In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer famously refers to friendship as the cornflower blooming between the straight rows of the “fertile wheat” of the mandates, those human institutions of marriage, work, government and church that in Lutheran theology come down to humans from God. The gentle cornflower image, occurring to Bonhoeffer as he sat in a dank prison cell, no doubt harkens back to his youth, wandering the fields around Griefswald with newly-married Sabine or earlier still, gleaning wheat on his von Hase cousins’ and other nearby farms during the “hunger days” of World War I. More pointedly, it describes his adult friendship with Eberhard Bethge, a relationship that animated and brought great joy to the last decade of his life.
Anticipating release from prison and hence threatened with displacement by Bethge’s marriage (the marriage took place two weeks before Bonhoeffer’s arrest in a civil ceremony and six weeks after the arrest in a religious ceremony that to the family marked the real marriage), Bonhoeffer used the cornflower to insist on friendship’s importance: “Does one not leave the cornflower in place next to the fertile wheat? Does one pull it up because it is not necessary for life?” (DBWE 8)
Sadly, this very image speaks to anachronism, another time and place, for pesticides have largely eradicated the brilliant blue blooms that once blossomed in the fertile spaces between rows of grain, and in the United States, at least, we are not accustomed to see clusters of blue blooming between crops.
The cornflower has many symbolic resonances: it was a symbol of Germany, and the flower, also called bachelor’s button, symbolized contentment with unmarried life, according to conservapedia.com. Most interestingly, Bonhoeffer references Novalis, the German Romantic writer, on May 1, 1943, early in his prison stay. A blue flower, possibly a cornflower, is an image in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, where Heinrich longs above all else to reach an unattainable blossom that he sees in a vision: “A tall, pale blue flower … stood beside the spring … He saw nothing but the blue flower.” (quoted from Jennifer Hoyer, The Space of Words.) We don’t know if Novalis’s image sprang to his mind during Bonhoeffer’s May 1 musings, but we know he deeply missed Bethge, and it’s not impossible he conflated his longing to see his friend with Novalis’s mystical blue flower.
In his poem “The Friend,” Bonhoeffer uses the cornflower as an extended metaphor to describe friendship’s beauty and strength. The poem, in which he reflects on his past after the failure of the July 20, 1944 assassination plot against Hilter, shows Bonhoeffer both appreciating what has gone before and reconciling himself to death. Entwined in it is a tribute to Sabine, his first friend and always dearly beloved twin: “Playmates at first /on the spirit’s long journeys/into wondrous,/far away realms…” (DBWE 8). The emphasis of the poem, however, falls on Bethge.
Friendship remained supremely important to Bonhoeffer throughout his life and should perhaps be highlighted as a point of light and color against a grim period of church struggle, resistance, assassination attempts and death. To end even more firmly on friendship, I repeat a Joseph Addison quote noted by my own cyber-friend, Ellen Moody:
“But the mind never unbends itself so agreeably as in the conversation of a well-chosen friend. There is indeed no blessing of life that is any way comparable to the enjoyment of a discreet and virtuous friend. It eases and unloads the mind. clears and improves the understanding, engenders thoughts and knowledge, animates virtue and resolutions, soothes and allays the passions, and finds employment for most of the vacant hours of life.”
I am sure Bonhoeffer would agree. What are your thoughts on Bonhoeffer and friendship?