As part of his training for ordination as a pastor, Bonhoeffer spent the year February 1928 – February 1929 as curate of the Protestant congregation in Barcelona, Spain. At that time, the city of Barcelona had a German population of approximately 6,000, of which 300 were members of the congregation and an average of 50 would attend Sunday services. Bonhoeffer built up the children’s service, organized a Christmas pageant, proposed a plan for religious instruction in the church school, and started a discussion group for older adolescents. Because of his work, he became very popular with the young people and their parents, a cause for jealousy for the pastor Fritz Olbricht. During this year, Bonhoeffer also worked mornings in the office of the German relief organization Deutsche Hilfsverein, founded in 1868 by German expatriates in Barcelona.
Bonhoeffer’s 19 sermons during this time were all based on biblical texts, with all except the one below and one taken from the Song of Songs based on the New Testament. While written out in long sentences and reading like lectures, occasionally Bonhoeffer would memorize his sermons and use notes to deliver them extemporaneously.
“My soul is silent before God, who helps me.” (Psalm 62:2)
Thousands of years ago, at a distant place far to the east, a pious man, standing amid the storms of life, knelt down before God in the solitude and silence of the holy Jewish temple, deeply partaking of that holy silence, drinking it into the depth of his soul, and spoke these words: “My soul is silent before God, who helps me.” Oh, you ancient singer of our psalm, you sensed the bliss and sweetness of God’s peace on this earth; you are like the image of a gentle dream to us, so longed for and yet so distant, ah, so distant. We love your image, but we no longer understand it, no longer want to understand it. Ah, come close to us, very close in this sacred hour and tell us about the silence of the soul, about silence before God. Imprint your image deep into our hearts and show us something of your bliss, for we know you have much to say to us.
My soul is silent before God. Like a song from ancient times, like a medieval picture, painted on a gilt background, like a childhood memory, this strange, alien statement about the soul drifts down to us in the twentieth century. Is there still something like the soul in an age such as ours, an age of machines, of economic competition, of the dominance of fashion and sports; is this nothing more than a cherished childhood memory, like so much else? It just sounds so strange and peculiar amid the confusion and loud voices extolling themselves, this little word “soul”. It speaks such a gentle, quiet language that we hardly hear it anymore amid the tumult and chaos inside us. Yet it speaks a language full of the greatest responsibility and of profound seriousness; you, human being, have a soul; beware, lest you lose it, lest you awaken one day amid the frenzy of life – in both work and private life – and find that inwardly you have become empty, a plaything of events, a leaf before the wind, driven to and fro and blown away – that you have lost your soul. Watch out for your soul. What should we say about this soul? It is the life God gave us; it is what God loves in us, what God has touched from eternity. It is the love within us and the longing and the sacred restlessness and the responsibility and joy and pain. It is the divine breath breathed into a transitory being. Human being, you have a soul. This is no sweet childhood memory, no dream, but accurate reality; and thus a weighty, serious responsibility has been laid upon us and for which we will one day have to give account in eternity.
Now, however, perhaps this person or that realizes indeed that he has a soul. But, ah, look what has become of it down through the years! A restless, distracted, tormented, despondent thing, shaken to and fro by daily events, a thing that knows not whether it’s coming or going. And now it encounters the statement: my soul is silent before God. It is primarily about this silence of the soul that we want to speak today.
We can probably say that not many people have even an inkling what this silence of the soul means, fewer still are those who know something of the silence of the soul waiting for God. Yoked to the day’s work, people hardly have time to catch their breath before society – so-called entertainment – seizes them and sucks what energy is left over from work. No wonder that, left alone, people are only able to attend to their physical needs. And yet our entire being thirsts for solitude, for silence, since ultimately we have all, at one time or another, experienced such silence and have not forgotten the benefits of such hours. Today, however, we are not talking about being silent while reading a book or listening to a song or something like that, but about being silent before God.
