Von Speyr's life
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
Article originally in NATIONAL
Writings by Adrienne