Adrienne von Speyr on the Attitude of Prayer
In Commemoration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of Her Death
Wie Adrienne von Speyr uns beten lehrte
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translator:Community of Saint John
This is an attempt to answer, in the name of the Community of Saint John, a question that we get asked from time to time: How did Adrienne von Speyr teach you to pray? It is not so easy to explain that quickly. One thing is certain, though: She never gave us any infallible recipe. Instead of that, I remember a small incident that expresses in concentrated form what Adrienne von Speyr meant by “the attitude of prayer.”
Once some members of the Community of Saint John were getting ready to leave on a so-called “educational trip” to Florence. As she was bidding them farewell, Adrienne instructed them to be as alert as possible and take in everything that came their way, to look carefully at the artworks they would see. But, she went on, they should also enjoy this time of relaxation, and they should fortify themselves with ice-cream and coffee if they needed it to boost their ability to absorb new impressions. At that point, someone asked: “And when should we pray?” With her usual quick-wittedness, Adrienne replied: “Well, I don’t tell you to breathe, do I? So I won’t say anything about praying, either.” Adrienne was reminding them of the attitude of prayer, which was so important for her, and which also plays a role as a prior condition of every other kind of prayer.
The first topic will be this attitude of prayer. A lot will no doubt be said about it that is already familiar to most of you. But then, to look back at the past, as we are doing today, is to expose oneself to the risk of being reminded of things one already knows.
Prayer, then, is a function that is as necessary to man as breathing and that, like breathing, operates naturally, steadily, perhaps without the person’s even being aware of it. It is an uninterrupted inward focus on God, a predisposition to see everything that comes a person’s way in light of God and to refer it to him in gratitude.
This attitude of prayer is characteristic of Adrienne von Speyr. It is only in its light that her work can be approached and understood at all. One may safely say that she composed all of her writings in this attitude: her commentaries on Scripture and her meditations on particular aspects of Christian life, on the Church and the sacraments, on the election of a state of life, etc. In contrast to individual acts of prayer, which take shape in a particular form, the attitude of prayer is a matter of being; it is an inner disposition of mind, a wakefulness, a presupposition, quiet and still because implicit, of the absolute priority of the divine reality. The attention fixes steadily on God’s working; its loving gaze seeks to recognize what he is doing, and it exposes itself to him in all the manifestations of his will. Adrienne von Speyr expresses this in The World of Prayer in the following way: “Prayer, understood in this manner, would be our standing permanently before God, our freedom from obstacles to familiar intercourse with him, our resolute determination not to let anything in us be a hindrance to hearing him and following him. A deep, fundamental readiness, in other words, that is the sustaining ground of all individual conversations with God and all single acts of prayer. This readiness is supposed to accompany us throughout all of our daily occupations so that, at certain moments, it can condense into the shape that is customarily called prayer in the narrower sense: in that state in which there is no longer room in us for anything other than God’s voice, for our listening to it, and for our acknowledgement of it.”1
At this point, we meet with a second idea that characterizes Adrienne’s entire work and that is identical with the attitude of prayer: the idea of readiness. In its inmost core, the attitude of prayer is filled with the readiness to hear and follow God’s will at any moment. It is the attitude that says “speak, Lord, your servant is listening” and means it. It is not the attitude that says—as the bustling activity that fills people’s prayer-lives today could often suggest—“hear, Lord, your servant is speaking.” Adrienne puts it like this in The World of Prayer: “To stand before God in faith would truly mean to present one’s life quickly to God, but then to get free of it and to try to be before him without disguises, so that he can show and reveal himself. It would mean to contemplate him, and not oneself.”2
For Adrienne, the precondition of a true attitude of prayer is always a reversal of perspective whereby one stops looking at things from man’s point of view, but tries to see them from God’s. It is a genuine “conversion,” and it is supposed to take place every time one prays. This conversion liberates the believer from his everyday preoccupations and allows him to stand once more naked before God, as Adam did when he heard the divine voice in Paradise. As Adrienne says: “Adam lives in simplicity before God’s countenance, in faith and in happiness, and everything he does corresponds to God’s intentions. ‘You shall rule,’ God says to him. There is no report of any answer on Adam’s part. It is obvious that he understands God’s word and does it.”3
But after Original Sin, as Adrienne von Speyr says in this connection, every prayer begins with embarrassment. God calls man: “Adam, where are you?,” and man comes before him with all his ego-addicted attachments. The first thing, then, the Christian must do is let himself be redemptively loosed from, and divested of, these perverted, self-focused entanglements, so as regain his ability to expose himself, naked, to the divine gaze that seeks him. Necessarily, then, the conversion at the beginning of every prayer consists in consciously letting go of all that binds us to our own wishes; it consists in renunciation of our personal hobbyhorses. With the utmost energy, Adrienne persistently demands this radical renunciation in all its variations; by it we are to prepare for the attitude of prayer. She describes it as an aid to overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of the Christian’s desire to enter into the attitude of prayer. Of course, Adrienne is totally realistic here, also in her instructions on prayer to the Community of Saint John: One must give up one’s mood, one’s vexation over some incident, or one’s despondency—even despondency over one’s sin. Another hindrance would be the mentality that says “I know how to manage this,” that thinks it sees and controls the outcome of prayer in advance. The attitude of prayer is often largely a matter of perseverance when one can no longer see anything at all. This can involve a certain humiliation, a kind of abasement in the quiet admission of one’s powerlessness. Maybe that is precisely what is wanted at this moment, so that one’s confidence can rise up all the more buoyantly to God and be filled by him.
