I had never heard of Alfred Delp until I read an entry on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, in one of the Ignation sites I visit daily.
Ignationspirituality.com ran a piece about Delp because 75 years before, on that feast day, he was scheduled to profess his final vows in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. But the year was 1944, and instead of celebrating vows marking years of study and prayer, he was imprisoned in Berlin, being tortured and interrogated by the Nazi regime.
“How I wrestled with God that night,” he wrote later.
That evening, I sat with God and wrestled a bit myself. It seemed so unfair and depressing. Within a year, Delp would be dead at the hands of the Gestapo, his dreams and plans over. He had worked with the resistance, secretly helping to smuggle Jews out of Germany and he paid with his life.
I recalled that on Aug. 14, the readings for Mass contained the fate of Moses. He was told by God (Deuteronomy 34:4) that he could see the Promised Land, but he wouldn’t be allowed to cross over into it. After herding those recalcitrant Israelites through the long desert, listening to all that whining and complaining, Moses reached the mountain and saw the whole country of Judah, the Valley of Jericho: freedom, as far as the eye could see. But he, his dreams and plans, would not be going there with those he shepherded.
I thought of one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was also killed because of his resistance to Hitler. Engaged to a young woman named Maria, he was executed just days before the Allies brought liberation. What were his thoughts as he sat in his solitary cell and dreamed of a life denied, full of love and children and meaningful work?
And there’s Martin Luther King Jr., who the night before he was assassinated invoked Moses. King, too, was sure that his people would reach the Promised Land.
“But I may not get there with you…” he said prophetically, and I wondered if his thoughts strayed to his four little children whom he would never see grow up.
It’s one of life’s mysteries. We want to see good people rewarded on this earth, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Delp’s body was cremated and his ashes strewn in an unknown place. Deuteronomy tells us no one ever found the burial spot of Moses. “All is futility,” writes the sober author of the first few lines of Ecclesiastes, who must have been having a depressing day himself.
In the midst of this sacrifice, what then is our hope? Hope reminds us of Jesus, who like so many brave women and men, suffered unfairly at the hands of powerful institutions or evil people. Ultimately, we hope in his Resurrection, and we hope that we share in it.
Hope itself is a wonderful word, almost lifted on wings, on that long vowel sound, that decisive syllable. It’s a better word than depression. Its strength and its promise move us to fight on.
Sometimes, it’s hard to muster hope and we falter. But when I thought of Delp and Bonhoeffer and Jesus sitting in their lonely cells on the nights before they died, I knew that being with them, sitting with them, was the right place to be.
Like us, they wrestled with God, but God was there for them. So we cling to that hope and try to pitch our tent there.
The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.