Sunday, August 6, 2017

Good powers: Bonhoeffer's song

The other day I was doing yardwork and a song came into my head, and I sang it to myself all morning because somehow it spoke to me. It's happened before. When I found out my friend Rich was dying, I sang the Irish folksong "The Foggy Dew" (about the Easter Rising, a revolt put down by the English--for a pacifist I'm a real sucker for Irish war songs) for a week. I think it was the lines:

As down the glen I rode again, my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men, whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go, and I kneel and pray for you...

I still think of him when I think of that song. I suppose I always will.

But this time it wasn't an Irish war song. It was in German. Probably the only song in German that I know all the words to--I don't speak German, not really. (I had four years of it in French middle school and junior high--they start you in sixth grade, on either that or English--which means among other things that if I attempt to speak it, besides getting half of it wrong, I have a thick French accent. I imagine it's quite amusing to listen to.) In college I dated a young man who was half German, and I believe it was him who introduced me to this song, though it's outlasted him in my life: "Von Guten Mächten," by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer wrote this in prison, just months before he was executed by the Gestapo. He wrote it as a New Year's poem for his friends and family, expressing his bond with them and his sense of God's presence surrounding them all, in the profound crisis that was the end of 1944--almost too profound for words. He wrote it out in two of the letters he wrote from prison--to his fiancée and to his parents--to share it with them. Otherwise, I suppose, we wouldn't have it.

And here it is, sung by Siegfried Fietz, who wrote the tune. It's now a beloved hymn in many German hymnals:

I'll put the German lyrics at the end of the post for those who can read them, but here's a translation. First a closer, more literal one, then the English song version I like best (though it leaves off the last two stanzas):

By good powers faithfully and quietly surrounded,
Wonderfully sheltered and comforted
With you I want to live this day
And with you go into a new year

Yet the old one still torments our hearts,
And the heavy burden of evil days presses us
Oh Lord, give our frightened souls
The salvation for which you have created us

[Refrain] By good powers, wonderfully sheltered,
We await confidently whatever may come.
God is with us at the morning and the evening
And surely at every new day.

And if you pass the heavy cup to us
Brimming with bitter suffering
We take it thankfully and without trembling
From your good and beloved hand


Yet if you want to give us joy once again
To this world and its sunshine
Then we want to remember the past
And our whole lives belong to you

Let the candles burn warm and bright today,
Those that you brought into our darkness
Lead, if it may be, us together again
We know that your light shines in the night


If the silence spreads deep around us
Let us hear those strong sounds
Of the world that spread invisible around us
All your children's high praise

And here's a very young but very talented girl singing an English version, and then the words to the (different) English song version I like best:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how amazing it is that a person could feel this way in a Nazi prison. I'll admit it: I'm a real skeptic, to the point that you might not want to throw your pearls before me, about pious affirmations that our faith sustains us in crisis. I've seen too much, I've seen how socially forbidden it is in many circles ever to admit that your faith is not sustaining you. I've seen how nervous some people get when you even hint at it. And it's fully baked into our religious culture (not that we're a big exception in that regard.) I remember when a house burned down, in the community here, and in church the next morning, still shellshocked, we sang song after song with the message "Things are bad, but we trust You Lord." Why did we do that? Because there weren't any other songs. There are in the book of Psalms--songs of lament, songs of How long, O Lord--but not in our hymnals.

But I really do believe Bonhoeffer meant it. He'd seen a lot more than I have. His "if I must take this cup" wasn't a pious I'm-supposed-to-say-this but a realistic awareness that chances for his execution were pretty high. (And he was right.) He's saying, I know this may come. I will not consider it a betrayal. I accept. Some people's faith stops short of realism; some people's faith goes on beyond it. He accepts. He also hopes to see the brightness of the sun again.

And then the phrase "guten Mächten"--good powers, or the powers of good. To an American it bears the ring of "spiritual, but not religious"--the vague "Higher Power" of AA, open to interpretation--but that clearly wasn't what he meant. Can you imagine, in the darkness of a Nazi prison in Nazi Germany, powerless in the coldly brutal power of evil men--can you imagine how the phrase power of good must have rung then? Surrounded by good powers. What else but finding yourself able to truly believe that could ever sustain you in such a place?

It sustains me to think of it. It sustains me to sing this song.

I sang it under my breath while weed-whipping a backyard full of tall Queen Anne's lace and short poison ivy, and loading a pile of brush into the truck. I was helping prepare a house to be put on the market, the one house owned in town by the intentional community I've lived in, which is now dissolving. There is hope for a new work of God to begin here; there is hope for us to stay and take part in it. But now is the dissolution, the emptiness, the death. We are helping people pack, helping people load their lives into trucks and drive away. We will live through the winter here with two other families--if we're lucky. It's not a great suffering; it's part of life; but for me it sings a sad little harmony, sometimes, around the great dissolutions of our time. Sometimes it feels like democracy will crumble, the brutality of human nature will reassert itself, the wheel will come round again. In a different way, but--I'm not optimistic about human nature. Christianity isn't. That's kind of the idea.

I think maybe we will need this song. I pray we can stay true, can remain the people who need this song.

Von guten Mächten

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben,
behütet und getröstet wunderbar,
so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben,
und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen,
noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last.
Ach Herr, gib unsern aufgeschreckten Seelen
das Heil, für das Du uns geschaffen hast.

Und reichst Du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern,
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
aus Deiner guten und geliebten Hand.

Doch willst Du uns noch einmal Freude schenken
an dieser Welt und ihrer Sonne Glanz,
dann woll'n wir des Vergangenen gedenken,
und dann gehört Dir unser Leben ganz.

Laß warm und hell die Kerzen heute flammen
die Du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht,
führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen!
Wir wissen es, Dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.

Wenn sich die Stille nun tief um uns breitet,
so laß uns hören jenen vollen Klang
der Welt, die unsichtbar sich um uns weitet,
all Deiner Kinder hohen Lobgesang.

Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.

1 comment:

  1. We sing that song in our Church sometimes and I have come to love it. It certainly has a depth that many modern worship songs lack. And Siegfried Fietz sings is beautifully, Thank you.