An ornate chapel has been built on the peculiar alliance between Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr. Among pockets of the elect it is judged doltish, possibly wayward, not to attend services there. Or so it seems from some of last week’s email.
Permit me to say it again: Credulity is no friend to the truths of our faith. On the contrary, it discredits the uncreated mystery we are called to witness. Rather than serving to renew the faith, it undermines it. The Church gains nothing from Catholics who circle the wagons against a mild tug on the swaddle around von Speyr. Anyone quick to damn skepticism as calumny, or confuse fair questions with “aspersions” or “an attack,” acquiesces in the popular canard that faith is an enthusiasm averse to rational reflection.
Theologians are scholars. By making cult figures of them, we exempt them from the give-and-take at the heart of every scholarly or scientific pursuit. The truth of things is hard won. This is not Delphi. Balthasar was no oracle; Von Speyr, no sibyl. The mystic and her publicist are legitimate subjects for discussion. Audit is a necessary stay against gullibility, one of Screwtape’s most durable tools.
Some groused that the post Idolatry of Devout Ideas psychologized the dead. Come now, is that objection not a bit obtuse in the face of Balthasar’s own spotlight on von Speyr’s emotional/psychological state? His First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr bares—quite unnecessarily—her sexual hesitancy. The detail is as suggestive as it is gratuitous, more appropriate for an analyst’s couch than the confessional. He reveals that, several times, he heard her call out “almost despairingly” for her mother while she was “dreaming.” A lapse of tact and of taste, the intimacy of the disclosure invites readers to wonder where Werner Kaegi kept himself during these mystic sessions.
Balthasar submits this oddment for our edification:
In grammar school and even in the higher grades, whenever someone had broken something, she had the habit of coming forward and taking the blame and the punishment for it herself so often that the teacher no longer believed her.
He chooses the anecdote as testimony that von Speyr’s foot was on the straight way to sanctity early on. Clinicians and alert parents might see it differently. Unripe messianic pretension is an unwholesome trait, all the more worrisome in a child. [Please do not email to remind me of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice on behalf of a condemned man. A vast gulf separates unsurpassable charity from girlish play-acting at martyrdom.]
That aside, what is Book of All Saints but an obsessive, sometimes cattish, catalog of pronouncements on the motivations of the dead? The text is a clotted analysis of the character and intensity of their “inner attitude” in the privacy of their erstwhile prayer life. Von Speyr presumes to inhabit their prayers, giving a posy here, a dig there. And tattling all the while. It is a distasteful séance.
We can return to von Speyr’s post-mortem sessions in the by-and-by. Stay, for now, with the means Balthasar uses to usurp anticipated dissent, and to steer reception of her commentaries in a smiling direction. He adopts a style of argument common to art world apologias: criticism is equated with noncomprehension. It is a device that betrays the assumption that disagreement is, of necessity, baseless. Unsporting if not unscholarly, it gainsays the possibility that some demur precisely because they comprehend.
In his foreword to von Speyr’s The World of Prayer, the theologian ignores his own warning against a gnosis that “puffs up.” He pulls rank, patronizing those readers “who are less inclined to follow demanding theological trains of thought.” They are advised to read his introduction, then jump ahead to the “easier” chapters, standard-issue devotional writing. Herewith, an instance of the trinitarian thought that challenged readers are instructed to save until later:
. . . it is as if, in contemplating the Son, the Father always sees more and more what he, the Father, is; . . . he see thereby how the Son uninterruptedly accepts the gift of divinity, gratefully accepts everything from the Father, and in gratitude has become what the Father expected of him . . . . At first they have no other wish than to contemplate and know each other in worship.
Theologians can decide whether von Speyr’s language, laden with anthropomorphic projection onto the mystery of the Trinity, passes hermeneutical muster. Of interest to all readers, however, is that the trope of God worshipping God, God loving God, appeared years earlier in Simone Weil’s meditations. Dead at 36 years of age in 1943, Weil was not reading von Speyr. However, von Speyr, who could complete a French novel in one night (We have Balthasar’s word for it.) and, we are told, read her contemporaries—including Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—could easily have been familiar with Weil. So could Balthasar. It is no stretch to think so; on the contrary, it would be surprising if at least one of them did not.