But what does this mean? Ah, it is something so great and so sacred that one can speak of it only in human metaphors. My soul is silent before God. Like the infant who is nursed and becomes calmed at its mother’s breast and finds all its wishes fulfilled here, like the young boy who is speechless gazing upon his hero and leader, like the crying child that yearns for its mother to lay her gentle hand upon its brow and dispel and silence all its cares, like the young girl who quietly reflects on the prospect of one day becoming a mother, like the man who finds all his passion and restlessness calmed by the gaze of his beloved woman, like the person who becomes quiet before the eyes of a loyal friend, like a sick person who is calmed by the physician, like the old person who becomes calm before the face of death, like all of us who are silenced in reverence and awe at the heart of nature, under the starry heavens – just so should the soul be calmed from all the restlessness and chaos and haste, before the eyes of God; here it should quench its thirst, here its desire should become bliss, here its longing should be fulfilled, here it should find rest from the heat of the day in the protective shadow of God’s hand, here it should cast off its burdens and troubles and become free and calm beholding God, here fall silent and quiet in worship and reverence. My soul is silent before God. Becoming silent means genuinely not being able to say anything, means feeling as if an alien but beneficent hand is laid upon our lips, telling us to be silent. Being silent means blissfully beholding the one who is yearned for, the beloved, means surrendering oneself entirely, capitulating before the superior power of the other, the wholly other; it means not being ourselves for a moment but rather merely beholding the other, but it also means waiting, specifically for what the other has to say to us. Being silent before God means yielding to God the right to have the first and last word concerning us, and means accepting that word whatever it may be, for all eternity. It means not trying to justify oneself but rather listening to what God might have to say about our justification. Being silent does not mean doing nothing but means breathing in God’s will, means tensely listening and being prepared to obey. The hour of silence is an hour of serious responsibility, of being genuinely serious with God and with ourselves, and yet is also always an hour of bliss since it is an hour lived in the calmness of God. My soul becomes silent before God. That means speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
My soul becomes silent before God, who helps me. God’s hours are hours of succor and comfort. God has an answer for every distress of our soul, and this answer is always one and the same regardless of who receives it. To the man who rescues himself out of the frenzy and commotion of daily life, to the sick person who comes to God in misery, to the person lamenting the death of a loved one, to those burdened by guilt, to the man and the woman, the elderly and the child, God speaks the enticing words: I love you. Admittedly, the fire of God’s love consumes all that is inauthentic and bad in human beings, and that hurts profoundly. Being silent before God means being small before him; it creates the pain of remorse, but also the joy of love and grace beyond all measure. My soul is silent before God, who helps me. If our soul has but found its way to God, he will help us as surely he is God. I listen attentively to God’s word and drink deeply of it, the statement: It is you, you I love, abide with me, I am your real father.
Well, of course, some might say, you’re telling us all these wonderful things, but why is it that so few actually get this far? It must be something that requires special power or grace.
