Plenary #1: “Von Balthasar, von Speyr and Holy Scripture” (Miles)

Von Balthasar, von Speyr and Holy Scripture:
The Importance of the Contemplative Reading of Scripture for Hans Urs von Balthasar
by L. M. Miles

“The starting point and model of all theology, namely Holy Scripture, provides us with a shining example of the perfect identity between concrete and abstract . . . ways of looking.”1

This shining example is first of all the Incarnate Son. But Hans Urs von Balthasar also includes as examples the prophets throughout Scripture as well as those who in the history of the Church have conformed their lives most nearly to the Son: the early Fathers, the Saints and the contemplatives. For them, the Gospel is a living word, like an ancient tome that children stumble upon in a hidden room, opening the covers only to plunge into the story, living and acting in it, participating rather than simply reading a story. The importance of the Fathers for von Balthasar is their ability to discover “appropriate dogmatic clothing for their very personal experience.”2 Such contemplative experiences are analogies to Christ’s experience of human life and his Sonship as they have been drawn into a living participation of his life, and as such, their reflections3 are valid resources for theology. Personal experience is not the goal but is the aid to understanding the content of revelation insofar as that participation in Christ is obedient and evidences ever-deepening love for God and neighbor. One such contemplative is Adrienne von Speyr.

Von Speyr’s contemplative readings of Scripture are integral to von Balthasar’s work. To present this, we will first look at the relationship of von Balthasar and von Speyr. Next, we will glance at three short examples from von Speyr’s Scriptural commentaries. Finally, we will look at how von Balthasar incorporates her insights into his work. We will rely on von Balthasar’s own personal assessment of the relationship of their work.

The Priest and the Contemplative
In 1940, Hans Urs von Balthasar had been newly appointed as chaplain to the University of Basel, Switzerland. Von Balthasar’s exposure to the dry dust of scholasticism,4 the disconnection of theology from “spirituality,” the separation of the academic from the lived faith of the saints, motivated him to find some method of reuniting the abstract and the concrete Christian faith. During the course of his studies, he met Henri de Lubac who introduced him to the contemporary value of the Fathers of the Church.5 His theological aesthetic is the result of this pursuit for a unity of sanctity and theology.

By 1940, von Balthasar had published his doctoral study on the Apocalypse of the German Soul in three volumes and his first study on the Church Fathers, Origen: Spirit and Fire. His studies on Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa would soon follow. He had yet to begin publishing his work on theological aesthetics when in the summer of 1940 a mutual friend introduced von Balthasar to Dr. Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr. This thirty-eight year old physician was recuperating from a heart attack and although raised Protestant had been exploring the possibility of the Catholic Church. He found her already prepared to accept the teaching of the Church and she was received into the Church on All Saint’s Day, 1940.6

Von Balthasar became Dr. von Speyr’s spiritual director. He recognized her unique and timely mystical gifts for the Church and began to publish her works, which he considered more important than his own writings, establishing Johannes Verlag for that purpose.7 The majority of von Speyr’s sixty published volumes are commentaries on Scripture that von Balthasar wrote down from her dictation during daily periods of contemplation over the course of fifteen years.8 “Adrienne would be seated in an armchair with her small French Segond New Testament. She would read the verse, close her eyes, reflect for a few seconds and then begin to dictate”9 to him. What von Balthasar had recognized in the works of the Patristics, a contemplative reading and application of Scripture, the concrete unity of life and doctrine, he now saw unfolded in a contemporary woman.

Contemplating Scripture: “Eating the Book”
Adrienne von Speyr’s Biblical commentaries are an invitation to the reader’s own contemplations.10 They do not focus on the grammar or historicity of a verse or sentence. Rather, she “endeavors to hear and interpret the Word of God afresh verse by verse.”11 The purpose of her commentaries is not to present interesting nuggets or intellectual stimulus, but to encounter the living Word. She writes:
One cannot prepare oneself properly for the confession without a living relationship to the Holy Scriptures, inasmuch as they contain the life of the Lord or interpret his intentions. . . . He remains in the Father; his whole existence is love for the Father, prayer to the Father, service of the Father. In his light we immediately see how things stand with our own existence, our own prayer, our own service, what we have not done correctly and what we have missed.12
In her contemplation of Scripture, von Speyr writes as though she enters into the author’s understanding and motivation. She considers the people who meet the Lord. How does this one respond to the Lord’s invitation? How does the Lord reveal himself to that one? How does this author of this Gospel, this Epistle reveal his experience in the Lord? How open is this saint to the Lord in his or her prayers? And, uncomfortably, she continually redirects these questions back to the reader.

