Little Kindnesses with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St Therese of Lisieux

I’m on something of a St Therese of Lisieux bender at the moment, and thinking about the Little Way and all its little acts of love. I’ve also been rereading Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison, my favourite of his writings.  

You wouldn’t think the letters of a man imprisoned by the Nazis would be full of chatty discussions of books he had read and inquiries after friends and effusive thanks for visits and food parcels. His letters to his parents in particular are optimistic and loving and sprinkled with anecdotes about prison life. I suspect that some of this was him putting on a brave face for his parents, as his letters to his friends are a bit darker and contain incidents he clearly omitted from his letters to his parents so that they wouldn’t worry.

But reading them reminds me of St Therese’s Little Way. Every few letters, there’s some mention of how much a present or a letter has brightened his day (or week). These things are small: his mother sending him some biscuits. A friend sending cigars. A book he had asked for being delivered. A medical orderly who was kind when he was unwell. He describes his thoughts after a visit from a friend: ‘I never like calling anything indescribable, for it is a word you hardly ever need to use if you take the trouble to express yourself clearly, but at the moment that’s just what this morning seems to be.’ This is the impact of small kindnesses.

And on the other hand, this man was in prison, writing to his friends about how he was spiritually preparing himself for death, still attempting to help others. He led services, he gave people pastoral advice (even people who he admits he found irritating), and he wrote to the prison authorities to recommend they gave their air raid recovery teams better first aid kits because he often found himself without the supplies to help injured inmates. Bonhoeffer writes about being surprised by how much of an impact his kindness had on a fellow prisoner who seems to have been in pretty severe emotional distress, saying the man was ‘touchingly grateful’, for what little comfort he could offer.

In his more honest letters to his friends, he mentions from time to time how much prison life truly is getting to him. He says he tries to avoid mentioning it because he doesn’t want his family to worry, but he feels like a fraud, keeping up a front of cheerful kindness when ‘despite everything I have written so far, everything here is horrible.’ In times like this, a combination of familiar Scripture and prayer and what little contact he gets with family and friends are the only things getting him through.

Without the close support network Bonhoeffer had, giving him comfort and respite from loneliness and monotony, and the practical support of sending him books and food, he never would have been able to write so extensively in prison. Even his writings before that owe a lot to the support he was given: in his letters he complains of the frustration of not being able to discuss his ideas with friends while in prison, like he had when writing previous works.

It can be incredibly easy to idolise someone like Bonhoeffer (or St Therese, for that matter) as someone with superhuman patience and kindness, who cheerfully floated along despite terrible circumstances. But his letters show that this was a man who was just barely making it through the day, clinging to what tiny bits of help he could find. Small acts of kindness and support, the sort of thing St Therese referred to as ‘scattering flowers’, are incredibly powerful. Trying to get through every day life, let alone difficult circumstances (like, you know, being imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich), is pretty much impossible in isolation. We need Therese’s scattered flowers to pave our way.