Hans Urs von Balthasar - Schwestern im Geist - Therese von Lisieux und Elisabeth von Dijon
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Schwestern im Geist. Therese von Lisieux und Elisabeth von Dijon Two Sisters in the Spirit. Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity

Two Sisters in the Spirit explores the life and work of Thérèse of Lisieux and her near contemporary, Elizabeth of the Trinity. These giants of the Carmelite tradition, Balthasar shows, have complementary missions. Together, they represent the two fundamental goods so needed in the Church today: the good of existential appropriation of the faith (Thérèse) and the good of objective service to the point of forgetfulness of one’s own person (Elizabeth). In this way, Thérèse and Elizabeth illustrate the important truth that the diversity of charisms exists to serve and enrich ecclesial unity rather than undermining it.

Far from being a flight from the world, Carmel and all purely contemplative forms of life in the church extrapolate the encounter between the world and the living God of Jesus Christ to its most radical point. In the language of Scripture, ‘‘wilderness’’ means the dumbfounded nakedness and demonic decadence of a world stripped of her green finery, on the one hand, and a place of undistorted, unmitigated encounter with the living God, on the other hand: ‘‘a land naked and pitted, dried up and darkened, a land through which no man passes and in which no man dwells’’ (Jer 2:6) yet a land toward which God still ‘‘seductively’’ redirects his Bride in order to ‘‘speak to her heart-to-heart’’ (Hos 2:14). Origen and Anthony already realized that the decisive battles of the Kingdom of God would be fought out in this ‘‘wilderness.” How can it be that such a clear insight should be threatened with obscurity again and again through the centuries? Has there ever been a time when monastic communities have not needed reform? Yet oddly enough, the closer one comes to modernity and the more one considers both apostolic openness to the world and the fusion of contemplation and action to be exemplary even for religious orders, that much more clearly does the biblical basis for a purely contemplative life emerge from various spiritual and individualistic obscurities. Anticipated by the Rhenish and Spanish mystics, a final breakthrough, a quiet elucidation, takes place at the end of the nineteenth century in the two figures appearing here side-by side as ‘‘sisters in the Spirit.” Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity, who died at the age of twenty-four and twenty-six, respectively, understood the act of total surrender to the triune God as the highest possible form of engagement on behalf of the world’s salvation. They knew that this calling burrowed itself into hiddenness even as roots disappear into the ground. Above ground the visible church and her activity feed from these roots. How foolish it would be to pull roots out of the ground ‘‘so that for once they can be exposed to light and sunshine’’—for the tree would then wither away. Fully agreed in this basic realization, Thérèse and Elizabeth engage in an odd and fruitful opposition to each other inside their consensus. Their common concern is to devote their lives entirely to the reality of faith, to live ‘‘theological existences.’’ But Thérèse wants scripture and dogma to take on flesh and blood in her existence, and this brings the accompanying risk that objective truth might disappear into existential truth, thereby reducing the framework of the church’s great doctrine to the framework of an experienced ‘‘little way.” In contrast, Elizabeth permits her entire existence to disappear into the truth of the Gospel to the extent that the overpowering objectivity of divine truth threatens to destroy her subjectivity. Each tries to be fully obedient to her own task but each actually remains dependent on a task that complements the task of the other. Each points to the other; they construct hemispheres that, fitted together, make Carmel’s spiritual world round. Thérèse is subjectively stronger. Elizabeth knows her and builds on her but it is in Elizabeth, the one who is subjectively weaker and objectively stronger, that contemplative faith expands to its full biblical dimensions.

From the Foreword to the new edition