Monday 1 October 2012

The Wonderful World of Adrienne

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

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.

Adrienne had a keen sense of charity and justice. While still in grade school, she organized her classmates to visit the sick and poor in her hometown, perhaps in imitation of her father, who was a doctor. She once reprimanded her teacher who had slapped a student, storming to the front of the class and slapping the surprised teacher back and calling him a coward. Adrienne was very popular in school due to her charm, joy and humour, but would also become gravely ill, always just before Easter, a coincidence which she attributed to Good Friday. These early experiences of suffering naturally led her to deep unity with the Lord, as well as to medical school, where she was often the only woman (and became the first female doctor in Switzerland). She married a history professor when she was twenty-two, a widower with two sons, but seven years later he suddenly died. She then married another professor from the University of Basel a few years after.

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.

Like St. John the Apostle, her great patron, Adrienne loved the Lord deeply, and was given great gifts of knowledge and wisdom about the highest things. Her legacy spans both spiritual reading for the everyday life and high theology for the academic. I believe that like Thérèse of Lisieux, a figure with whom she has a theological kinship, Adrienne lives both in heaven and on earth.


  1. Here's a link to the Google Books preview of "Confession":
    It's not the whole book, but you can get started.

  2. Wow, just wow. I'll pray to Adrienne - she seems accessible to me, somehow. Talk about voluminous output! Thank you for writing on her - I had heard her name but didn't know anything about her.