Epiphany 1945: the Law of Grace

This meditation by Alfred Delp on grace before his trial evokes in me the maxim “the truth shall set you free.” And the truth that liberates a person is not the initiative of the person, but is a response to the grace of God. As such, the self-constituting act of freedom is also an act of healing love.


The Law of Grace

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Epiphany 1945]


However the wilderness is neither the beginning nor the end. In his perilous climb to the heights of freedom man is not entirely dependent on his own resources. The more he has to overcome, the greater the distance he has to travel, to transcend himself and find his true self, the less he can depend on his own unaided power. Both as a race and as individuals we have experienced and discovered how miserably inadequate our own feeble efforts are. Please God it may be a long time before we again overrate our personal powers in so devastating a fashion.


prodigal-sonFreedom is born in the hour of contact. And it is not as if God simply stood there, waiting for the weary traveller to arrive. Both God and man are travelling towards one another. God shows in hundreds of ways his willingness to meet man more than halfway—to put out his hand when man tends to stumble. And this is not the full extent of His divine aid—this is merely the preliminary. The summit is reached when man hears His voice; then he can no longer doubt that his destiny is to rise above himself to his fulfillment.


Today’s feast uses three symbols for the divine attraction that draws man with gifts of grace—the star, the sacred river and the water changed into wine. But they are only symbols, not the truth itself. For the star signifies the child, the river signifies the Lord and the divine remission and forgiveness of sin, and the wedding feast signifies the coming of the Spirit for our salvation. Humanity is made to see that it is not only under the law that demands grace but it is also under the law of genuine and effective grace. Precisely where he most needs help man finds it because God has placed himself on an equal footing with us. We are not alone—we can face anything that befalls us. And more than that, we are capable of living effectively when everything in our world seems to be against us. Remember St. Paul said: “My grace is sufficient”—and it was sufficient to such an extent that to this day the world admits it. Another great man said: “God alone suffices—and he did suffice for a life whose fruits the world is still reaping.


At the present time we are still wandering in the wilderness. The cry for help still arises from our hearts. It is true as far as we are all concerned and it is true for me personally. In this situation the wilderness has lost its peaceful appeal and assumed its more threatening aspect hinting at unknown dangers. This is no figure of speech but actual fact. We nine are acutely aware of the great community, the world of men arranged against us, and we are the “lost one” who tomorrow have to start an unknown journey to meet our fate.


But the wilderness will not lead us to final doom but to a great freedom. The wilderness exists to be overcome. And I know that I am not alone. The law of truth and love and prayer still holds good. I must let the healing current run its course so that the waters of bitterness will be turned into the wine of divine blessing; prayer and praise.


[excerpt from The Prison Memoirs of Father Delp]

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Epiphany 1945: the Law of the Wilderness

It has been said that the definitive image of a Christian is that of a person on trial–of a man or a woman who takes Christ seriously enough to be left on the fringe of society. This is not the result of persecution complex or a cult of suffering, but rather, the response to a call to be a divine conduit in the world. Such radical ‘imitatio Christi’ does not happen by chance, but by grace and a prepared heart. Here, Delp uses the wilderness motif to prepare himself for his trial just as Christ did.


Epiphany 1945: the Law of the Wilderness

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Epiphany 1945]

Those for whom the hour of freedom struck in the stable of Bethlehem had faced and overcome the wilderness, both the external wilderness of isolation, forsaken homeland, lost relationships and friendships of a momentous and strenuous pilgrimage, and the inner wilderness of uncertainty, doubt, fear, and anxiety. It had been a long and a weary journey and their faces still bore the marks of the hours of strain even in the glow of the blissful encounter. The wilderness has its proper place in the drama. Human freedom is christ-in-the-wilderness-1898the fruit of liberation, of the persistent and tireless scaling of the enemy fortification.


When children kneel before the crib lisping adoro and suscipe their prayer is valid—but more is expected of an adult. He must master the real meaning of the words and gestures or go back and learn his lessons over again. Human freedom is the result of a tough and painful liberation; healing and happiness are not imposed on mankind and life is not a lottery with colossal prizes.


