With the release of the long-awaited translation of Adrienne von Speyr’s magnificent and mystical commentary Mark: Meditations on the Gospel of Mark this fall, one feels the urge to write about the extraordinary woman known to her readers and followers simply as “Adrienne”. The great fruitfulness of her astonishing life and work is often overlooked because of the great modesty and even hiddenness of her charism. But even this aspect of her “gestalt”, or spiritual figure, is a part of her legacy, a contribution which has yet to penetrate deeply into the greater theological discourse of the Church.
An overview of her life quickly reveals the phenomenon that she was. She was born into a devout Calvinist family in Switzerland in 1905, yet at an early age felt an inexplicable attraction to Catholic beliefs. At the age of nine, she gave a talk to her classmates on Jesuits, believing an angel had informed her that “the Jesuits were people who loved Jesus totally”. She would recall a mysterious meeting at the age of six with a man she later believed was St. Ignatius of Loyola. She had a growing desire to become Catholic, but all her attempts to make contact with priests failed.
In 1940, she was introduced to Fr. Hans Urs von Bathasar, then a Jesuit, who was chaplain at the university. Since she claimed to have never received formal instruction in the faith, Balthasar was astonished at her intuitive knowledge of even advanced theological or scriptural points. He received her formally into the Church on the Feast of All Saints, and after that mystical experiences began to flow like a torrent. Driving home one night, she saw a great light in front of the car and heard a voice say “You shall live in heaven and on earth." She formed friendships with many great Catholic thinkers of the day, including Romano Guardini, Hugo Rahner, Erich Przywara, Henri de Lubac and Gabriel Marcel. Through her friendship with Balthasar, who would remain her spiritual director until her death, she dictated or wrote nearly seventy books, including commentaries on books of the Bible, which are known for their rich spiritual theology. Balthasar would write that his own theological mission was inextricably linked to hers. They anticipated the Second Vatican Council by founding a secular institute for consecrated lay men and women, called the Community of St. John.
In the mid-1950s Adrienne had to discontinue her medical practice due to increasing blindness, and would spend hours in meditation, although she was able to read contemporary French authors such as Bernanos and Mauriac. Her sufferings, which included multiple heart attacks, allowed her to penetrate deeply into the Pascal Mystery of Christ. She had interior illuminations about the communion of saints, could “read” souls, and experienced the stigmata. She died on September 17, 1967, the feast of St. Hildegard, another mystic and physician.
|Image: Fr. Bill McNichols - St. Andre Rublev Icons|
Adrienne’s mystical insights all have an Ignatian bent, and are strongly centered on the desire to give oneself radically to follow Christ. Much of her contemplation concerned the Trinity, and one finds this mystery winding like a thread through all her works. But it is the humble figure of Mary that grounds Adrienne’s writing in the day-to-day world of the here and now. Her voluminous output, much of which is being translated from German and French into English, covers almost every conceivable aspect of the Christian life, and to remain undaunted, the reader must find a port-of-entry, perhaps from one of her shorter key works like Confession or Handmaid of the Lord.