“By Kindly Powers”: A Poem for the New Year by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Editor’s Note:  At the start of this New Year we are pleased to publish this fresh translation of Bonhoeffer’s poem “Von guten Mächten” by Pastor Timothy Boerger.  Included below is his translator’s note.

Translator’s Note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer included this poem (“Von guten Mächten”) in his final letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer in December, 1944. Written in the dungeon beneath the Gestapo’s Berlin headquarters, the poem is a year-end meditation on the now-but-not-yet of the communio sanctorum. Bonhoeffer prays for a future reunion with those he loves, while expressing a calm confidence in the invisible reality that binds him to absent friends and to the host of heaven. “I haven’t for an instant felt lonely or forlorn,” he explains to von Wedemeyer. “You yourself, my parents—all of you, including my friends and students on active service—are my constant companions…. I live in a great, unseen realm about whose real existence I’m in no doubt. The old children’s song about the angels says, ‘two to cover me, two to wake me,’ and today we grown-ups are no less in need than children are of preservation, night and morning, by kindly unseen powers.”[1]

This translation began as a personal exercise on New Year’s Eve, 2016—a time when I was reflecting a great deal on the lessons of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Prior English translations include Nancy Lukens’s translation (“By Powers of Good”) in the DBWE Vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison and Fred Pratt Green’s hymn adaptation (“By Gracious Powers”), included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

 

 

“By Kindly Powers”

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(Trans. T. Boerger)

By kindly pow’rs encircled, silent and true,
So gloriously guarded and wondrously cheered,
I long to live these fleeting days beside you,
And journey with you into a new year.

Still would the past our hearts torment and harry;
Still crushed are we by weight of bitter days.
Oh, Lord, please pour into our startled souls
The endless life for which You have us made.

And should You proffer us the heavy cup
Of bitter grief, filled up unto the brim,
In thanks we take it without any trembling,
Received as from Your good and dearest hand.

But should You give us once again Your joy
Upon this world and in the bright sun’s light,
Then we will contemplate the former things
And back to You will render our whole life.

So warm and bright may now the candles glow,
Which You have brought into our deepest night.
Lead us, if it may be, back to each other;
We know that in the darkness shines Your Light.

And when the silence deep spreads all around us,
Then let us hear those swelling tunes begin
From world unseen which all about us widens
As all Your children raise their highest hymns.

By kindly powers wonderfully harbored,
We boldly live in hope, so come what may;
For God is near in evening and in morning,
And surely He is with us each new day.

RSHA Prison, Berlin, 1944

[1] Quoted in Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. Tr. Isabel Best. London and New York. T & T Clark International, p. 366

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