A Poem for Today

Dietrich BonhoefferApril is National Poetry Month in the U.S., and I’d like to share a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran theologian of extraordinary courage and insight. Author of the classic The Cost of Discipleship, and a vocal anti-Nazi, he languished in a concentration camp for two years before being executed in the early morning on this date in 1945, just weeks prior to the collapse of the Third Reich. He wrote numerous letters and some poetry while in prison, of which the following is an example. It is not, perhaps, the most artful of his verse, but I have chosen it for its autobiographical—and yet universal—poignancy.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine.

_________

“Who Am I?” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Isabel Best, Lisa E. Dahill, Reinhard Krauss, and Nancy Lukens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 459–60.

Comments

  1. This is heartbreaking. And perfect, for the reasons you chose it. Thank you for posting.

  2. Thank you Morgan, he is one of my favorites too. A poem I needed today.

  3. Antonio Parr says:

    God bless the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, wrote Bonhoeffer. He lived as he believed, and is an important example of true discipleship.

  4. Beautiful. This poem will stay with me today. Thank you!

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  6. Bonhoeffer was a remarkable man and an even better Christian. Thank you for reminding me of this today.

    M.

  7. This is really beautiful Morgan. Thanks so much for posting.

  8. JennyP1969 says:

    Am I both at once?

    I’ve felt a consuming burnout for a few years now. I used to be in the thick of vibrant involvement in ward/stake affairs. Then came chronic, pervasive health issues that are more than annoying, but less than debilitating. And then came the discovery of Mormon history and beliefs “heretofore” unknown. Malaise set in. Then depression. Others say I am serene and wise. But I, I lie awake wondering who am I? I thought I knew……I thought it was real…..forever…..

    I awaken, better, much better than the “dark night of my soul”….I feel grateful to let go of illusions lost. I feel grateful for atonement, though wishing I’d learn what I need to learn so this internal twisting and knotting of burnout would flee……because I feel it’s taunting and bullying from dawn to dawn….”you’re tired and worn, you’ll never be as good as those Seniors who serve endless missions with a thousand springs in their steps — you don’t even want to go. Cause you’re a burnout. A fake. A loser.

    Can you be a serene loser? A wise burnout? Yet one who loves God beyond expression? Can this even be possible, oh wretched woman that I am? Lord, push my swing….please push my soul into Endless Light and Love, to go no more out.

  9. JennyP and JR: It sounds like you both identify very personally with the struggle Bonhoeffer is expressing here—a struggle for clarity and self-understanding. It is hard to assess one’s own limitations when confronted with bewildering or overwhelming circumstances. Grace to each of you as you wrestle on. May you love and be loved.

  10. Thanks Morgan, though for some reason my post was removed from the site. Love and grace to you too.

  11. JennyP1969 says:

    Thanks, Morgan. His poem stuck home. I love the self-reflection poetry inspires. Thanks for this post, and yes, I am loved and love. I hope you’ll share more poetry from time to time.

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