Thoughts on Time (Letters & Papers From Prison)

Bonhoeffer’s Letter and Papers From Prison is a collection of letters and other writings from Bonhoeffer’s final years (from the time of his arrest in the Spring of 1943 to his death in the spring of 1945). Bonhoeffer was jailed for his part in a conspiracy to kill Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. When enough evidence came to light, Bonhoeffer was executed.
One of the topics he was considering in the early months of his imprisonment was time. He wrote an essay, but it was lost. What we have is a couple of fragment ideas from his imprisonment.
The first thought on time comes at Christmas 1942, a few months before he is arrested. He said, “As time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable, the thought of any lost time troubles us whenever we look back. Time lost is time in which we have failed to love a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer; it is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.” He goes on to say that though there have been struggles, the past ten years had been full of meaningful time.
But about a month after he is arrested, he writes to his parents, “One of my predecessors here has scribbled over the cell door, ‘In 100 years this will all be over.’ That was his way of trying to counter the feeling that life spent here is a blank… ‘My time is in your hands’ (Ps. 31) is the Bible’s answer. But in the Bible there is also the question that threatens to dominate everything here: ‘How long, O Lord?’ (Ps. 13)
Though I’ve never been imprisoned, I know the feeling of being trapped, of spinning the wheels and only getting stuck deeper in the mud. I have also known the years where it seemed like time was productive and filled with purpose.
We live in both of these spheres as we live our lives. Yet, God does hold both kinds of time in His hands. He is in charge in the times when “something is happening” and the times when “nothing seems to happen.”


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