Essay

Introduction to Adrienne von Speyr’s Work

“Das literarische Werk Adrienne’s von Speyr.” Sanctificatio nostra, 22, 1957, 20–24 (our trans.)

[…] With few exceptions, Adrienne von Speyr’s works originated either as dictations (the first of which date to 1944) or as points of meditation for a group of young women under her direction. All in all, her corpus runs to over 15,000 pages; most of them have been published in the Johannes Verlag, or Saint John Press, the publishing house founded mainly for Adrienne’s work. Her writings include a four-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, two volumes on the Book of Revelation, and one each on the Sermon on the Mount, Ephesians, and Philippians. There are also books on Our Lady, on the theology of prayer, and a whole range of other subjects: Romans 8, personalities of the Old Testament, God the Father, the divine infinity, the mystery of death, and the gates of eternal life (the openings to eternity created from the heart of time by grace and Revelation). We also have a short treatise on asceticism for consecrated people, a reflection on the ecclesial states of life, and commentaries on I Corinthians, on the Letter to the Colossians, on the Passion according to Matthew, on the Catholic Epistles, on large portions of Isaiah, and on a few of the Psalms.

Works such as these (of which there are other examples) prepare the way for the often more difficult writings that work out certain fundamental issues merely alluded to in the other published texts. Such issues include Holy Saturday, Christ’s “descent into hell,” the mysteries of the Passion in general, and the theology of Confession, which Adrienne sees as intimately connected with the Lord’s Cross and descent. But we find other topics as well: Purgatory, the Church, ecclesial sanctity and its types, the Christological foundation and presuppositions of Christian life, especially of obedience in the Church, vowed and otherwise. We also find a fully developed theology of the sexes, a typology of the forms of Scriptural inspiration, explorations of Trinitarian doctrine, and a far-ranging theology of mysticism.

Three points help characterize Adrienne’s richly various work:

1. Adrienne’s writing is thoroughly dominated by a tendency to objectivity, to impersonal concentration on the matter at hand. So much so, in fact, that the author’s personality, spontaneity, and humor shine through only indirectly.

Man, for her, is a servant of God’s majesty and love, and the Christian is a servant of God’s Word, Jesus Christ. Service and love converge: To love is to forget oneself, to lose oneself in the task given by the Beloved. This human and Christian attitude flows from that of God the Son, which, in its turn, is rooted in the heart of the Trinity. Adrienne’s theology looks radically, perhaps even rabidly, anti-psychological in comparison to the growing tendency among theologians and formators to frame, understand, and (they hope) enliven Christianity through (depth) psychology. For Adrienne, man’s salvation and health of soul, like the truth of his being, lie in dedication to his task.

In her view, mission is God’s will for the individual, a will that finds its Trinitarian pattern in heaven, is archetypally embodied by the incarnate Word on earth, and comes to one as a uniquely personalized plan, promise, and call. This is an event whose purest form is revealed in the Ignatian exercises of election: Here the exercitant, praying in readiness to serve, doesn’t choose himself, or his own highest possibilities, but the possibility of following Christ that is offered him by God. It’s when he accepts his mission in a Marian “Yes,” when in principle he refuses to set any limits to the call, that the great opening occurs: Suddenly, man’s narrow individuality opens to catholic universality; suddenly holiness becomes possible as an unlooked-for grace. The spirit of the lover remains malleable in the hands of God, who can mold it far beyond the seemingly fixed givens of nature.

Unlike most religious writers, who transform the science of faith into spirituality and objective theology into affective theology (which is then no longer taken completely seriously by the guild), Adrienne consistently places the experience of faith at the service of the intelligence of faith. Concretely, “the experiential knowledge of God” also means “the experiential knowledge of God in Christ and the Church”; it means the “experiential” Christology and ecclesiology befitting the incarnate form in which all graces are given to us.

The foregoing explains Adrienne’s ability to hear the word of Scripture with an objective, “ecclesial” ear. She focuses intently on each verse, giving it the total attention of a soul penetrated to the depths by the act of listening. She never tries to explain one verse by citing another, but always attends, unblinkingly and undistractedly, to the one word resonating here and now–until its depth to be conveyed has opened up and poured itself out.

