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 the 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 circumstances. 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 wilderness, 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 it 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.