In her commentary on the Gospel of John, von Speyr includes scenes from Revelations, assuming the same author. She writes that John “is given the book to eat in the vision in order to take it into himself and understand it.” He “eats the book—the book that cannot be read from outside. It has to be interpreted from the within of love, that love that reverently recognizes God and the mysteries of God in the ever-greater of the Son.”13 So, Scripture cannot be understood from outside a heart of loving faith. But that does not make Scripture a soft fluffy comfort. “At first the word that God addresses to us looks harmless, like a human word. But instantly the fire within it begins to stir, insatiably embracing everything, demanding everything, consuming everything.”14

Her first book, Handmaid of the Lord, demonstrates what one can obtain from contemplating one short Scripture: the Virgin Mary’s Fiat. According to von Speyr, Mary’s “let it be done” demonstrates her complete openness and active receptivity to the Word of the Lord. Mary gives her consent to God’s Word with no hesitation, no reservation, no consideration.15 Thus, her “obedience is the prototype of every future instance of Christian obedience, which draws its whole meaning from the life of prayer and the perception of God’s will. . . . She is ready in prayer even when she does not know what she will be accepting.”16 But von Speyr does not end with Mary. She describes the obedience of the Son in the Incarnation as the foundational grace for Mary’s obedience and the mutual giving and receiving of love and obedience within the life of the Trinity.

In Three Women and the Lord, von Speyr reflects on Luke 8:1-2 and the relationship of Mary Magdalen to the Lord:
And the twelve were with him, and also . . . Mary, called Magdalen . . . No account is given of how Magdalen was tormented by the demons nor of how she found her way to the Lord. . . . Scripture only speaks of service as a result of liberation. And Magdalen remains in this service, although her being with the Lord was bound to mean that she was never to forget the past: she was and is marked by her erstwhile demonic possession. But that is of no concern to her. For her there is only one constant factor: she follows the Lord because he has set her free.17
Magdalen’s response to the word of God spoken to her is a lifetime of following, of obedience, of being possessed by the Lord and as such is an example to the reader of overflowing gratitude and thankfulness.

These are brief examples of the manner in which von Speyr contemplates Scripture. Her reflections cover a wide range of theological topics within short spans without a care for academics who would like to see subjects and ideas neatly arranged. Time for contemplation is the rule of thumb for reading von Speyr.

Throughout all her writings, von Speyr reflects on the Trinity. She often expresses her understanding of the Trinitarian relationships in the language of St. Ignatius of Loyola with the concepts of Choice, Indifference (readiness or availability) and Obedience. She freely uses these categories in her reflections on Christian discipleship in the Scriptures and in exhortations to her readers. These Trinitarian elements are a hallmark of von Speyr. Only within the context of von Speyr’s understanding of the Trinitarian relationships can her theology of Holy Saturday be understood.

Von Speyr’s Contemplations in von Balthasar’s Theology
Even von Balthasar’s early studies indicate a strong interest in eschatology and the apocalypse, not just in German literature but also in his studies of Augustine, Origen and other early Fathers. He could not accept the universalism suggested by Origen but neither could he find the Scriptural basis for Augustine’s certainty of a densely populated hell. Not until the Holy Saturday experiences of Adrienne von Speyr was he able to ascertain another method of resolving this dilemma of theodicy.18 His writings on Mary, John and Peter and their forms in the Church include multiple references to von Speyr’s insights as does much related to his theology of Holy Saturday. When von Balthasar discusses the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Descent into Hell, he frequently composes his theme with the words of Adrienne von Speyr, supplementing his arguments with others who have generated similar insights whether from the Early Fathers or contemporary theologians, saints and poets.

