First Address: Fr. Alfred Delp

This is the first of three addresses by Fr Christopher Snook (Faculty in Holy Orders and Senior FYP Fellow at King’s) at Evening Prayer at the King’s Chapel in the last week of August. Each address is a commentary on Jean Vanier’s little book From Brokenness to Community by way of the life of a particular twentieth-century figure. This address was delivered on Monday, August 26, 2019.

At the end of his lengthy reflection on Advent written from Tegel Prison in Germany during the Second World War, the Jesuit Alfred Delp writes: “Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen … if we want to live.” Light the candles. This exhortation to the parishioners of St George’s Church in Munich and smuggled out of Fr Delp’s prison by his laundress just a few short months before his death, as gentle and unlikely as it seems, was a call to action. Convinced that the German populace had largely numbed itself to the horror of the war effort, Delp was determined that the way forward required of ordinary people that their lives become luminous – light the candles not just of their domestic devotions, he was suggesting, but light the candles of your lives; become, as it were, street lamps for one another on the road home. 

I begin with these words of Fr Delp because I have been invited to speak about Jean Vanier’s remarkable small book, From Brokenness to Community, but rather than do so directly, my intention this week is to offer a kind of triptych of three lives over the next three days, through which to think about the questions and possibilities that Vanier raises about our life together.: the life of Fr Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest; of Mother Maria Skobstova, an Orthodox nun living in Paris; and Dorothy Day, the longest lived and best known of all three, founder of the Catholic Worker and currently in the process towards canonization in the Roman Catholic Church. These three 20th century lives speak to the large themes of loneliness, community, vulnerability, and celebration in Vanier’s work. Their stories, I suspect, will be familiar to many of us but I hope that revisiting them will be helpful as we look for a word or two from each that can become part of the fabric of a deeper engagement with Jean Vanier’s work in the coming months. Though it is not by any means obvious that these voices ought to have a place in the life of a secular institution of higher learning in the early years of a new millennium, Plato assures us of their urgency early on in his monumental Republic when he instructs us that the end or goal of an education (such as we receive here) is not knowledge or technical skill or even employability, but personhood. In the words of Jean Vanier, the work of our life together here is to become what we are: human persons. 


Born on September 15, 1907 (the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows), Alfred Delp was just old enough to remember the Great War. Having been received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 14, Delp joined the Jesuits in 1926, making his final vows to a fellow Jesuit on December 8, 1944 (the Feast of Mary’s Conception). He was imprisoned at the time, confined by handcuffs with tears streaming down his face, as he made his solemn vows. The long delay in his final vows was due not only to the Second World War (which began in 1939), but also in part to Delp’s own impetuosity and non-conformity, which had created longstanding tensions with his immediate superior. His intellectual formation was extraordinary and included years of study in close association with a number of the most significant 20th Century German Roman Catholic minds. He produced one of the first serious Catholic treatments of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and worked for a Jesuit journal until its suppression by the German government 1941. After the closure of the journal, he was transferred to the parish of St George in Munich where he began an increasingly public opposition to the Nazi authorities. Preaching that same year, for example, he denounced from the pulpit a National Socialist propaganda film that justified the mercy killing of peoples with disabilities.  “A nation that lets a human being die,” he preached, “even a human being in the most extreme situation, will die itself. It is an outrage against the human being who, through his birth and his existence alone, already has rights that no one can take from him, and that no one can touch without disgracing humanity, and disgracing himself, and despising himself.” 

Delp was eventually arrested, tortured and imprisoned for his involvement with a small ecumenical group of Christians that convened to discuss the shape of a post-war, post-Nazi Germany, called the Kriesau circle. He was hanged on February 2 (Candlemas and another Feast of Mary), his body cremated and the ashes scattered over human sewage as the punishment requisite for traitors to the Reich. On his final Christmas, he scratched into the wall of his cell these words: Let us trust life, since we do not have to live it alone, for God lives it with us.

Light the candles, Delp wrote to his people from prison. Let us trust life, he etched into the wall of his prison. 

It seems to me that these two observations of Delp’s constitute a trellis on which we might gather our reflections on community life at the beginning of a new school term: Light the candles. Let us trust life for we do not live it alone... In the first instance, Alfred Delp’s call to “light the candles” was intended to draw the minds of his parishioners to the extraordinary darkness that had enveloped Second World War Europe. Delp understood the darkness of the war effort to be an expression of a much more fundamental spiritual darkness – what he describes at times as illusion, or sleep, or a kind of forgetting. In an address at a Holy Hour in 1942, for example, he notes that after only two days without shelling “so many of us have already begun to forget [the war] …. We act as if nothing had happened.” At a retreat for clergy a year earlier Delp had lamented the hardness of heart afflicting himself and most of his fellow clergy: "Shall it continue that we look at thousands and thousands of things and know about them? That we know about those things that we don't like—about things which we know should not be and must not be—and that we accustom ourselves to all of it? What have we already accustomed ourselves to, in the course of the year, in the course of the weeks and months? And we stand here unshaken, untouched, inwardly unmoved!" 