The wilderness is part of it all, the wilderness of the soul as well as the body. One could write a whole history about wildernesses. All really great men have had to fight against loneliness and isolation and the great fundamental questions that occur to a man in such jesus-the-temptation-rosetta-jallowcircumstances. The fact that our Lord retired into the wilderness shows how genuinely he took to heart the laws and problems of humanity. And then, after the trial of the wilderness had been withstood there will be the temptations to be met. Great issues affecting mankind always have to be decided in the wilderness, in uninterrupted isolation and unbroken silence. They hold a meaning and a blessing these great silent, empty spaces that bring a man face to face with reality.


There are no more profitable places in history than wildernesses—vast areas—the sea, high mountains, trackless forests, plain and pampas and steppe, barren land as well as fruitful, all exercise their own peculiar influence, not only on the physical being but even more on the dispositions and characters of the human beings affected by them. They all leave their mark on history. And of all wildernesses the streets of the great cities—deserts of stone—are unique in that again and again they have ended up as the graveyard of history. The wilderness concerns all humanity, all its actions and decisions, in a very special way.


Any life that cannot measure up to the wilderness, or seeks to evade it, is not worth much. There must be periods of withdrawal alternating with periods of activity and companionship or the horizons will shrink and life loses its savor…


And the world too will be in a bad way if ever it happens that there are no more christ-in-the-wilderness-the-scorpionwilderness, no more silent unspoiled places to which a man can retire and think, if every corner of the earth is filled with noise and underground tunnels and soaring airplanes and communication networks, if cables and sewers scar the surface and undermine the crust. Mankind needs to keep a few quiet corners for those who seek  a respite and feel the urge to retreat for a while from over-civilization to creative silence.


For those who occasionally feel the hermit instinct there should at least be a chance to try it out. The law of absolute utility, of total functionalism, is not a law of life. There is an extraordinary close connection between the wilderness and fruitful, satisfying life. Where all the secluded places ring with tumult, where the silent muses have been degraded to pack horses and all the sources of inspiration forced into the service of official mills grinding out propaganda, the wilderness has indeed been conquered—but at what price. Even greater devastation has taken its place.


The wilderness has a necessary function in life. “Abandonment” one of my friends called 2012-0826-christ-prisonerit and the word is very apt. Abandonment to wind and weather and day and night and all the intervening hours. And abandonment to the silence of God, the greatest abandonment of all. The virtues that thrives most on it—patience—is the most necessary of all virtues that spring from the heart—and the Spirit…


The wilderness represents the law of endurance, the firmness that makes a man. It is the quiet corner reserved for tears, prayers for help, humiliation, terror. But it is a part of life and to try to avoid it only postpones the trial.

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Epiphany 1945 and the Law of Freedom

Epiphany 1945

[Tegel Prison, Berlin]

1486010_615991251807654_1935328296_oIt may be possible to find an hour to think today. How many things there are to think about and what contrasts they present. The feast itself with its rich symbolism; the emergence of God from the quiet corner of Bethlehem into the wider world; the guiding star; the men who braved the wilderness; the joy of the encounter; the terror stricken king; the indifferent clergy; the wonderful providence of God. And besides all this, all the other things the feast commemorates—the baptism in Jordan, the hearing of the Father’s voice, the marriage feast of Cana. So very much to turn over in one’s mind.

Then the personal aspect. The many years I have spent in preparation and the day for renewing my holy vows. This year, in this time when men are yearning for a star to guide them and not a glimmer of a star appears because men’s eyes are blind and cannot see, the message of the feast is more usually urgent. We must pass it on and stir people’s understanding.

But to come back to my own personal predicament; in two more days my case will come up for trial. Just two days in which I can rely only upon God for there is no other help I can turn to. How can I pray for a Christmas star, for light on this problem. But God has left it unanswered; he is asking me to make the “step to freedom”—the decisive stride which will carry me form myself to lose myself completely in him. Here is also a wilderness to be crossed and a terrified ruler only too eager to use the sword…

1984-movie-writePeople are frightened, they are scared to stride out firmly and honestly to the boundaries of their potential powers because they are afraid of what they will find at the borderline. The man who aims at fulfillment only within the framework of his own limitations must always be afraid of the unknown. The existence of the limitless, the eternal that is beyond our comprehension and yet vaguely draws us as being within our capacity for experience is the real source of our uneasiness…

For the man who desires to develop his highest potentialities today’s feast gives the laws and conditions, which should regulate his life. It shows him the way by which he can achieve a real proved individuality.

