his followers to see him in those who suffer (Matt 25:34–46). Crises reveal to us who we are and whose steps we follow.
God calls me to do good in this world in his name, “even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). With the help of my brother Bonhoeffer, I know that Christ’s path is the only one that leads safely home, even if it winds through valleys of shadow, perplexity, and death.
Laura M. Fabrycky is an American writer and poet, currently residing in Brussels, Belgium, with her husband and three children. She is the author of Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.