The feast of the Presentation of the Christ Child is February 2nd.
That’s in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-39, when Mary and Joseph dedicate Jesus in the Temple, 40 days after his birth. The prophet Simeon recognizes the long-awaited Messiah, and sings the Canticle of Simeon or Nunc dimittis. He adds a mysterious prophesy about Mary as well: that in this child’s destiny, a sword is waiting that will pierce her soul.
In any ordinary year, day means attending Presentation Day Mass. But in 2012, it meant the presentation of me by me to the Temple of the cancer center downtown. A routine annual mammography triggered an urgent letter, referring me to the center for additional imaging. They booked me for February 2nd, at 3:00 pm.
The prospect seemed a little daunting; so for company I packed my bowed psaltery, and the Mary Frances Coady book With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany, a biography of Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945). The book made a good waiting room read. It was cheering to discover that its hero found profound meaning in feast days of Jesus and Mary, days like this one.
Father Delp was a German priest, forging through the required 15-year formation period before final vows to the Society of Jesus. His superiors were sometimes surprised by his restless headlong physical energy, impulsive argumentative nature, booming voice, loud hymn singing unhampered by musical pitch, witty quips, flashing grin, cigars. He also had a gift for social connections, especially with the older women who made up his congregation; he took a warm kindly interest in their family news, troubles, and household cares.
The war brought out the best of the young priest’s colorful personality. His extensive social network collaborated to help Jewish refugees flee to Switzerland. After bombing raids, before the all-clear signal, he would charge from the shelter into rubble and flames, shouting to victims trapped underneath, digging them out while ordering the firefighters around. In the pulpit his sermons were so heartfelt and so outspoken that listeners jotted them down in shorthand for discreet circulation. But with only two weeks remaining of his 15-year discernment period, he was arrested. (That timing was a cause of particular grief to him. It haunted him to think that God must have found him unworthy of final vows.)
The official charge was involvement in a plot to kill Hitler; he was a suspect because he knew so much about so many people. But the arrest was part of a larger plan to undermine the German Jesuit order; this outspoken preacher made a prominent target. At the prison, rounds of torture reduced him to what he described in one letter as “a bleeding whimper,” but did not get him to name names or incriminate anyone. He was promised freedom on condition that he give up final vows. Meanwhile, for six months his gregarious energy sat in solitary confinement under glaring lights, handcuffed and chained to a table.
At Tegel Prison, clothing was commonly laundered by the prisoners’ families. This is where Delp’s legacy was salvaged and preserved, thanks to his rapport with his female parishioners. The women began showing up to demand his blood-stained laundry. The women also checked the clothing seams, extracted tiny tightly rolled strips of paper in microscopic penmanship, and copied out his Advent sermons, prayers, and letters — including a request for medicine for the head prison guard and his child. Then the women would return the clean clothes to the prison, where the same head guard somehow didn’t notice that the laundry contained discreet enclosures of paper, ink, food, and Communion wafers.
In a Radiology waiting room 67 years later, it was heartening to think of these courageous Catholic women in wartime, smuggling these letters. It was just the right uplift for that 3:00 appointment.
At 2:55, Radiology Technologist Sarah welcomed me to a changing room. I locked up my things, and put on an ample comfy robe. In the imaging room next door, Sarah marked my skin with inked arrows and adhesive stickers. As a calm gentle medical provider (and a ukulele player herself) she encouraged me to talk about my psaltery while she adjusted the equipment. After our mammography, she forwarded the images to the radiology team for viewing. She brought me to my cubicle to wait while she worked with her other patients.
At 3:15, the radiologists sent Sarah back to me. They directed her to start all over, reworking views from this and that angle. For this second round of images, Sarah stayed positive and calm, cradling our attention moment by moment on only the next indicated task.
At 3:40, I waited in the cubicle while the doctors summoned Sarah for a conference. They ordered her to start again, same images, now with two more angle views.
At 4:00, Sarah finished imaging round three.
Then the radiologists conferred for a much longer time. Sarah walked with me back to the changing cubicle and stayed for five minutes. The center saw so many patients that it’s unlikely she had five minutes to spare. But it still remains a golden memory that this radiology technologist sat right beside me and asked me to play her a song.
Then, she explained the next step. The room had two doors. The outer door faced the waiting room. The inner door faced the imaging suite. If I heard a knock on the outer door, that would be Sarah. It would mean that the radiologists decided that my topography looked benign, and I was free to go. A knock on the inner door would be a radiologist, calling me in for an ultrasound. After the ultrasound, the team would tell me the results and options for treatment. It was like the two doors in the Frank Stockton story about the lady or the tiger; but in this version, any tiger would be waiting inside me.
