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An Answer to Jacques Servais


By Anne Barbeau Gardiner | September 2002

In his second homily on Psalm 37, one of the penitential psalms, St. John Fisher exclaims: “In whose causes and business does our conscience complain more and receive more hurt than in the causes and business of our neighbors and friends, when we help, defend, or praise them to others or else advance them ourselves?” In other words, friendship itself can cause us to overlook the shortcomings of our friends. This appears to be the case with Hans Urs von Balthasar, who for 27 years was a very close friend of Adrienne von Speyr’s and (as he notes in his Foreword to First Glance) for more than 15 of those years lived with her under the same roof. He admits that Speyr took “the responsibility for persuading me to leave the Jesuit Order” in 1950 to “follow the Lord” (First Glance, p. 43). Evidently, he relied on her direction even beyond that of his Jesuit superiors. This all-out trust in her likely loaded the scale when it came to evaluating her writings, for otherwise he could never have put them on a plane with those of St. Augustine and St. Teresa of Avila. No one doubts, as Fr. Servais says, that “in the eyes of Balthasar, this woman possessed an extraordinary charism of prophecy in the sense understood by St. Paul and St. Thomas.” The question is, was Balthasar’s judgment unbiased?

Those who admire Balthasar simply take his word about Speyr and her visions. Fine, but they then want others to read her works uncritically too, and there’s the rub. Fr. Servais instructs us to approach Speyr’s writings “patiently and perseveringly, in faith and prayer,” and not “by questioning the orthodoxy of the author.” In other words, we are to read her works as if they were Scripture, to entrust ourselves to her without reserve, as her disciples. To do otherwise, he warns, is to resist the “indissoluble whole” she presents, to be a “rationalist” who reduces religion to “dogmas,” instead of following Speyr “to the contemplation of the mystery.” Citing Balthasar, he assures us that her books are for “meditation and adoration,” not for the “use” of the scholarly.

This is a false dichotomy. Speyr is not canonized, after all. She is not a Doctor of the Church. In First Glance Balthasar tells us that Speyr herself read mystical works critically, so why should her works not be read the same way? For example, she “soon discontinued” reading St. Teresa of Avila, after she had “expressed objections to many passages in her writings”; and after she had looked briefly at the spirituality of Lallemant and Surin, she “made critical distinctions concerning them.” In the same chapter of First Glance Balthasar reveals that when she was not in ecstasy, Speyr’s mental level was that of an ordinary modernist woman, for she read “with special predilection” the sensual novelist Colette, and here there is no mention of her expressing objections (pp. 38-40).

Furthermore, while Balthasar never saw her pick up a theological work, he notes that she read atheists such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus, and “many detective stories” (pp. 39-41). Is this the usual reading of a Catholic mystic and saint? Besides, here was a woman who, Balthasar informs us, twice stood “a few steps away from suicide,” at one time seriously debating whether to jump from a bridge into the Rhine (pp. 26, 29). Are we not entitled to be wary about whether her visions were really revelations from God?

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