[HomePage] [Von Balthasar]

Von Speyr's life of grace

by Regis Martin

The world's greatest living theologian came to Rome a few months ago to help honor the memory and work of a remarkable woman and mystic. Her life, he said, decisively shaped all that he had written or experienced in more than 40 years.

Hans Urs von Baithasar, Swiss theologian of towering erudition, originality, faith and loyalty to the Church, addressed scholars and students from across Europe and the Americas who were attending a conference at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University on the life and thought of Adrienne von Speyr.

Presented in terms of her "ecclesial mission", the conference attempted to show the immensity of von Speyr's gifts and service to the life of the universal Church. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger interrupted their own busy schedules to offer powerful and prayerful witness to the character and achievement of this truly extraordinary woman. Yet it can fairly be said that most of the Catholic world knows nothing at all about her.

Who was Adrienne von Speyr and what were the singular graces of her life - graces which, some 18 years after her death in 1967, would move three of the most commanding churchmen of this century to
peak so ardently, so authoritatively, of her legacy?

Born in Switzerland in 1902, amid the loftiest peaks on earth, it became an appropriate setting for someone destined to scale the very horizons of God. And depths, too, into which she would mysteriously fall out of an obedience freely given to Him. Depths which were to plunge her all the way down into hell, there to enact the full measure of our Lord's own dark descent which the Church calls the Mystery of Holy Saturday.

Hers was an endurance which God asked of her from the very beginning. Following her conversion in 1940 at the hands of von Balthasar (while she had no prior knowledge of Catholicism, the outline of it all, he said, was "hollowed out in her like the interior of a mold"), there commenced a lifetime's succession of "passions," culminating in the experience of Christ's own suffering on the cross.

"It is," commented von Balthasar, who was present at these missions. "Christ's final act of obedience toward His Father that He descends into hell." the place into which all the world's sin is finally cast. "In hell He encounters His own work of salvation, nor in Easter triumph, but in the uttermost night of obedience, truly the obedience of a corpse.

"He encounters the horror of sin separated from men. He walks through sin and, traversing its formlessness, He experiences the second chaos. While bereft of any spiritual light emanating from the Father, in sheer obedience, He must seek the Father where He cannot find Him under any circumstances."

And such, in vicarious ways, is precisely the harrowing which von Speyr underwent as a result of giving her consent to whatever God might wish of her; a grace, charism and mission which stands at the very center of her mystical life and of its incomparable importance to the Church.

For here is the deepest and most intimate participation in the Lord's own oblation to the Father, His mysterious self-emptying on behalf of the world and the terrible weight of its sin which he redeemed from within.

"What Adrienne experienced, von Baithasar said, 'is actually more horrible than the hell depicted for us by medieval imagination; it is the knowledge of having lost God forever.... ." So utterly real was it, he added, that for anyone blithely to dismiss the existence of hell would be, at once, both "ridiculous
and blasphemous."

At the heart of her spirituality, the pulsating principle throughout the body of her life, is an attitude of complete transparence before God, of total effacement of self. One must acquire an attitude of obedient letting-it-happen-to-oneself for God. Her mission, therefore, consisted of "continual and complete movement away from oneself, in self-forgetfulness and virginal readiness for the word of God. It is a life, concluded von Balthasar, of "totally childlike existence in God and for God".

Always strive, she would exhort the members of the lay community which she and von Balthasar founded in 1945, to achieve that perfection of "being available" for God, of doing whatever He asks
of us to help advance the glory of the Father.

Her last years, while marked by increased suffering ("Her body, wrote von Balthasar, "was like an organ on which all, and in fact constantly new and unsuspected, stops of suffering had been
pulled out"), saw no abatement of that will, that deep disposition of soul to always avail oneself of His grace. Near the end, knowing it was the end, she exclaimed, "How beautiful it is to die!" For, then, of course, God himself lay ahead, alone in the flesh to await her.

How very different the landscape of the Church might be today if, 20 years ago, publishers in this country had made available to us the works of von Speyr (and von Balthasar too). How fortunate
we are that they are available now.

Regis Martin was studying at the Angelicum in Rome at the time and is currently lecturing at the Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio. Many of the works of Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar) are available from Ignatius Press /PO. Box 18990, San Francisco, Calif 94118).

December 29, 1985


Writings by Adrienne Von Speyr

 [HomePage] [Von Balthasar]