By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1939), Letters and Papers from Prison, pages 346-7, edited by Eberhard Bethge, copyright 1953, SCM Press, Ltd.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young Lutheran pastor and theologian of great promise. He became active in the Confessing Church movement in Germany which took a stand against the Nazi government in the 1930’s. His activities made him an enemy of the Nazis, and friends encouraged him to flee for his safety. He accepted an invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but soon came to regret it. He stayed only a short time, and then returned to Germany. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 by the Nazis for his participation in a plot against the life of Adolf Hitler. He spent the last two years of his life in prison and was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American soldiers liberated his prison.
This poem was enclosed with a letter from prison to his good friend Eberhard Bethge in July of 1944.
WHO AM I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
Psalm 139:1-4…23-24 — O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord… Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Romans 7:15a — I do not understand what I do…
I Corinthians 4:2-4 — Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
John 10:27-28 — (Jesus said), “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
Lord Jesus, misery and misfortune annoy and oppress me. I long to be relieved of them. You have said, ‘Ask, and you shall receive.’ Lord, I am asking… But Lord, my longing is so great that I cannot express it in words. I don’t even know how to ask. You, O Lord, can see into my heart. What can I say? My suffering is greater than my complaint can be. I cannot counsel myself with my own reason, nor comfort myself with my own courage. Comfortless, helpless, and forsaken, I am altogether undone. My God, I know you will not leave me hopeless. You will hear my prayer and comfort me. It is for me to pray and await your grace. It is for you to hear me and give me hope. Amen.