I sat in the cubicle, practicing my psaltery; that way, if a radiologist had to find me, it might make a nice change for them to be greeted by some music. But the minutes unraveled along and along. It was 5:00, then 5:10, then 5:20. In that soundproof booth the psaltery sounded plaintive, like a whistle in the dark or the music box in a scary movie. I put the instrument away and listened. In the hall, footsteps and voices had disappeared. Did they forget that I was in here?
I huddled up in the corner with my book and went on reading.
In 1944, Father Delp hoped that December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, would bring some sign that God still had some plan for him. The day brought a visit from fellow Jesuit Franz von Tattenbach, holding a page of Latin text. Delp recognized it as the rite of final vows for the Society of Jesus. To him, it meant that God had accepted his vows after all. It also meant that the Jesuits suspected he would not be leaving the prison alive. To be valid and binding, the vow had to be spoken out loud — in front of a guard who was very wary about this meeting between priests. Fortunately, Delp burst into wracking sobs, rendering his Latin words completely incomprehensible to the alarmed guard. That veil of spontaneous tears gave the priests a moment of space and time to conclude the ordination.
Thinking about the prisoner calmed me down. He waited and waited too, alone in a little room for a verdict. And not for an hour, but for six months. And not in a thick soft cotton robe, but in handcuffs and shackles. And not for people trained to come and help, but for people trained to damage him and break his spirit. If he were here now, I’d play him a hymn. He’d pray for us both, and from what we know he’d think of something humorous and cheerful to say. What cheerful message might that be?
Knock knock. The waiting-room door!
I threw it open. There was lovely Sarah, all beaming.
I tackled a big hug around her. And just in case she needed me to babble at her, I said “Sarah! Sarah! If your news were complex I would be still more huggy and more grateful for all your kindness today. But it is this news instead. So God must have some other ending for me. Maybe it’s a harder ending. Maybe not. Who knows what or when that is? But today, my walking out of here — it does not mean He likes me any better than He likes any of your other patients.”
“Well, look,” Sarah said. “I don’t get to give good news every day. So I say just run with it. Keep playing that psaltery! Go out there and do wonderful things for yourself.”
I rode the bus back uptown, and got out at my transfer stop. It was getting colder. The wind was picking up. It was too late for Mass. I sat on the bench for the next bus home, took out the psaltery, and played some hymns. One was the Nunc dimittis of Simeon the prophet, with words and melody composed in 1524 by Martin Luther. As someone who started out Lutheran himself, Delp would have known it too:
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, in Gott’s Wille… In peace and joy I now depart, by the will of God…
People at the bus stop came closer and listened. A little kiddo dropped 35 cents in my music case.
Home at last, a seven hour round trip. What a great relief and a comfort to pull off my adrenalin-soaked clothes and put my compressed magic-markered shape in a hot shower and to peel off the imaging stickers. I fixed some miso soup and tucked in to my blankie roll on the floor. While the wind rocked the trees outside I curled up to read With Bound Hands, all eager to learn the ending.
In 1945, the end of the war was only weeks away. There was a dramatic filmed trial (where is that footage today?). The judge, considered notoriously inhumane by his fellow Nazis, screamed at the accused so loudly that his voice kept wrecking the sound equipment. The prisoner was sentenced to death by hanging. The body was never recovered or returned; Heinrich Himmler issued special orders that it be burned, and the ashes poured down a sewer.
Without a grave, and so no place for pilgrims to visit and pray, no grassroots movement began for his canonization. After the war the remaining German Jesuits were too exhausted to gather the resources to promote and defend his case for sainthood. What’s more, by then questions were emerging about the stance and role of the Vatican and the Catholic Church toward the Third Reich, so the whole affair was quietly set aside. For the name Alfred Delp there is no place in a calendar of saints, or devotional litanies, or on icons. But it’s popular as a name for German grade schools, streets, care homes, and even a postage stamp.
Father Delp wrote farewells to his friends, signing one letter to his mother “Your Big Troublemaker.” To a parishioner, he wrote “Do not let my mother tell ‘pious legends’ about me. I was a brat.” Before the execution, the Catholic chaplain Peter Buchholz visited his colleague to comfort him with the hope of heaven. Delp smiled and said, “In thirty minutes, I’ll know more than you.”
On the feast day favored by German Jesuits for renewing their vows, Alfred Delp was hanged at 3:00 in the afternoon on the 2nd of February, the feast of a mother who walked up the steps to the waiting Temple, carrying her son all the way.
From “Figures of Advent,” December 1944:
The world is more than its burden, and life is more than the sum of its gray days. The golden threads of the genuine reality are already shining through everywhere. Let us know this, and let us, ourselves, be comforting messengers. Hope grows through the one who is himself a person of the hope and the promise.