Weil’s essential Platonism (“I came to feel that Plato was a mystic, and that all the Iliad is bathed in Christian light, and that Dionysus and Osiris are in a certain sense Christ himself . . . .”) and thoughts on beauty (“In the authentic feeling of beauty, God is.”) would have drawn the eye of the theologian. Weil’s political writing appeared in the 1930s. Subsequent writing, which took an increasingly mystical turn, were available in Europe from the late 1940s; obligatory in the Fifties and Sixties. She was a compelling figure in twentieth century intellectual life, a ready muse for von Speyr and her counseling stenographer.
Thematic and biographical correspondences between Weil and von Speyr—not least a precocious religiosity, fascination with conversion (unconsummated by Weil), and lust for affliction—present themselves for attention. The word impersonation indicates calculation and, so, should be discounted. But unconscious mimicry—susceptibility to bookish identities, and auto-suggestion—is quite another matter. It bears consideration.
Balthasar attributes bad faith to anyone who questions his account. It is a bullying tactic that intimidates without clarifying or confirming the matter under discussion. As of 1981, the earth still had not moved for von Speyr’s writings. They were in print but had been ignored or indifferently received. The theologian complains:
Up to now, no one has taken serious notice of her writing. . . . The few reviews of her book were mostly drab; no one was willing to compromise himself.
What did they say, those drab reviews? Did they glimpse the devil in the details that Balthasar advises us to ignore? Could they, perhaps, have noted that the writing was tedious, a repetitive blend of piety and bathos, the prose reading at times—but for the punctuation—more like the flat, affectless work of Gertrude Stein than that of a woman in a noetic state? Or was the feckless press simply not up to the task of recognizing her genius? Just how the word compromise applies is ambiguous; but Balthasar’s disdain is not. That brief sentence manages to convey that neglect was somehow a cop-out; something disreputable clings to it.
Balthasar’s foreword to the Ignatius Press edition leads with a preemptive strike against skepticism:
I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements. There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom “nothing can be which ought not to be.”
That quote from Herr Lehrer Lämpel, a cartoon Teufelsdröckh in the Max and Moritz stories, mocks dissent. Immediately recognizable, even endearing, to the German audience initially addressed, it deflects attention from the fact that no one, not even the dullest or most dishonorable skeptic, has a personal stake in von Speyr’s visionary status that is remotely equal to Balthasar’s. Everything we know of von Speyr, who wrote in obedience to Balthasar’s command, has his signature on it.
Whether Adrienne von Speyr was a saint or an unstable woman animated by an exaggerated religious ardor and “zeal for penance”—Trilby with a rosary—remains to be determined. What is clear is that Balthasar was acutely invested as a professional theologian in the nature of public reception of von Speyr.
Von Speyr’s posthumous surveillance of Diadochus of Photice, fourth century theologian, mystic, bishop, saint, is intriguing. It beckons readers to ask if she is speaking about herself, her own prolixity and the source of her own spiritualist communions. Balthasar’s cue to her divination appears in parentheses:
He prays, strangely, in batches. At one time with a great flood of words; then once again there are only individual words. . . . Then, once again, come effusions, many sentences uttered immediately one after the other, which press upon one another back and forth, because the words also form sentences, and the sentences can say so much.(Visions?) Hard to say. Is it really a vision when prayer dominates so much that a person thinks he is having visions? When the word acquires such a fullness that it already contains the image and reveals itself thus as an image of eternity? He is a little like a small child to whom one tells stories and who from the start experiences and “sees” everything you tell him because it becomes so vivid for his imagination.
Note: One more thing needs to be repeated: My concern here is with the promotion of von Speyr, not with points of Balthasar’s theology. I am not in the business of determining heresy, who might, or might not, be in hell; who is orthodox, who is not. I am not interested in playing what Kierkegaard called “the game of Christianity.”
Any letters that insist on talking about B’s theology are off-topic and will be remaindered.