What do you, Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have in common?

Dear Elle,

What do you suppose you have in common with soon-to-be-saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp because of his underground work against Hitler on behalf of the Jews? Not much, you may say, but I bet you do!

Both of these well-known and well-read saints doubted their personal experience of spiritual transformation. Their outward lives and activities suggested they were very deeply connected to the God of love. They lived and died for the cause of Christ and the people Christ loves. And yet they spoke of either feeling distant from God or doubtful about the efficacy of the power of the Spirit in their lives. They led examined lives and therefore knew the dark side of their souls. This darkness cast a shadow over their personal experience with Jesus, causing doubts, questions, defeat and despair. Does this sound familiar to you?

You know yourself so well, you can name many ways you fall short of God’s good will. You know how you resist the Spirit’s urges because of your own selfish agenda; how you outwardly smile, but inwardly curse; how you evaluate the quality of your spiritual life and criticize yourself for the lack of discipline in your spiritual practices; how you long for intimacy with Jesus and instead experience distance and absence. These types of awarenesses can cause a divide between your heart and God’s love and presence when you set yourself up as judge and jury condemning yourself for the fact that they exist.

But they don’t have to. Instead, of beating yourself up over them and focusing on your shortfalls, thank God for bringing these to your awareness. It is God’s love, not God’s anger that has brought these things to your attention. God loves you so much, he wants nothing to come between your heart and his. When Martin Luther would abuse himself over the guilt of his sins, his spiritual director, Johannes Staupitz, would tell him, “Martin, quit looking at your sin and start looking at Jesus.” God alone is judge and he does not condemn you.

This is how we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own conscience makes us feel guilty. For God is great than our conscience and knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, our conscience no longer accuses us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence.            1 John 3:19-21 Phillips translation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed one month after he wrote the following poem.

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
Equably, 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.

11 thoughts on “What do you, Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have in common?

  1. This was encouraging to me today, Debby. Thanks!

    My favorite line – It is God’s love, not God’s anger that has brought these things to your attention. God loves you so much, he wants nothing to come between your heart and his.

  2. Perhaps one of the most “self-crucifying” disciplines is to courageously count ourselves among the “great cloud of witnesses” for that is what God does!

    I am surrounded by them, but is quite another thing to count myself among them.

    • In Hebrews 11, the author describes many heroes of our faith, some named, some unnamed. At the beginning of Heb. 12, we read, “Since then, we are surrounded by such a ‘great cloud of witnesses’, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before, looking to Jesus the source and goal of our faith.” The image communicates that the saints, living and dead are witnesses to our ‘race,’ watching, cheering and trusting for our victory. I think Fr. Thomas is suggesting that we are part of each other’s cloud. At least that is how I understood his words. I am grateful for you in mine!

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