Man needs freedom. As a slave fettered and confined he is bound to deteriorate. We have spent a great deal of thought and time on external freedom; we have spent various efforts to secure our personal liberty and yet we have lost it again and again. The worst thing is that eventually man comes to accept the state of bondage—it becomes habitual and he hardly notices it. The most abject slaves can be made to believe that the condition in which they are held is actually freedom.

During these long weeks of confinement I have learned by personal experience that a man is truly lost, is the victim of circumstances and oppression only when he is capable of a great inner sense of depth and freedom. Anyone whose natural element is not an atmosphere of freedom, unassailable and unshakeable whatever force may be put on it, is already lost but such a man is not really a human being any more; he is merely an object, a number, a voting paper. And the inner freedom can only be attained if we have discovered the means of widening our own horizons. We must progress and grow, we must mount above our own limitations. It can be done; the driving force is the inner urge to conquer whose very existence shows that man’s nature is fundamentally designed for this expansion. A rebel, after all, can be trained to be a decent citizen, but an idler and a dreamer is a hopeless proposition.

Man’s freedom is born in the moment of his contact with God. It is really unimportant whether God forces man out of his limits by the sheer distress of much suffering, coaxes him with visions of beauty and truth, or pricks him into action by the endless hunger and thirst for righteousness that possess his soul. What really matter is the fact that man is called and he must be sufficiently awake to hear the call.

Adoration-of-the-MagiThe law of freedom is an appropriate theme for today. When those worshippers knelt in homage on the floor of the humble stable with everything else put behind them—their homes, the wilderness, the guiding star, the agony of the silent star, the palace of the king and the grandeur of the city—when all these had lost their value and their impressiveness and the worshippers’ whole being was concentrated in the single act of adoration, the symbolic gesture of laying gifts before the manger signified the achievement of liberty. Then they were free.

Man must leave himself behind if he hopes to have even a glimpse of his true potentialities. But the surrender of the self is the thing we find most difficult to accomplish and so rarely succeed. To the modern mind it makes no sense because we have lost any concept of the boundless glory, the shimmering, unlimited wonder of the divine to which we gain access by yielding up our own limited personality. Only when we trim our sails to the eternal winds do we begin to understand the sort of journey we are capable of undertaking. Only by voluntary, unreserved surrender to God can we find our home. Any other sort of refuge is only a temporary shelter, a poor hovel on shifting sand destined eventually to fall in ruins. Adoration in a stable is preferable to terror before a throne. There is much wisdom in the ancient teaching about the passing of the soul 10425695-outstretched-empty-hands-over-a-grundge-concrete-backgoundbecause it embodies the idea that man can only become himself by stepping outside himself. Pray and praise are the two key words to human liberty. The kneeling attitude with outstretched hands is the correct attitude for a free man.

Our age, like those before us, has tried many others. But the life-urge is very strong in any man of genuine feeling and it keeps forcing him back to his own potentialities. We found it very hard to let go of beautiful things. But in the end we have to. We came to the stable by a road which was laborious, terrifying and blood-soaked and this miserable dwelling was at the end of it. Our hands are empty—more than empty. They are torn and bleeding because things literally had to be wrenched from their grasp. But in spite of everything we can hear and recognize the call, if we can discover the inner meaning of the grim experience through which we are passing and if in the midst of this frightfulness we can learn to pray, then this hell will bring forth a new man and a blessed hour will strike for the troubled earth in the middle of the night—as it has so often before.

The fate of mankind, my own fate, the verdict awaiting me, the significance of the feast, can all be summed up in the sentence surrender thyself to God and thou shalt find thyself again. Others have you in their power now; they torture and frighten you, hound you from pillar to post. But the inner law of freedom sings that no death can kill us; life is eternal. Pray and praise—the fundamental words of life, the steep roads to God, the doors that lead to fulfillment, the ways that lead a man to his true self.