Because it is the truth of or about Christ, because it is inspired by the Holy Ghost, every sentence of Scripture is ecclesiological, Christological, and Trinitarian. Anchored in this recognition, Adrienne’s interpretation never slides off onto the horizontal axis, but sinks straight down into the word itself. It’s not that she pretends in any way to replace “scientific” exegesis of the biblical text (which Adrienne, a medical doctor with no interest in theological or exegetical literature, could not be expected to know). Rather, the vector of her meditation goes towards the “plenary sense,” as it’s usually called today, which always includes the relation between Old and New Testament, promise and fulfillment. Many of her texts are like guided contemplations that thus offer a quasi-technical preparation (“points for meditation”) of the scriptural word for contemplation by others in turn.

2. This leads to a second point: Christianity is essentially Christ’s life in the Church. It is a mystery between Bride and Bridegroom. This mystery, however, is one whose fulfillment lies in Cross and descent, in the Godforsakenness of the Son. The Son, then, gives his life to the uttermost for and to his Bride, thus bringing the consummation of the new and eternal covenant.

Christ’s suffering has an ecclesial side. It continues in his followers. It’s here that all the sacraments spring into being–not just as fruits of the Lord’s merits, but also as existential configurations to him. Adrienne shows that what Paul says about Baptism (Rom 6:4f), and what Christ explicitly states about the Eucharist in the words of institution, is also particularly true for Confession: The penitent participates in the crucified Son’s total confession of sins before the Father and in the Father’s total absolution of what the Son confesses. This participation includes, however, a mysterious share in Christ’s descent. It is out of the kingdom of death that new life flows; it is out of lostness that finding and being found come forth; it is out of hopelessness that hope springs. Indeed, in Christ love goes for love’s sake into self-alienation, so that distance becomes a mode of proximity and forsakenness a mode of intimacy.

Ecclesial existence, Christian existence, stands within this circle: All the closeness to God we are graced to live in is purchased by Godforsakenness on the Cross and points back to it as its permanent foundation. At the same time, this Godforsakenness is itself only the extreme expression of God’s love, which, taking the night of sin upon itself, powerfully transforms it into the night of love. Here, too, we have a decisive transcending of psychology into theology. This becomes paradigmatically clear in Mary, but also in all the saints (whose ecclesial mission Adrienne treats in a dedicated work). The timeliness of these insights for our day and for humanity in general is evident. Adrienne furnishes abundant material for an answer to contemporary questions; the material only needs to be received, sifted, and evaluated.

3. For Adrienne, Christology rests entirely on the Trinity: Everything Christological must be explained in terms of, and related back to, the Trinitarian dimension. The man Jesus has a certain distance vis-à-vis the Father; it includes our distance from God, not only as human beings, but also, formally speaking, as sinners. At the same time, it reveals to the world another distance: the eternal distance of Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This distance-in-unity is implicit in the truth that God is love.

Adrienne von Speyr begins with John. His Gospel was the subject of her first dictations, and she consistently returned to him, even when she was commenting on Paul or other sacred writers. For Adrienne, every human and Christian relation, condition, and experience of love is an occasion and a starting-point for deeper understanding of the intra-divine life. She glimpsed traces of the Trinity everywhere, and every step of her thinking reflected awareness of the ever-greater reality of God’s truth. Faith is acknowledgment that God’s truth and life are always greater than we are capable of understanding or embodying. This is why Adrienne constantly uses expressions life “bursting,” “super-fulfillment,” “overflowing,” “transcending,” and so forth: Knowledge, for her, includes a surrender of the already known for the sake of deeper insight. The fluid dynamism of this surrender valorizes pagan “dumbstruckness before the ineffable” but gives it a truly Christian and biblical form: the act of humble prostration before God’s ever-greater love–not in order to transcend or remove the Word, but to ascend, like the Apostles on Tabor, from Christ’s human figure to his divine form. The Trinity also gives Adrienne the key to interpreting the two ecclesial states of life: marriage and virginity, which she shows to be distinctive but complementary, though without undermining the excellence of the counsels.

In the breadth of her theology, with its vast panoramic view of salvation history, Adrienne recalls Hildegard of Bingen. Similarly, her style of scriptural interpretation is reminiscent of the Fathers’ contemplative approach (though without the occasional whimsy of patristic allegorism). But resemblance does not mean dependence. Adrienne’s work is unique in the history of the Church. It is like a miraculous tree that has unexpectedly appeared in the desert of our time to the joy of the astounded onlooker. The fruits of this tree are abundantly available to anyone willing to make a modest effort to understand–including the priest, who will find in them nourishment for his meditation, his preaching, and his entire Christian life. Adrienne’s writings are wholly at the service of the Church: Every insight they contain is a God-given seed meant to bear Christian fruit in the midst of secular modernity.