There are two simple reasons. First, we are afraid of silence. We are so accustomed to commotion and noise that we are uncomfortable amid silence; we flee silence; we race from activity to activity to avoid having to be alone with ourselves for even a moment, to avoid having to look at ourselves in the mirror. We are bored with ourselves, and often the most desperate, wasted hours are those we are forced to spend by ourselves. Not only are we afraid of ourselves, of discovering and unmasking ourselves, but even more we are afraid of God, that he might disturb our aloneness and discover and unmask us, that God might draw us into partnership and do with us whatever he wants. Because we fear such unnerving, lonely encounters with God, we avoid them, avoid even the thought of God lest he suddenly get too close to us. Suddenly having to look into God’s eyes, having to be accountable before him, is too dreadful a notion; our perpetual smile might fade, things might get completely serious in a way to which we are not at all accustomed. This anxiety characterizes our entire age. We live in perpetual fear of suddenly being seized and called to task by the infinite and would rather socialize or go to the movies or theater until we are finally carried to our grave, anything rather than having to bear a single minute before God. Let us examine ourselves and see to whom some of this does not apply. That is one reason. The other is that we are too lethargic and lazy in our religious lives. Maybe we once made a good start, but, ah, how quickly it lapsed. We protest that we are just not in the mood, that religion is a matter of mood and one must wait until that mood comes upon us; and then we wait, and often wait for years, maybe even to the very end of our lives until we are once again in the mood to be religious. But this position conceals a great deception. Fine, let religion be a matter of mood; but God is not a matter of mood; God is there even if we are not in the mood to come together with him. Does this thought not worry us at all? Those who depend on their moods become impoverished. A painted who paints only when in the mood will not get very far. In religion, as in art and science, times of high tension alternate with times of sober work and practice. Contact with God must be practiced; otherwise we can never find the right tone, the right word, the right language when God surprises us. We must learn the language of God, laboriously learn that language; we must work so that we, too, are able to speak with God. Prayer must also be practiced through serious work. Confusing religion with emotional daydreaming is a grievous, fateful error. Religion takes work, perhaps the hardest and certainly the most sacred work a person can undertake. It’s pathetic to make do with the assertion, “I’m just not religiously inclined” – when there is a God who wants us. That’s just an excuse. No doubt, it’s more difficult for some than for others. But we can be sure that no one has attained it without serious effort. And this is why silence before God, too, requires work and practice. Such silence requires the daily courage to expose oneself to God’s word and allow oneself to be judged by it; it requires the spontaneity to rejoice in God’s love every day. But this already brings us to the question: What are we supposed to do to penetrate through to this silence of God? Here I can say a bit to you based on my own modest experience. None of us is so rushed that we cannot find ten minutes a day during the morning or evening to be silent, to focus on eternity alone, allow eternity to speak, to query it concerning ourselves, and in the process look deeply into ourselves and far beyond ourselves, either by reading a couple of biblical passages or, even better, by becoming completely free and allowing our soul to travel to the house of the Father, to the home in which it finds peace. And those who seriously apply themselves to such exercises day after day will amply experience the golden abundance of the fruit such hours yield. Of course, it’s always difficult at the beginning, and anyone who embarks on such an undertaking will feel rather funny, indeed perhaps even quiet empty the first few times. Before long, however, the soul is filled; it begins to come alive and feel stronger, experiencing the eternal silence residing in God’s love, and the distress and worries, restlessness and haste, noise and commotion, tears and anxiety are all hushed within it, and it becomes silent before God, from whom its salvation comes. My soul is silent before God, who helps me.
One law of the world is that there can be no rest and satisfaction in it. No passion is totally quenched here. Fulfillment itself already contains the urge to move beyond what has been attained. The rich want to get richer, the powerful more powerful. The reason is that in this world nothing is whole, so that every success, be it ever so great, is still only a partial success. If peace and quiet are to be found anywhere, that can only e where the whole has already been attained; but that means in God. All human activity and searching is ultimately directed toward God and finds its ultimate fulfillment only in him. Only in God is there genuine peace and quiet, something the great church father Augustine superbly expressed nit h words, “You have made us for yourself, and our soul is restless until it rests in you.” May God grant something of this rest to all of us, may God draw us into his stillness and solitude, and we will be grateful to him. Amen.
1. What was your overall impression of the sermon?
2. Bonhoeffer say that being silent before God means yielding the right for God to have the first and last word. How difficult is that for you to do?
3. Are you afraid of silence? Do you try and fill your life with so much to do to avoid it?
4. Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s contention that being silent before God can create the pain of remorse (along with joy) – particularly since part of silence can be used for confessing and/or unburdening?
5. Bonhoeffer talks about the soul being lost in a time such as ours (with machines, economic competition, etc.). Do you ever feel that you have lost track of your soul because of the rush of life? How much attention tdo you pay to your soul?
6. Is there anything Bonhoeffer has said with which you disagree?
7. In a letter written by Bonhoeffer one month after this sermon, he said he used to believe that sermons had a center, and that if that center was hit it would move anyone or confront them with a decision. He later changed his view, but I’m curious as to whether this sermon moved or confronted you.