Some years ago, Pope Francis observed that we are currently engaged in a new world war, “a little here, a little there, and everywhere.” He was referring to the multitude of conflicts—interior, domestic, national, and international—that shape our experience of the contemporary world. The apocalyptic tenor of the Advent lectionary also reminds us incessantly of “wars and rumors of wars.” Consider the Epistle reading for the First Sunday in Advent, which exhorts the faithful to gird themselves for battle: “The night is passed and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:12).
The current reality of war between Russia and Ukraine is another reminder that one of the central questions of the Christian life, brought to an especially sharp point in the penitential season of Advent, is simply this: How shall we live in a time of war? To answer this question, one can hardly do better than turn to Fr. Alfred Delp, a martyr for the Church in wartime Germany.
Born on September 15, 1907 (the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows), Alfred Delp was old enough to remember the First Great War. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church at fourteen and joined the Jesuits in 1926, though he did not take final vows until 1944. The long delay in his final profession was due not only to the outbreak of the Second World War, but also to Delp’s own impetuousness and non-conformity. These had created longstanding tensions with his immediate superior.
Delp’s intellectual formation included years of study with several significant twentieth-century German Roman Catholic minds, Karl Rahner and Aloys Grillmeier among them. He produced one of the first serious Catholic treatments of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and worked for a Jesuit journal until the German government suppressed it in 1941. Afterward, he was transferred to the parish of St. George in Munich. He was eventually arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for his involvement with a small ecumenical group (the Kreisau Circle) that had secretly convened to discuss the shape of a postwar, post-Nazi Germany.
Fr. Delp was hanged on February 2 (the Feast of the Presentation). His body was cremated; the ashes, according to some accounts, were scattered over human waste—the punishment for traitors to the Reich. On his final Christmas, he scratched these words into his cell wall: “Let us trust life, since we do not have to live it alone, for God lives it with us.”
While incarcerated, Fr. Delp wrote letters and exhortations to his Munich congregation that have become invaluable texts in the history of twentieth-century Christianity, comparable to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. At the end of a lengthy reflection on Advent, smuggled out of the prison by a sympathetic laundress, Delp writes: “Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, of what Advent must be, if we want to live.”
Delp understood the darkness of the Second World War to be an expression of a more fundamental spiritual darkness—what he describes at times as illusion, or sleep, or a kind of forgetting. In an address at a Holy Hour in 1942, Delp notes that after only two days without shelling, “so many of us have already begun to forget. . . . We act as if nothing had happened.”
Delp was concerned that spiritual restlessness and longing had given way in the twentieth century to slumber. Distractions, entertainments, the relentless pursuit of comfort—all potentially put the soul to sleep. And so, in his letters from prison, Delp endlessly calls his people back to the primary themes of Advent—watching and waiting, a willingness to be jostled awake, or shaken. He writes: “Many of the things that are happening today would never have happened if we had been living in that longing, that disquiet of heart which comes when we are faced with God, and when we look clearly at things as they really are. . . . Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake.”
In the Nazi fantasy of a thousand-year Reich, Delp witnessed firsthand the destructive capacity of the effort to make this earth into a permanent kingdom. He writes: “[T]he attempt to create final conclusions is an old temptation of mankind. Hunger and thirst, and desert journeying, and the survival teamwork of mountaineers on a rope—these are the truth of our human condition.”
The reason for Christian ascesis, especially as practiced in the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, is precisely to undo the habit of “resting” in those things that manifest some good but are not themselves the good for which we are made. Here we have no abiding city, to paraphrase the Letter to the Hebrews, and so life in this world is pilgrimage, wayfaring, sojourning. Advent, writes Delp, shakes us awake—opens our eyes to see our earthly loves in proper relation to our ultimate end.
And so, in this season of preparation, the Church invites the faithful to rise from slumber. For as Delp writes, this rising is not an individual effort, but like the teamwork of mountaineers. He says: “Let us not just go begging . . . and think only of our own concerns. Instead, let us come as representatives for all the lost people, as intercessors and representatives for all troubled, beaten, and spiritually helpless.” Surely this will shake us.
Christopher Snook is a lecturer at Dalhousie University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?