From this vantage point, we begin to see both the ultimate foundation of the attitude of prayer and its deepest dimensions in Adrienne’s work. This attitude is finally anchored in the triune God, and its very possibility depends on seeing things in light of the Trinity. Its foundation is the Son’s standing before the Father. “What the Son does before the Father, he shows to men, so that they can learn from him to stand before the face of God.” It is into this attitude of his, his standing before the Father, that the Son introduces those redeemed by his grace. Everything that has been said so far finds its place within the triune life; because the Son, moved by love for the Father, redeemed man from the original sin of imprisonment in the ego, man can once again stand naked before God and can encounter him as he did in Paradise.
It is safe to guess that this view of things was an ultimate conclusion drawn from Adrienne’s own “conversion.” She was in search of the truth in those days (as she herself once said), and eventually she made an unconditional surrender, directing her attention away from her own person and towards God. Because of this, she was introduced more and more deeply into the mysterious truth of the triune God and was filled to overflowing with his grace.
In all of this, Adrienne never fell prey to any kind of quietism. This becomes clear when we consider how her abiding attitude of prayer took concrete shape in definite acts of prayer, as well as how she conducted herself in everyday life. Some illustrative examples will be given in what follows.
Adrienne knew that all grace, including the grace of prayer, flows from the Cross, and the immediate fruit of this knowledge was her resolute wish to do penance. “Once this hidden source of all graces is recognized, the Christian will not simply leave it at prayer, but will wish, in some way, however insufficient it might be, to do penance: in the spirit of the sequela and of love.”4
This will to do penance, and this readiness for it, were present to an uncommon degree in Adrienne. This is not the place to describe the extent to which this readiness shaped her entire life and, above all, her suffering. All of us know that it did. Here we will merely say a few words about the way in which this readiness found expression in everyday events, at least insofar as this was accessible to our observation. Often when one of us brought some intention to Adrienne, an intention of one’s own or that concerned a person from our milieu, say a colleague, she did not say “I will pray for that,” but “I will do something for that,” and we guessed that she meant a work of penance.
In her practical instructions on prayer, including vocal prayer, Adrienne would again and again call our attention to how Christ prayed, for example, in the Our Father, which is mainly concerned with the Father’s intentions and with the forgiveness of sin—a sin that consists, among other things, in the fact that we don’t let the Father get a word in edgewise, but pray that our will on earth be done in heaven too.
Adrienne was also fond of dwelling on Mary’s Yes to God’s will, a Yes that she was able to pronounce only in virtue of her attitude of prayer. Adrienne found it profoundly significant that many artistic renderings of the scene of the Annunciation depict the Virgin kneeling, with her gaze fixed completely on God, at the moment the angel greets her. In the dialogue that follows the angelic salutation, Mary then submits her own ideas, as well as her difficulties, with complete naturalness to the angel’s supernatural words: “The appearance of the angel brings to light that the level of her attitude and the level of her prayer are one and the same, completely interwoven with each other. She says Yes out of the fullness of the divine graces, but she also asks: ‘How can this be, since I know not man?’ This expresses her character as a woman who is sober, normal, aware, and smart and, at the same time, perfectly surrendered. As a woman who calculates humanly and, at the same time, abandons everything to the divine reckoning. ‘Let it be done unto me according to thy word.’”5
The chief aim of Adrienne’s instructions was to burst the narrow constraints of petty human ideas, to clear away obstacles that could keep one from looking at God. Concerning petitionary prayer, which, for Adrienne, was absolutely legitimate, especially when it had to do with one’s fellow men, she would say things like this: “I may pray for the conversion of a person I know, but perhaps someone somewhere in China gets converted instead.”
In order to warn us against any sort of focus on ourselves in prayer, she told us with dismay about a female colleague whom she once visited in the hospital and found lying in her bed checking herself with her own stethoscope.
Thanks to her deep ability to empathize with others, an ability that had been honed in prayer, Adrienne was quick to detect tendencies of this sort, and she did not hesitate to intervene with helpful remedies, even if at the time we could not fully understand them. For example, she once sent one of us without any preparation to a different part of the country, where, because a different language was spoken, she could hardly make herself understood and so was forced completely out of herself in order to cope with this foreign environment. Adrienne was familiar with all of the tricks of the human heart, as is evident from the following passage: “Deception is also possible, of course. I can beg God for the answer to a certain question in prayer. For example, I can ask him to show me which of two things I should do. But if my wish to do one thing rather than the other is strong enough, God’s answer can easily be drowned out. I do not really let him speak; instead, I listen to myself in an oversized megaphone. This would mean that nothing is gained for the knowledge of God. Man has dragged God down to his level and, on top of that, he has switched what God has to say to him with what he wanted to hear… Wanting to understand God, he molds God into his own image according to his own ideas and views, and the result is that, without even noticing it, he has already disposed of everything that is divine about God… If the Christian does not realize this danger in time, he ends up facing God with a know-it-all attitude, and his prayer will lead him to the opposite of the knowledge of God.”6
Adrienne had a horror of anything that smacked of a know-it-all attitude. Yet, as much as she abhorred the know-it-all mentality (“it makes my blood boil,” she would say), she had an equally strong appreciation of humor, provided it expressed a kind of serene freedom from oneself, a relativization of one’s own opinion, or the refusal to take oneself too seriously. That was probably the secret of her own humor, with which she used to put difficult situations in her life into perspective. This was an attitude she maintained to the very end. One can’t help thinking of Sir Thomas More, who mounted the gallows with a joke, when one hears that, just a few days before her own death, Adrienne jokingly asked “Do you think there is still room for me in Paradise?”