Doctor, Convert, and Mystic: The Life and Work of Adrienne von Speyr
NEW: Mark: Meditations on the Gospel of Mark | Adrienne von Speyr
These meditations on the Gospel of Mark, with the exception of the second part on the Passion, were given by Adrienne von Speyr between 1945 and 1958 to members of the Community of St. John, which she founded with the renowned theologian, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. Adrienne is speaking to young adults who have decided to live the state of the evangelical counsels in a secular profession, as part of a recently established secular institute. Nevertheless this contemplative commentary can be very useful for all who seek to meditate on Holy Scripture.
As always, Adrienne here draws from the abundance of her own contemplation which keeps continually in view the harmonious unity of Christian dogmatic truth; she gives to others what has been offered to her in contemplation, without exegetical notes or any attempt at scholarship. Since she is speaking to novices, the train of thought is simple and practical, yet rich in depth.
The points for meditation are not primarily for spiritual reading, but an introduction to personal prayer. They are meant only to point out a path, because it is the Holy Spirit who directs contemplative prayer in all liberty. As one reads through this book, he will find in it a kind of synthesis of Adrienne von Speyr’s spirituality. This work will also be very useful to preachers, catechists, pastors, communities and institutes who have understood with Pope Benedict XVI that “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work.”
“These concrete and profound meditations have the potential to open the reader’s ears to hear the living voice of God’s Word resounding in the pages of Mark’s Gospel. Adrienne von Speyr does not offer information, or scholarly commentary, but help in prayerfully receiving the presence of Christ himself. In Adrienne’s hands, Scripture becomes a school of prayer: she leads us to Mark, Mark leads us to Christ, and Christ leads us to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” — Adrian Walker, Associate Editor, Communio: International Catholic Review
Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) was a contemporary Swiss convert, mystic, wife, medical doctor, and author of over sixty books on spirituality and theology. She entered the Church under the direction of the great theologianHans Urs von Balthasar. The short bio of von Speyr that follows is based on von Balthasar’s book, First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (Ignatius, 1981), the most detailed and thorough introduction to her life, theology, and work.
Adrienne was born on September 20, 1902 in the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland into a Protestant family. Her father, Theodor von Speyr was an opthamologist. Her mother, Laure Girard, was the descendant of a family of noted watchmakers and jewelers from Geneva and Neuenburg. Adrienne was the second child. Her sister Helen was a year-and-a-half older. Her first brother, Wilhelm, a physician, was born in 1905 and died in 1978. Her second brother, Theodor, was born in 1913 and was director of a bank in London for many years.
Adrienne’s mother scolded her daily; this led to Adrienne forming a strong trust and devotion to God, as well as a recognition of the meaning of sacrifice and renunciation. She also formed a deep relationship with her grandmother, a holy and pious woman. Adrienne also had a devotion to her father, who treated her with mutual respect and understanding, often taking her with him to the hospital to visit sick children. And in her primary school years she began working with the poor and even formed a society with her friends for those living in poverty.
A very bright student, Adrienne occasionally substituted for one of her teachers who suffered from asthma. It was in her religion classes that she began to sense the emptiness of the Protestantism that was being offered to her. Incredibly, at the age of nine she gave a talk to her classmates about the Jesuits: an “angel” had told her “that the Jesuits were people who loved Jesus totally, and that the truth of God was greater than that of men, and as a result one could not always tell people everything exactly as one understands it in God” (First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, 21). (When she was six years old, Adrienne told Balthasar, she had a mysterious encounter with St. Ignatius while walking up a steep street on Christmas Eve.) In her secondary school years she reproached her religion teacher for failing to discuss other religious beliefs, especially Catholic teachings.
Adrienne was often sick and had constant backaches that forced her to lie down for long periods of time. She would always become ill before Easter; she explained that it was due to Good Friday. Despite her physical sufferings, she focused on helping others who were suffering, spending time comforting and encouraging hospital patients. Not surprisingly, she went to secondary school with the intention of becoming a doctor, a decision supported by her father but not her mother. And after two years of secondary school, hermother was successful in having her removed on grounds that it allowed too much association with boys. Adrienne then spent a year in an advanced girls’ school; although unhappy, she met her best friend, Madeleine Gallet. The two of them talked constantly about God, the spiritual life, and how they might convert their classmates.
Adrienne’s father permitted her to return to secondary school. Although she was the only girl in her class, she was very popular due to her charm and humor and natural leadership. In November 1917 she experienced a mystical vision, an appearance of Mary surrounded by angels and saints; her later work would always be marked with a deeply Marian character.
Around this same time she knew, somehow, that her father would soon die. After his death (from a perforated stomach), Adrienne attended both business school and secondary school. In 1918 she suffered a total physical collapse brought on by tuberculosis in both lungs. The doctors believed she would die within a year. She was sent to Leysin; there she was cared for by Charlotte Olivier, a relative by marriage and a doctor. Meanwhile, her mother distanced herself even further from her. Adrienne spent time reading and learning Russian. It was in Leysin–where she would often pray in a cold Catholic chapel–that Adrienne began to see that she was being called to the Catholic Church. There was another physical collapse, followed by a return to school.
Her mother arranged for a job and a possible husband, but Adrienne resolved to be a doctor; this led to a lengthy period of silence between mother and daughter. She pursued her studies and an internship; in “these and many other experiences,” noted von Balthasar, “Adrienne learned to seek the God whom she had not yet succeeded in truly finding by the way of service to neighbor.”
In the summer of 1927 she met a history professor, Emil Dürr, a widower with two young sons. They married, but he died suddenly in 1934. Adrienne had passed her state boards shortly after her wedding; she was the first woman in Switzerland to be admitted to the medical profession. In 1936 she married Werner Kaegi, an associate professor under Dürr who took over his Chair of History at the University of Basel.
