Meditation for the Third Sunday of Advent: Part IV
The Conditions for True Joy
[Tegel Prison, Berlin, December 1944]
The honesty with which man should be true to himself is an intrinsic selflessness. Through this selflessness, he should not become a disinterested and uninteresting Nirvanist, but should transcend himself by expressing his openness to God in readiness, service, and praise. Through this openness he will attain a great freedom, a freedom from cramps, delusion, and deterioration. Man must travel a great distance before, in that direct encounter with God, he truly and completely finds himself. The distance leads him beyond himself. It consists of interior preliminaries and experiences, more than externally measurable lengths and distances, although it usually takes many exterior blows from fate before our eyes are opened to the real connections. This need to transcend ourselves is part of man’s essence. It consists of interior preliminaries and experiences, more than externally measurable lengths and distances, although it usually takes many exterior blows from fate to transcend ourselves is part of man’s essence. Otherwise, he would become intellectually bourgeois, pompous, stuffy, ponderous, and comfort loving.
So, make the great gesture toward transcendence? Yes, but differently. Not as a degenerate and degenerating arrogance, but rather as an honest self-realization of our nature. Human nature is so firmly established that it has imprinted the traces of its true strength and structure even upon man’s decadence. Precisely where man most dangerously errs in deluded and autarkical arrogance, in hubris and proud stupidity, dreaming of a master race, and so forth, he also reveals the essential human vocation: he must be more than human, if he wants to become and remain human. Anyone who wants to be merely human and nothing else—and knows nothing more about himself than the human ordinariness—will soon vegetate into something subhuman. And that is the metaphysical reason for the present crisis on our continent.
Here again, man must remain honest in this regard. Great freedom cannot be gained by robbery. Freedom is encounter, not contrariness, rebellion, or arrogance… What man contributes to his great liberation into a fulfilled life consists of honest humility, willing openness, readiness to serve, authentic testimony, and praise. If man sets out upon this Advent road, he will be granted the great encounter, for man’s liberation happens as an encounter. God works a multifaceted liberation within him, meeting him when he rises beyond self in a lived personal experience of being comforted and uplifted…
Man will become capable of ultimate realization only through an intervention by God who breaks open the prison, who cancels the debt and brings a blessing. How man gets into this condition is totally beside the point. It is only interesting, in a disturbing and upsetting way, that the Church goes along with the present helpless, shoulder-shrugging attitude of modern society toward these ultimate questions and possibilities. Nevertheless, the consequences are different and curative, while dwelling on the actual powerlessness only makes the evil situation even worse and more hopeless.
Man often feels every step newly ensnares his foot in some kind of thicket, from which he will never get out. To the close observer, the depressing fact itself that human beings have limitations imposed upon them that are harder, narrower, and more impassable than the limitations of nature. Imprisonment is what the liturgy terms this state, related to iniquitas—guilt. We often use the word imprisonment, but you need to have endured it yourself in order to know what it says about your inner being. You need to have sat in a small room with your hands in irons and have seen the shredded flag of freedom standing in the corner, in a thousand images of melancholy. The heart flees from these images again and again, and the mind strives to lift itself free, only to awaken even more sharply to reality at the next guard’s footsteps sounding in the hall and the next clanking of keys. Then you know that you are powerless. You have no key, and your door has no inner keyhole, and your window is barred and set so high that you cannot even look out. If no one comes and releases you, you will remain bound and poor in misery. All the mental struggles do not help at all. This is a fact, a condition that exists and must be acknowledged…
Man is challenged again to stand and deliver. Only, he does not merely exchange one set of fetters for another. God’s calls are always creative. They increase the very reality within us that is called upon, precisely because of their realness and authenticity.
Therefore, our own lives absolutely, urgently, and immediately need an ongoing conversion and abandonment to God, so that His will to save us can become redeemingly, creatively effective. We must begin this immediately and keep on with it.
Western man is suffocating. This is not limited merely to personal existence, the personal earthly and heavenly salvation of the individual…
Freedom is the breath of life. We sit in musty bomb cellars and cramped prisons and groan under the bursting and destructive blows of fate. We should finally stop giving everything a false glamour and unrealistic value and begin to bear it for what it is—unredeemed life. As soon as we do this, the jangling of chains and the trembling of nerves and the faintness of heart transform themselves into a litany… We should much more definitely unite our concrete destiny with these connections and call upon God’s redeeming freedom. Then the narrowness widens, our lungs breathe in fresh air again, and the horizon has promises again. Existence still weeps and mourns, but already a soft, joyous melody of longing and knowledge is ringing through the broken voices of the mourners.
[excerpt from Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings]