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 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.12In 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.17Magdalen’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.