[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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The People Who Are Not at the Crib

The People Who Are Not at the Crib

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Christmas 1944]


Even those who are not at there have a message for us and a judgment to give if only to make us realize what it is that keeps us separated from God. After all as a race today we are not at the crib either. Yet the emotions aroused by all that we are living through ought to make us want to be there.


1984-movie-bb_a1Those who were not there include the powerful… Neither the Roman procurator nor the recognized native rulers made their appearance at the crib to receive ratification of their power. Power can only be genuine and good when it is rooted in the divine. These people possessed power in their own right and used it only to further their own ends. There is the mystery of power… The French, more realistic than we are, have two different words, force and puissance. Puissance conveys the awe inspiring  impression of inner power. Power in itself and as the sum total of all the means of enforcing it becomes destructive in the hands of arrogant totalitarian authority and ruins both the one who wields it and the subjects on whom he exercises it. The tyrant in possession of such power is no longer capable of spiritual sensitivity. He is suspicious of everything that does not fit into the narrow limits of permitted and regimented expression. There was no paragraph in the rules at Jerusalem covering the birth of the Child at Bethlehem. Hence the reaction of perplexity and fear and the prompt recourse to the sword. In circumstances like these the subject beings grow timid and cowardly; they accept that their claim to life is cut to the basic minimum of official permission.


1984Dare we ignore this message and judgment? The history of power in the Western world is one long history of ruthless force. There is no room in it for the glory of God which is neither safeguarded nor respected. The great are concerned only with their importance and spend their lives jockeying for position. And the consequences, as far as they concern mankind as a whole are only too obvious. Fear has become a cardinal virtue…


The wealthy. There is nothing wrong in a man’s having great possessions. But when his possessions rob him of his freedom and make him a slave then they become evil. It was like that at the time of the Nativity and the palaces and the fine houses were not destined to shelter the Lord. Great possessions can and should be a blessing. But the owners of great treasures are also people who are afraid of any order of things not covered by the official records…


consumerismA great many hasty judgments have been made in this connection and much prejudice has been based on them—Marxist socialism, the condemnation of private ownership, and so on. We must keep a sense of proportion. All the same it is clear that the unresolved problems of wealth, of unearned income and so on is one of themes of our time… Evils that were dealt with by materialistic society of nineteenth century were at the mercy of self-interest, expediency, indignation. The highest ideals were lacking and there was palpably no trace of that spiritual attitude based on the divine nature that makes all men free. So it is not surprising that the ordinary man’s spiritual mechanism has rusted and become practically useless. Therefore those endowed with great possessions cannot be found in the devout circle round the crib. Some are absent because their possessions have robbed them of proper insight, others because the things they covet have made them incapable of any other interest. It is undeniable that every human being is entitled to a living space, daily bread and the protection of the law as a common birthright; these are fundamentals and should not be handed out as an act of charity.


The learned. Learning and prayer have little in common and it still so today. Learning is besotted and bemused by the brilliance of its own ideas and has an overwhelmingly high opinion of its own interpretation of the world’s affairs. And whenever the world takes a course not laid down in the books it is immediately suspect.


Western thought is inordinately proud of having “grown up” in the last century. It considers itself completely adult and self-possessed. Meanwhile in obedience to its own law it is no longer spreading its wings like an eagle, no longer venturing to the horizon. It has become a mere appendage to earthbound utility blind and blunted to certain aspects of the truth. But human nature is so constituted that even in its most debased and blinded state it still needs to ape God and set itself on a pedestal a if it were divine. Unconsciously it is reaching out towards a state it might be capable of achieving if it were not so in love with itself and forever leading itself and its world into the icy mire of materialism.


No, the learned are certainly not found among those devout souls kneeling round the crib in the stable. They are the types whom later, when grown to manhood, the Child was to embrace in the lament “Woe, woe”, but then they did not understand that either. The wise men, those who prescience came to the heart knew where they were going and what they were looking for. They were capable of adoration…

[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]


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The People of Christmas: Figures Linked with the Feast

A friend of mine remarked that today is” one of the saddest feast of the Christian year, just to remind us of one aspect of the world God accepted to come and inhabit…”


1531993_1449058741982553_1909924636_oThe feast of the Holy Innocents invites Christians to go beyond the standard definition of “voluntary acceptance of death for faith.” We should continue to celebrate the exceptional figures who make the free and conscious decision to give their life. Yet the Holy Innocents reminds us of the majority of peoples, especially children, who have been and continue to be victims of war, violence, and poverty. The persons who make the free and conscious decision to give of self in the following of Jesus together with the victims of the world entreat us to take reality seriously and to engage the world.