Lighting the candles, then, involved for Delp an unsparing encounter with reality – both the realities of a violent and suffering world as well as the reality of his own broken heart. He repeatedly notes that the experience of prison, including torture and severe depressions, had undone many of the illusions that he harboured about himself. During a period of solemn self-interrogation one Advent season he noted: “An honest examination of conscience reveals much vanity, arrogance and self-esteem… a tendency to pretend and deceive.” And yet Delp’s homilies suggest that the light we might offer one another is also something more than a recognition of the world’s waywardness. Rather, he goes on to show that the light which we are called to manifest in the world is the light of those who love. Preaching on Christmas in 1942 Fr Delp says: “Man needs to know that he lives from grace… we live from God's merciful commitment to mankind, from His mercy… [M]an should recognize that his innermost purpose is to find the way home to God and to be caught up in His life, to seek God for Himself. …” And he concludes: “we are rich and capable enough through God's comfort to give mankind the comfort that it needs so much … we [must] go away from this celebration as the great comforters, as the great knowers, the great blessed ones who know what it means to be consoled by God.”

In his text, From Brokenness to Community, Vanier expands on Delp’s insight, insisting that light is not simply what we bring to the world but what we discover at work already in it, waiting to meet us: “To love someone,” Vanier writes, “is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself’ We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them … to love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.” Light the candles wherever you are…

But the other part of the trellis that Delp offers is his call to trust life, because we do not live it alone. Vanier notes time after time that those who have come into the care of L’Arche communities often arrive having lost the capacity to trust themselves and, by extension, the world. There is no doubt good cause for this. There are terrible moments of abandonment that we suffer in this life. And quite apart from our personal lives, we also live in a cultural moment when the international wars of the 20th century have been translated into darker, more subtle and invisible aggressions that in many ways inspire greater feelings of grief and fear than did the military conflicts of earlier generations. We now know that there is cause for environmental despair, for example, cause to think that the world may very well end not in the triumph of good but as a result of evils from which it is impossible to extricate ourselves. And as Chris Hedges notes in his agonizing book, Empire of Illusion, the tensions with which we live are not only environmental. The largest companies padding North American pension accounts – the monies many of us will receive at retirement or inherit -- are also the owners of a pornography industry whose on-screen violence has become so extreme its actors are suffering PTSD; and though we may love Jean Vanier’s championing of those with disabilities, we live at a moment when some 70% or more of pregnancies with a diagnosis of disability in Canada are terminated. These tensions impose themselves on the lives of every one of us at King’s. 

Nonetheless, and in worse circumstances than our own, Fr Delp was able to etch into the wall of his prison: “Trust life for we do not live it alone, God lives it with us.” His affirmation is almost childlike and naive and yet behind it there is a deep and profound theology of hope. Trust life. Again, I think Jean Vanier clarifies: “When someone who has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news…. The broken and the oppressed …. Have helped me discover that healing takes place at the bottom of the ladder, not at the top. Their cry for communion has taught me something about my own humanity, my own brokenness – that we are all wounded, we are all poor. But we are all the people of God; we are all loved and being guided.” Trust life, for we do not live it alone. The brokenness that seems for all the world to be a cause to fear life, Vanier is saying, is precisely the place of God’s solidarity with us in this life. 

But let me conclude: Light the candles, says Delp. Trust life, because we do not live it alone. Writing during the Second World War, at a time when governments sought definitive solutions to life’s problems – either in the form of the atom bomb, or racial purity, or a workers paradise, Delp was quick to insist that here, in this life, there is no finality. We are always on the way, for Delp, always pilgrims or travelers or those engaged in an odyssey. And so he writes: “the attempt to create final conclusions [for life’s problems] is an old temptation of mankind. Hunger and thirst, and desert journeying, and the survival teamwork of mountaineers on a rope—these are the truth of our human condition. …That truth is the essential theme of life…. Every temptation to live according to another condition is a deception.” We are mountaineers on a rope, says Delp of community. We pull one another up and are pulled in our turn. This strikes me as a useful vision of our life here – mountaineers on ropes engaged in a rugged climb together that demands of us not so much great achievement, but the smallness of a careful attention to handholds, and footholds, resting places, and terrain. Vanier, commenting on how community is built and most especially on the place of smallness in the growth of community, expands yet again on the themes in Fr Delp’s writings and offers us these as our final words tonight:

A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of man is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.