Bonhoeffer’s New Kind of Monastery

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1939, Wikimedia Commons

In Poland there is a fairly large city called Szczecin, Poland’s seventh largest city, with a population of 400,000. It’s near the border with Germany, so near, in fact, that before World War II it was within the borders of Germany and it was known as Stettin. According to Google Maps, it’s about a 2-hour drive from Berlin to Szczecin.

Southeast of Szczecin is a “municipal neighborhood” called Zdroje, located on the east bank of East Oder river. That term, “municipal neighborhood,” is from the English Wikipedia; I’m thinking maybe it means “suburb.” According to the Polish Wikipedia, 8500 people live in Zdroje, a pretty big neighborhood.

When Stettin was a part of Germany, Zdroje was called Finkenwalde, the name under which it is better known to theological students. It was here that Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 formed his Confessing Church Seminary, one of five such seminaries that were all shut down by the Nazis only a couple years later. Of course, the official church in Germany in the early 1930s became a willing arm for Nazi propaganda. The Confessing Church was the group of Christians who dissented from this relationship between Christianity and the Nazis. The Confessing Church, unfortunately, sorta flaked out by the end of the 1930s. But not Bonhoeffer.

I’ve been reading Charles Marsh‘s biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Below is the passage where Marsh describes Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde, which Bonhoeffer intended to represent “a new kind of monasticism.” You can see in the description below that the very structured day at Finkenwalde is reminiscent of a monastery. Bonhoeffer’s own description of the Finkenwalde seminary is in his book Life Together, about which I’ll probably have more to say at some point. By the way, one evangelical biblical scholar has written a book advocating Bonhoeffer’s new monasticism for modern theological training.

One more thing: Bonhoeffer was basically the only faculty member at this seminary, and there were about 25 students.

The first session at Finkenwalde began on August 26, 1935, and would continue through the second week of October. For those who had never heard Bonhoeffer speak, and even those who had known him at Friedrich-Wilhelms University (about half the class), his lectures at Finkenwalde came as a revelation. The students soon understood that “they were not there simply to learn new techniques of preaching and instruction” but as initiates into a new manner of being a Christian. Dissent and resistance, they were taught, required spiritual nourishment: prayer, Bible study, and meditation on the essential matters to expand the moral imagination. Bonhoeffer, whose insatiable hunger for intimate fellowship had led him to this lovely tract of land in upper Pomerania, now made community his art, with beauty and discipline as complementary elements. By design, each day would begin and end in quiet meditation. The brethren would rise and proceed in silence to the dining room for prayers; there, in the early-morning light, they would sit until God had spoken some word for the day into their hearts—or until a half hour had passed. Then morning praises were sung. After hymns, the men read antiphonally from the Psalter. There followed a reading from the New Testament, and prayers, sometimes from the prayer book, otherwise extemporized. Morning worship concluded with another hymn, after which, upholding the Benedictine taciturnitas, the men would return to their bunk room in silence to make their beds and “put their things in order.” 

After breakfast, devotional exercises began, with two or three men sharing a room, each in his own carrel. For the first half of this period, they were to meditate on scripture. Bonhoeffer instructed them to center their thoughts for an entire week on a single passage, not for some purpose of exegesis—as would have been expected in the universities—or even for homiletic inspiration, but “to discover what the verses had to say” in the quiet of the morning. 

Charles Marsh, Strange Glory (Knopf, 2014), 231–32.

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