The Figures Linked with the Feast of Christmas: the Holy Innocents

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Christmas 1944]


1537960_1449059758649118_1490099390_oThe holy innocents. The children of Bethlehem. They too have a place here. They share the scene with our Lord. And the mystery of the words “all this happened—because the Lord came,” applies particularly to them. They were martyred because of the power of a frightened and insane tyrant—that is made quite clear. And we see how completely all life is in the possession of our Lord. It is not mere pious sentiment to call the Child kyrios. Our concept of God must retain its grandeur and become firmer. Then the love we profess will also be strong, effective, reliable.


The mystery of the innocents is that they are the victims. The divine eagle gathered them as booty to himself. The blow aimed by the tyrant at our Lord fell on them instead. They serve as a kind of guard of honor to the divine child—and the militant dialogue between God and anti-God in which they are caught up earns them heaven. But we have loss our awareness of that ceaseless duel—we so little realize that we have a share in the struggle that we ignore it completely. Yet no one can escape responsibility and at any moment God, exercising his sovereign power, may draw us into the thick of it. So far as an adult is concerned this can only lead to salvation if the victim voluntarily accepts the combat and enters into God’s side. But in the case of the innocents the manger sealed their fate and was sacrifice. That is their mystery.


1484043_1449058385315922_1073499421_oAnd it is also their message and judgment. We have become insensitive to the sovereignty of God. Even where awareness of it still exists a clear-cut concept of the relationship and of the order to which it belongs is lacking. The God under whose inexorable law we exist has ben dissolved in a mist of psychological outpourings, subjective living conditions or collective existential needs. This is one of the worst evils of our time.


[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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The People of Christmas: Figures Linked with the Feast

These next three Christmas excerpts from Alfred Delp concern his prison meditations on the liturgical feasts of St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, and St. Thomas of Canterbury. It is interesting that these three feasts of martyrdom during the Christmas season offered someone, who was awaiting trial and execution, material for his reflection. These figures probably gave Delp greater freedom to witness through the gift of his life. A Christian can be called a martyr if he gives his or her life freely. Yet, there is one further point that calls attention. The Christian gift of self is never primary; it is secondary. The initiative of the gift of self comes not from humankind, but from God. Delp’s gift of self was in response to the initiative of God’s gift of self in the Incarnation and the Cross. That Delp’s freedom to give was undergirded by an even greater freedom.


Figures Linked with the Feast

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Christmas 1944]

So many figures come to mind when we are thinking about the feast of Christmas. All of them have a special message for us. The innocents of Bethlehem even have a place in history. The others are so intimately associated with the mystery of contact which is the essence of this feast that they throw a penetrating light on our question—how is the human soul prepared and fitted for this great encounter—and further, how can we help make it ready? What are the essentials decisions of the heart for establishing a real and living contact with God?


StephenSt. Stephen. His secret is easy to discern. He saw clearly that mankind had been lifted to a new plane through the miracle of the holy night and the encounter with Christ; that man now had new strength and the new responsibility of bearing witness. What had been long enough before was enough no longer. Hence the expressions full of grace and strength—signs and wonders. But these things have not yet been given to man merely for him to master himself. Since Christmas God is with us and injustice and even murder are sanctified and transformed into signs of grace and strength and salvation. St. Stephen’s law is that of extraordinary self-surrender and extraordinary witness.


This is his message and his judgment. He challenges us to get out of our rut. As we draw near to God the old and familiar become useless. God will transform us into faithful witnesses if we earnestly and with complete surrender turn to him for help.


