Wednesday, January 15, 2020

“The Prison Meditations” by Father Alfred Delp

Alfred Delp (1907-1945) was born in Manheim, Germany (on the Rhine River near Heidelberg) of a mixed marriage – a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. His schooling was primarily Lutheran, until a falling out with the local pastor. He joined the Catholic Church, where his priest saw his promise and guided him in his education. In 1926, Delp became a Jesuit. He was a teacher, first in Austria and later in Germany. 

The ascent of Hitler changed everything for Delp. He began to develop along Catholic humanist lines. Frustrated in his attempt to study for a Ph.D., he began working for a Jesuit journal from 1939 to 1941, until the Nazi government shut it down. He joined the staff of a church, and quietly began helping Jews escape to Austria.

Delp’s legacy is two-fold. First, He became a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Hitler. And second, when he was falsely accused of participation in the 1944 to assassinate Hitler, he was imprisoned in Berlin, and began to write. He wrote letters, reflections, meditations, and a few essays, all of which were (somehow) smuggled out and given to friends for safekeeping.

The prosecutor dropped the assassination plot charge, essentially trying Delp for his resistance activities, his being a member of the Jesuits, and his beliefs and philosophy. In the dying days of Nazi Germany, the charges were sufficient to result in the death penalty. Delp was executed by hanging on Feb. 2, 1945. His body, and those of the other prisoners executed at the same time, were ordered to be cremated.

His writings from prison have been collected and published a number of times. This particular edition is the ebook version of the collection, entitled The Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp. First published in 1962, it includes extracts from his diary, an introduction by Thomas Merton, worth reading by itself alone, and a number of representative writings. The diary entries provide an insight into Delp’s mind while he was imprisoned, showing doubt, fear, acceptance, resignation, and hope. He remained hopeful until shortly before his official trial that he would be found innocent and released. But a day or so before he started, he realizes what really lies ahead.

His meditations and reflections include a number of discussions about Advent, Christmas, epiphany, humanism, a wonderful series on the Lord’s Prayer, and the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in these writings to suggest that the man is writing them in prison; they are a rather quietly joyful discussion. 

At the end, however, back in the diary, we read his final thoughts. The trial is over, and the sentence handed down, and now he has but to wait. The pre-trial tension that was building is gone, replaced by acceptance and a strong resolution. 

Father Alfred Delp
“It is so easy,” he writes, “to get used to existence again that one has to keep reminding oneself that death is round the corner. Condemned to death. The thought refuses to penetrate; it almost needs force to drive it home. The thing that makes this kind of death so singular is that one feels so vibrantly alive with the will to live unbroken and every nerve tingling with life.” He knows that, at any time, the door will open and the jailer will tell him to pack up, for the transfer to the hanging.

And he goes on to question his actions, his life, his motives, and God. He finally knows that the one thing he has to do is surrender himself completely. And then he writes a letter to his fellow Jesuits.

In recent years, broad interest has grown in the stories of prisoners of conscience during the Third Reich. We’ll never know how many, or how few, there really were. But the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz Jagerstatter (the Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis and whose story is told in the movie A Hidden Life), and Alfred Delp bear witness to those who know that, sometimes, conscience must be followed, even when it leads to death.

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