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A double mission in the Church

04 September 2021

Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar

In Basel, in the autumn of 1940, on a terrace overlooking the Rhine, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr meet for the first time. They talked about French literature and in particular about Paul Claudel and Charles Péguy, who are the poets that Balthasar was in the process of translating. By that time he was already a theologian of renown, having entered the Society of Jesus in 1929. Hans Urs, who had been named after one of his famous ancestors, traced his sudden vocation back to the premature death of his mother, who had taken him to Mass in the Jesuit Church near his home. A brilliant student, who was passionate about German poetry, a music lover, especially Mahler, whose entire symphonies he could perform on the piano. It was while he was reading and translating Claudel’s The Satin Slipper, which is the story centered on a love between a man and a woman without eros, yet transformed into a spiritual friendship, that he would later reinterpret and transfigure his relationship with Adrienne, the comet star of a renewed theology.

On that balcony, Adrienne, found herself standing before him as if waiting for someone she already knew. An established doctor, she was the first Swiss woman admitted to the profession; in addition, she is married, and her spiritual life is incandescent. As a sharp minded, intelligent child, during her youth she suffered deeply from a conflictual relationship with her mother who had forced her to drop out of high school because she was the only girl. However, her father’s intervention saved her from the obtuseness of the girls’ school and allowed her to re-enter her high school classes. This was celebrated by the thunderous applause of her classmates who admired her intelligence and courage. That courage had made her stand up during a class, when a teacher had punched a boy in the face, and shout, “Do you want to see a coward? There’s one!” Adrienne had received the gift of visions from an early age, when her guardian angel had heartened her in relation to her mother and taught her to pray. At the age of six, Adrienne met Saint Ignatius. The sweet vision she had in 1917, of Mary surrounded by angels and saints, would have been the answer to what she lacked; an answer to the austere and rigorous God of the Protestant environment in which she was born and which she felt did not represent her. In 1918, at the age of sixteen, after the sudden death of her father, her body collapsed to such an extent that, with tuberculosis having attacked both lungs, doctors diagnosed that she would die within a year.

However, things were destined not to go like that, and about twenty years later, on that terrace in Basel, Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar formed such a lasting and fruitful partnership that it profoundly renewed the theology of the time. The spiritual understanding with Adrienne was immediate. As Balthasar wrote, “We immediately talked about prayer and as soon as I showed her that with “Thy will be done” we are not proposing our work to God, but our willingness to be taken up by His work and always committed to it, it was as if I had inadvertently pressed a switch that suddenly turned on all the lights in the room”. After this encounter, that same year, on All Saints Day, Adrienne, under Balthasar’s spiritual direction, received Catholic baptism, which shocked her family. From then on, she began to relive the Passion of Christ every year during Holy Week. The sense of loneliness and the suffering of the Son separated from his father reverberated so much in her visions of hell, that it imprinted itself on her body in the form of stigmata. For Balthasar, that extreme impotence of the Son, embodied in Adrienne’s body, became the foundation of his theology, because it was understood as the only one capable of liberating power. Four years later, starting in May 1944, the Jesuit began to collect, in the Notebooks, Adrienne’s dictations centered on the Gospel of John and on the experience of Holy Saturday. To do this, he learned to write shorthand, and faithfully translated from French the illuminations and revelations dictated by a woman who did not explain but saw. Balthasar emphasizes, “Very soon her dictations flowed more directly, her propositions so precise that she herself renounces revision and I can transcribe what she says without effort. Sometimes she goes around an idea that she wants to express, with several expressions, until she finds the exact one, then it is enough for this one alone to be given to the press”. This dictation would go on for twenty-seven years and would produce over sixty spirituality and theology books signed by Adrienne. In 1945 she co-founded the Community of Saint John.

For the writing of his own texts, Balthasar drew on Adrienne’s visions, systematized them, and innervated them in his own theological thought. This thought has the kenosis as its fulcrum, which is understood as the very definition of God in the Trinitarian relationship. This is the place of the mutual stripping away of the divine persons, the dynamic relationship of love understood as the gift of self.

Yet, in the narrow environment of Swiss Catholicism, this spiritual association was looked upon with suspicion, despite the fact that Adrienne’s charism had always been accepted with respect to orthodoxy. In 1950, Balthasar was forced to leave the order, from the Society of Jesus, which he defined as his “homeland”, due to the incomprehension of his superiors, who were concerned above all about the gossip circulating in the city. Adrienne was shocked by this decision, and felt personally responsible for it. In her Diary she notes that she heard a voice tell her, “Your destiny is really too heavy, because it includes the destiny of Hans Urs”. Four years later, when she was seriously ill, she abandoned her medical practice. In fact, she was so ill that the doctors were once again amazed at her survival. However, Hans Urs was always close to her, and still ready to transcribe her visions and decipher the figures of the saints with whom she entertained herself. Adrienne died at the age of 65, on September 17, 1967, coinciding with the feast of St. Hildegard, a mystic and doctor whom she venerated.

In the meantime Balthasar, who in order to survive held conferences around Europe, was rehabilitated by the Church, but was not invited to the Vatican Council II, which constituted one of the “great absentees”. He died on June 26, 1988, two days before the consistory for his appointment as a cardinal, which had been so desired by John Paul II.

by Elena Buia Rutt