Bonhoeffer’s Poem

I have long been reader and fan of Bonhoeffer. Indeed, I wore out a copy of Letters and Papers from Prison that my daughter happily replaced for me one Christmas morning a dozen years back. Today, in my reading I was reminded of this famous poem by Bonhoeffer, and I thought, “This is worth passing on (again) in our own uncertain and challenging time.” I have always loved this poem. So, here it is:

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!

In July 1944, Bonhoeffer had been in prison for over a year. He’d composed prayers for other prisoners, circulating them illegally, and ended each day in prayer, including prayers for his guards. His composure and evident dependence on Christ would become legendary. Fellow prisoner Fabian von Schlaberdorff writes that Bonhoeffer kept them all going, “consoling those who had lost all hope and giving them fresh courage. A towering rock of faith, he became a shining example to his fellow prisoners.”It was then that he wrote this, enclosing a copy in a letter to his parents.

Cited from:

Let us, like Bonhoeffer, find our identity in Him, rather than transient cultural and political ideologies of our time. Let us live with our eyes on Jesus and the hope of the resurrection. Let us live passionately for and like Jesus. 

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