One need only glance through the footnotes in von Balthasar’s works to register his appreciation and application of von Speyr’s contemplations on Scripture. In numerous ways and places,19 von Balthasar asserts, “Her work and mine cannot be separated from one another either psychologically or theologically. They are two halves of one whole, with a single foundation at the center.”20 Furthermore, he contends that “on the whole, I received far more from her, theologically, than she from me, though, of course, the exact proportion can never be calculated.”21 However much he received from her insights, von Balthasar’s intellectual education was the means through which von Speyr’s contemplative insights would be given appropriate catholic expression.22

Hans Urs von Balthasar, a chaplain concerned with the unity of spirituality and theology, providentially encountered von Speyr, a contemplative with theological insights that concerned not only unity of the concrete and abstract elements of faith but also provided considerations for von Balthasar’s questions regarding theodicy. Examples of von Speyr’s contemplative Scriptural commentaries show profound theological observations of persons actively participating in Christ. Von Speyr’s contemplations also consist of recurring Trinitarian reflection and Ignatian language. Furthermore, von Balthasar’s incorporation of von Speyr’s insights was conscious and intentional. He recognized the unity of concrete and abstract in the Patristic writings and valued the theological significance of contemplation that Adrienne von Speyr also demonstrated. For von Balthasar, “only the contemplative reading of the New Testament is adequate to the Glory of God in Jesus Christ.”23


1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, trans. Aidan Nichols, O.P. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 37.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theology and Sanctity” in Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 190. See Mark A. McIntosh, Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar (Notre Dame and London: Notre Dame Press, 2000) for more on von Balthasar’s use of contemplatives in his work.

3 Von Balthasar does not consider all contemplative experience as valid for the Church. Only those focused on Christ (not personal experience or perfection itself) as their goal and obedience that is communally oriented as the outworking of love.

4 Peter Henrici, S. J., “A Sketch of von Balthasar’s Life” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 12, 13.

5 Ibid., 13. Erich Przywara also influenced his work in ontology; many others also come into play here at the beginning of the Ressourcement.

6 Hans Urs von Balthasar, First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, trans. Antje Lawry and Sr. Sergia Englund, O.C.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1981), 31. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Our Task, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 47.

7 Henrici, 29; Balthasar, “Foreword,” First Glance, 13.

8 First Glance, 44, 97ff. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, has published 30 volumes of her works in English and is committed to translating and publishing her complete works.

9 First Glance, 98.

10 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Foreword,” in Adrienne von Speyr, The World of Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 9.

11 Balthasar, “Foreword,” The World of Prayer, 9.

12 Adrienne von Speyr, Confession, trans. Douglas W. Stott (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 153.

13 Adrienne von Speyr, John: The Word Becomes Flesh, vol. I, trans. Sr. Lucia Wiedenhöver, O.C.D. and Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 13.

14 Speyr, John, vol. I, 23.

15 Adrienne von Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord, trans. E. A. Nelson (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 15.

16 Handmaid, 27.

17 Adrienne von Speyr, Three Women and the Lord, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1978), 14, 16-17.

18 Balthasar, Our Task, 40.

19 For von Balthasar’s own description of the works in which he details the influence of von Speyr, see his book, Our Task.

20 Henrici, 28, quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rechenschaft 1965, 35. The “foundation” is the Community of St. John that von Balthasar and von Speyr co-founded.

21 Balthasar, First Glance, 13.

22 Balthasar, Our Task, 44.

23 Aidan Nichols, O.P., “Introduction” to Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 6.


Anonymous said…
Sounds like von Speyr was a great Mystic . . . I think it would behoove some Protestants to recover some of this "tradition". In fact some of this "mystical approach" can be found in the Puritans (i.e. Richard Sibbes--"Marriage Mystical Tradition")who drew from Bernard of Clairvaux and others.

Anyway good first paper. Look forward to those forthcoming . . .
Anonymous said…
Thank for this most interesting post. I am wondering if you could answer for me the difference between mysticism and individualism. You wrote towards the beginning of your paper that Balthasar was interested in discovering the "appropriate dogmatic clothing for their very personal experience." You suggested in your paper that "personal experience is not the goal but is the aid to understanding the content of revelation insofar as that participation in Christ is obedient and evidences ever-deepening love for God and neighbor."

