Covid-19 and Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Day Alone’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the order of Heinrich Himmler seventy-five years ago in a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, only days before its liberation, in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had known from the age of sixteen that he wanted to study theology. He died having fully expended himself in that calling. And in so doing, he has become an inspiration to generations of Christians. As his gravestone reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Witness to Jesus Christ.
In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted a call from the Confessing Church, an alliance of faithful resistance to Nazism, to lead an underground seminary for its pastors. There, in Finkenwalde, he wrote Life Together in 1938. Now a devotional classic, Life Together was first of all a guide to life in Christian community – a reflection for his underground seminarians. Within it, Bonhoeffer explores the joy and struggle of community lived in and through Jesus Christ; a spiritual and even divine reality, manifest in human fellowship, and marked by Bible reading, communal singing, sharing a table, prayers, and daily work.
Yet the central chapter of this beautiful book about being together is titled ‘The Day Alone’.
Hearing the voice of God
Bonhoeffer writes, ‘Let those who cannot be alone beware of community’. The noise and activity of life together may crowd out the voice we sometimes need to hear alone, the voice we might sometimes only hear alone – the voice of God. Yet with a balancing wisdom, Bonhoeffer follows soon after with its opposite. “The reverse is also true”, he writes. “Let those who are not in community beware of being alone”. The voice which speaks out of the silence to our inner-most self, calls us into the community of Christ’s disciples.
Bonhoeffer wanted his seminarians to understand the connection between silence and our ability to hear the still small voice of God which animates our faith; to understand “the essential relationship of silence to the Word.” And, he wanted them to understand that time together and time alone are both essential to Christ’s community. Time with others enriches our time alone, and time alone enriches our time with others. “The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone”, Bonhoeffer writes. And conversely, “After a time of quiet, we meet others in a different and a fresh way”.
“Only in this fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”
COVID-19 and ‘the day alone‘
COVID-19 has brought a form of ‘the day alone’ upon us all. In reality, it will be much more than a day. We are beginning a time of relative solitude that will last for weeks and may hold for months.
Notwithstanding our heartbreak for those to whom this virus brings suffering, for whom we must do all we can in love, I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer would encourage us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace this time alone. Embrace it for meditation on the scriptures. Embrace it as an opportunity to be intentional in our listening for God. That will not be easy, and we will need to be patient. Yet we have time. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to this church?
Embrace this mandated time apart as a time for prayer. Not as when prayers are said at the front on Sunday morning, for which we bow our heads, or look at the back of heads in front. Rather, embrace this as an opportunity for prayer and solitude, before a candle. Prayers in which we meditate on the scriptures and, looking at the flame, ask Christ to come alight within us.
The spiritual fellowship of each of our local Christian communities still enfolds us, every day. We may experience that spiritual fellowship in phone calls, prayer circles, and perhaps even live-streamed worship. Yet we are away from buildings, and meetings, and rosters, and orders of service. We are away from all that. But we are not away from God. In fact, we might be far enough away from routine to hear God afresh.
May this time apart renew our faith. May this time apart open our ears to Gods’ call upon the church. May this ‘day alone’, in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, fill us with love for and anticipation of the time when we spend days together again, singing the Lord’s song in a new way.
Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Principal, United Theological College