[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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The People of Christmas: Those Round the Crib

The Figures of Christmas

[Tegel Prison, Berlin, Christmas 1944]

Life with God and in God has its own laws and we cannot discover what they are from a reference book. Yet the conditions for their fulfillment are very straightforward and clear-cut—less obscure indeed than those of the ten commandments. All the same thin thread on which they depend, the thread which unites the personal Thou of God with the personal I of created being, can only be spun when they are being fulfilled…


Correggio_NativityChristmas is the mystery of the contact with God, fundamentally and actually. Those who are part of the approach to it can show us the human requirements, which will make it possible for man once more to converse with God, and the necessary conditions if we are to reestablish contact with him.


Three different kinds of approach are suggested by the Christmas mystery. First there is the historical sequence of events recalled by the feast; secondly there is the liturgical reconstruction of the mystery; and thirdly there is the silent, yet eloquent, participation of all present. Even the empty places have speech of their own and a message for us…


We are familiar with the crib figures inside the stable or making their way to it. And in that journey to the stable they have all have something significant to say to us about the mystery of life and the everyday world. Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men; these are the people gathered around the Christ child.


Mary. Let us put aside, for the moment, the venerated figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary as such. It would be impossible to discuss that holy figure in one short paragraph; as our Lady she is a theme with an endless and perpetual message. But let us here think of her as the young girl, Mary kneeling humbly before the manger in which lies the child she had just given us. She has her own message, a few words to offer us in the turmoil to which the estrangement between our benighted generation and the divine mystery has thrown us.


The fact that this night of nights brought forth the Light that Mary kneels before the Child, that motherhood and the grace of compassion have become a law of our life, that the ice of man’s inner solitude can be broken and melted by healing warmth—all this became possible only because the maid Mary yielded of her won free choice to the inner prompting of God’s voice. Her secret is self-surrender and willing acceptance, offering herself to the point of obliteration of personal will.


That is both Her message and Her judgment of us. As a generation we are completely wrapped up in ourselves; we are always concerned with our self-fulfillment, our self-realization, our living conditions and so one. Everything is organized for our self-gratification. And precisely because of this we are getting progressively poorer and more miserable. Mary’s decision was complete surrender to God and it is the only thing that can lead to human fulfillment. Hers is the decision that obeys the law of life.


1479038_189352637937545_1802085770_nJoseph. He is the man on the outskirts, standing in the shadows, silently waiting, there when wanted and always ready to help. He is the man in whose life God is constantly intervening with warnings and visions. Without complaint he allows his own plans to be set aside. His life is a succession of prophecies and dreams of setting up a quiet household, simply leading a decent home life and going about his everyday affairs, attending to his business and worshipping God and who, instead is condemned to a life of wandering. Beset with doubts, heavy-hearted and uneasy in his mind, his whole life disrupted, he has to take to the open road, to make his way through an unfriendly country finding no shelter but a miserable stable for those he holds most dear. He is the man who sets aside all thought of self and shoulders his responsibilities bravely—and obeys…


It is his message for us and his judgment of us. How proud and presumptuous and self-sufficient we are. We have crabbed and confined God within the pitiable limits of our obstinacy, our complacency, our opportunism, our mania for self-expression…


The wise men. Whether they were really kings or just local eastern chieftains or learned astronomers is not in the least important. Their hearts were filled with wisdom and the aspirations of their race and that is what really concerns us. Only men of the highest type could have undertaken such a journey for such a purpose. They brought all the longing of their people with them to the place of the encounter for its fulfillment. Through the desert, by way of royal palaces, the libraries of the learned and the counsel chambers of the priests—and they ended their journey at last at a manger in a poor stable…


Pieter-Bruegel-the-Younger-The-Adoration-of-the-Magi-in-the-SnowThe secret of these people is as plain as in the case of the shepherds. They are men with clear eyes that probe things to their very depths. They have a real hunger and thirst for knowledge. I know what that means now. They are capable at arriving at right decisions. They subordinate their lives to the end in view and they willingly journey to the ends of the earth in quest of knowledge, following a star, a sign, obeying an inner voice that would never have made itself heard but for their hunger and the intense alertness hunger produces…


What are we looking for anyway? And where will we find a genuine yearning so strong that neither fatigue, nor distance nor fear of the unknown nor loneliness nor ridicule will deter us? Only such a passionate desire can prompt the persistence, which is content to kneel even when the ultimate goal turns out to be a simple stable. Men capable of such dedication penetrate to the heart of things and understand why that should be the outcome…


[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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