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Bonhoeffer will always be remembered for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an activity that led to his execution on April 9, 1945. But even in the shadowy work he did as a double agent for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer never lost sight of the fact that he was an ordained Lutheran pastor. As the founding director of an illegal, underground seminary of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer had grown close to the students with whom he shared a unique “life together,” as he titled one of his shorter writings. In August 1937, Heinrich Himmler had issued a decree criminalizing such schools.
Still, Bonhoeffer continued to work with small groups of students that met in isolated, out-of-the-way places such as Sigurdshof in eastern Pomerania. In March 1940, the Gestapo discovered this place too and shut it down. How was “Bruder Bonhoeffer,” as the students called him, to stay in touch with his scattered flock? Beginning in May 1940 and continuing through November 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of seven circular letters (Rundbriefe) to his dispersed students. Many of them had by then been drafted and sent to the front lines, and a number of them had fallen in battle. Bonhoeffer corresponded as best he could with his former students at the front. From Ettal, he sent greetings and Christmas presents to their wives and children at home.
The circular letters dealt with issues of pastoral and spiritual concern faced by the former seminarians now far removed from the life they had once shared as a close-knit community of love and learning. How does one maintain a daily order of prayer and Scripture reading, so essential to the Christian life, while carrying out the duties of a soldier? What purpose could God possibly have in permitting the deaths of so many young pastors? How could spiritual equilibrium be maintained in the midst of so much suffering and loss? These and other questions Bonhoeffer answered with compassion, insight, and pastoral sensitivity. The circular letter written from Ettal in December 1940 dealt with how to celebrate Christmas amidst the rubble.