I am a huge fan of the Eastern Orthodox Church because they believe in this mysticism far more than the west does (I am thinking of here of Kalistos Ware and his book "The Orthodox Way"). How does one keep mysticism from becoming individualized religion without need of a church? Did these theologians ever explore these questions?
Fred said…
Mysticism is not a charism as far as I know, but prophecy is. That is to say that in Christianity, mystics have a prophetic role: to speak for God. They don't add to the content of revelation, but they highlight things in revelation that are helpful to the church in their time. As von Balthasar has said, "Before Saint Francis, no one had thought so deeply about the poverty of Christ. This poverty is not a secondary consideration but a new access to the center." (source and more quotes on the subject here. Every charism is given for the sake of the whole, so an utterly individualistic mysticism is not Christian. The Christian mystic, like the Hebrew prophets, does experience a heightened solitude, however. Obedience is a way of ensuring that this charism does not remain individualistic but benefits the whole. So, the great mystics of the Catholic Church have sought out spiritual direction.
Anonymous said…
Hi Fredrick,
It is interesting that your connect the ancient Hebrew prophets with the mystics of the Catholic Church. I think there is great value in such a connection. The mystics really are modern day prophets seeking to understand and know the mind of God, but you make a good point that these mystics must speak these truths to the people of God.
Anonymous said…
Regarding von Speyr's mysticism: She was a great mystic in the tradition of St. Paul, according to von Balthasar. That is, she was given great visions and ecstasies of a prophetic nature--not foretelling, but revelation of God. Her interest is not in the mystical subjective experience itself, but in the theological content revealed. She has written two books Mystical Theology (not yet translated into English however)Das Wort und Die Mystik. Volume I deals with subjective mysticism; volume II deals with objective mysticism. von Balthasar contends that von Speyr's theology of mysticism finally removes the vestiges of non-incarnational platonic influences from mystical practices and thoroughly grounds mysticism in Christ. One can note the influence of her mysticism in von Balthasar's handling of St. John of the Cross and other mystics where he suggests that their mystical experiences are analogues to the experiences of the Incarnate Christ. Thus, John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul is analogous to the Son's abandonment by the Father.
For von Speyr, mystics must have a spiritual director to whom they are obedient in the Church. Obedience, availability and total self-giving are hallmarks of her theology. Individualism sees a mystical experience as a personal possession. But von Speyr saw her experiences as gifts from God to and for the Church and were given to the Church to handle as it sees fit. Thus, obedience to the Church through her spiritual director was paramount. An understanding of Ignatius' Exercises and spirituality is very helpful here. Then, too, the individual's psychological or emotional exeperience should not be the focus but the Trinitarian content should be.
Regarding the Eastern Church: von Balthasar was very influenced by the Greek Fathers and it was always his hope to find some way to reunite the eastern and western churches.
I hope this was helpful.
Anonymous said…
Thank you very much for your lengthy and informed response. I too hope that the Eastern and Western churches can be reunited. Hearing about this woman is so encouraging to me because there is so much misunderstanding in the modern church about prophecy. Being marginally part of the pentecostal church (I was really only on the fringes of it. They would have never considered me part of their inter-community), I wonder if pentecostals view prophecy in this way. I know that is a blanket statement, but I think Von Speyr's way of viewing the prophetic and the mystic is so important.
Thanks for some great reading.

I always found it interesting that Balthasar's stated relation to Speyr's work (that she originated the insights and he merely developed them) is exactly opposed to Balthasar's stated theology of gender (that the male is initiator and the female is fructifier/"answer.")
Anonymous said…
Heather, that is a problem for me, too. Cynthia Nielsen and I have spoken about it before. I'm hoping shell write on it at some point. It's amazing how popular his and JPII's stance on sexual difference is in the RC, not only b/c of his relationship to von Speyr - as you rightly point out - but also because of the rather naïve and unsophisticated theory of archtypes.
Anonymous said…
Good point, Heather. The tension that you highlight is pretty important in my book and definitely worth further study.
Anonymous said…
Re: von Balthasar and gender:
I've never seen von Balthasar referred to as 'merely' interpreting von Speyr's insights-- or merely anything else before! My own perspective is that she was the catalyst for his thought, especially regarding theodicy and the inner trinitarian life. As for seeing him as 'receptive' to von Speyr's initiation, I think you need to remember he is not talking about gender roles but forms. He also had a very Marian (i.e., obedient receptivity) spirituality. And I believe that he understood von Speyr as receptively mediating God's word to the Church. He represented the Church in both his 'Bride' (receptive) status as well as his Petrine (initiator) office of priest. He was responsible for taking her insights to the Church. So I think it would be an mistake to look at their roles as simply a one way street of initiator-receptor. I believe it is more about forms and archetypes. I hope that helps.