Two Special Friends of God
Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery
By Hans Urs von Balthasar
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Thomas W. Case
The Gates of Eternal Life. By Adrienne von Speyr. Ignatius Press. 140 pages. $7.95.
A priest I much admire said recently that Hans Urs von Balthasar is probably the greatest theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. I would add that his spiritual companion and helpmate Adrienne von Speyr is perhaps the greatest of contemporary mystics. In tandem or alone, each is a special friend of God. Von Balthasar was influential in Adrienne’s conversion to the Catholic faith; he was her lifelong confessor; he acted as secretary and editor of her “dictations”; and her “dictations” profoundly influenced his theology.
Von Balthasar’s Convergences is actually a collection of five essays, related by the single theme which is the title of the book — the “convergence to the source” of the disparate outpourings of the heart and the mind in the study of God. For human nature is at least superficially divided between these two organs of reception (what the heart dictates, the mind often disallows, and vice versa); only on a deeper level and only sometimes in the history of Christian spirituality have the mind and heart been as one, congruent to the source of the supernal mystery. This is the constant struggle of mankind, not just for theologians, and the struggle and its resolution are most cogently portrayed in the little essay near the end of the book called “The Unity of Our Lives.” Here the focus is directly on the present-day Christian confronted by and making his way through this world on his way to eternal life.
The first part of the book is harder going for the not-so-well informed. The first two essays are a highly original and insightful, but also highly concentrated, journey up through the ages; and they assume on the part of the reader at least some familiarity with great Church figures of the past — from Origen to St. Bernard to St. Bonaventure to St. Thomas. A passing knowledge of modern philosophy would also help. In truth the book is not so much a detailed exposition as a kind of concise wrap-up of things long pondered by the author.
Lest these remarks be off-putting, let me say that the struggle to understand is well worth the effort. There is nothing arid or inconsequential in this man’s writing. And he is never dull. Just to whet your appetite:
Today the Christian people (or what is left of it) is searching with a lamp for persons who radiate something of the light, something of nearness to the source. It has long since had enough of the modernities, lacking all religious instinct, which trumpet at it from the press, the radio, and often enough from the pulpit. It is sad because it is untended, and an all too justified fear torments it that the “one thing necessary” could be totally blocked off by the “experts,” or the many dilettantes and apostates who pose as such. Often these are poor wretches, who must shout so loud in order to justify to themselves their inner predicament of no longer being able to pray.
There is less to say about Adrienne von Speyr’s book The Gates of Eternal Life because I feel less able to say it. I don’t know to what extent her “dictations” are inspired — in the strict theological sense of the term — but I must confess that as soon as I started reading the book, a kind of shift occurred in me that sometimes happens when I read the Bible, and sometimes when I read some of the saints. It is a shift in perception that means to me that I am in the presence of something — or someone — Authoritative. When this happens to me I feel like 99 percent of all the books ever written should be thrown out, and these few that remain be read, and reread, and read again.
But what is the book about? Well, she talks a lot about “perishable time” and “eternal time.” “Our time,” she says, “always limps far behind eternal time.” It is as if Adrienne were standing mostly in Heaven, and speaking of the earth from the standpoint of heaven rather than speaking of Heaven from the standpoint of earth.
And from this reversed perspective, she can say — about prayer, for example — “its direction is not toward eternity, but from eternity, a participation in the journey of the Son from heaven to earth.”
I have never before heard anything like that. The whole book is like that, unfamiliar but something you find yourself continually saying “yes, yes” to. I say buy the book, and read it, and read it again.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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