During the next few years Adrienne made several failed attempts to contact Catholic priests to inform them of her desire to convert. In the fall of 1940 she was introduced to Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (then a Jesuit), recentlyappointed as student chaplain in Basel. She told him of her desire to become Catholic and she was baptized on the feast of All Saints and was soon confirmed. Her family was initially shocked; it would take years for reconciliation to slowly take place. But she formed friendships with many great Catholic thinkers: Romano Guardini, Hugo Rahner, Erich Przywara, Henri de Lubac, Reinhold Schneider, Annette Kolb, and Gabriel Marcel. Her medical practice was very successful; she had as many as sixty to eighty patients a day.
Von Balthasar wrote that shortly after her conversion, “a veritable cataract of mystical graces poured over Adrienne in a seemingly chaotic storm that whirled her in all directions at once. Graces in prayer above all: she was transported beyond all vocal prayer or self-directed meditation upon in order to be set down somewhere after an indeterminate time with new understanding, new love and new resolutions.” This included “an increasingly open and intimate association with Mary…” Driving home one night shortly after her conversion, she saw a great light in front of the car and she heard a voice say: Tu vivra au ciel et sur lat terre (You shall live in heaven and on earth). This was “the key to all that was to follow” in her life.
The years following 1940 were filled with much physical pain (including a heart attack, diabetes, and severe arthritis and, eventually blindness), mystical experiences (including the stigmata), and a close relationship with Fr. von Balthasar, who became her spiritual director and confidant and with whom she helped found a secular institute, the Community of St John. She began to dictate works to Balthasar, including her interpretations of several books of Scripture (the Johannine writings, some of Paul, the Catholic Epistles, the Apocalypse, and parts of the Old Testament). Balthasar wrote, “She seldom dictated for more than half an hour per day. During vacations she would occasionally dictate for two or three hours, but this was rare.” The result was some sixty books dictated between 1940 and 1953. “Her spiritual productivity knew no limits,” wrote Balthasar, “we could just as well have two or three times as many texts of hers today.”
By 1954 Adrienne was so ill that she had to discontinue her medical practice. She spent hours each day in prayer, knitting clothing for the poor, and reading Bernanos and Mauriac, among other French authors. From her mid-fifties on, she was so ill that physicians wondered how she could remain alive. In 1964 she went blind; her last months were filled with “continuous, merciless torture,” said Balthsar, “which she bore with great equanimity, always concerned about the others and constantly apologetic about causing me so much trouble.” She died on September 17, 1967, the feast of St. Hildegard, also a mystic and a physician.
Balthasar wrote that the three characteristics of von Speyr that were most striking were her joyousness, her courage, and her ability to remain a child, having a childlike clarity and wonder about her. In Our Task (Ignatius, 1994), he provides this character sketch:
She was marked by humour and enterprise. She was like the boy in the fairy tale who sets off to experience fear. At her mother’s instigation she had to leave high school but secretly studied Greek at night by the light of a candle, so she could keep up with the others. In Leysin she learned Russian. After her transfer to the high school in Basel, she quickly learned German and at the same time took a crash course in English to catch up with the rest of the class. As I said, she paid for her medical studies by tutoring. Then there is her courageous readiness to stand up for justice. When a teacher struck a boy in the face with a ruler, she rushed forward, turned the teacher to the face the class, and shouted: “Do you want to see a coward? Here’s one!” On one occasion in the lecture theatre an intern gave an injection to a patient which promptly killed him. The intern falsely blamed it on the nurse and was defended by the professor. Adrienne got her fellow students to boycott the professor’s lectures for so long that he had to move to another university. It was precisely this courage, maintained in the face of the most extreme physical pain, which enabled her after her conversion to take on, for decade after decade, every kind of spiritual and bodily suffering, especially participation in the agony of Christ in Gethsemane and on the Cross. Indeed, when she realised its significance for the reconciliation of the world, she constantly asked for it.
How Does One Read Adrienne von Speyr?” by Hans Urs von Balthasar (First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, 248-9):
Faced with the quantity of her writings, many are at a loss; they struggle through two or three books and then, on account of the seeming endlessness, they lose the desire and courage to read further. For those I repeat what I said previously: something that has grown out of slow meditation is also properly absorbed only slowly and meditatively. This is especially true of the commentaries on Scripture; they are best suited as a preparation for one’s own contemplative prayer. One reads the verse of Scripture, then Adrienne von Speyr’s reflections on it, and uses them as ‘points of meditation’. For example, the Sermon on the Mount, the Passion According to Matthew, the Letter to the Philippians, and the Letter to the Colossians, the Psalms, and the Parables.
A different approach to her work is offered by her smaller, treatise-like works, which develop a special aspect of her theological vision. Before all others, the Handmaid of the Lordshould be read, then works of smaller scope like the Gates of Eternal Life, The Immeasurable God, The Face of the Father, and similar ones. From this point, the more extensive works like The World of Prayer and Confession are more easily accessible.
Ignatius Press has been translating and publishing many of the works of Adrienne von Speyr since the early 1980s. Here is a listing of her books currently available from Ignatius Press.
• Handmaid of the Lord
• John, Volume 1
• John, Volume 2
• John, Volume 3
• John, Volume 4
• Letter to the Colossians
• Letter to the Ephesians
• Light and Images
• Lumina | New Lumina
• Man Before God
• Mark: Meditations on the Gospel of Mark
• Mary in the Redemption
• My Early Years
• Mystery of Death
• The Book of All Saints
• The Boundless God
• The Christian State of Life
• The Countenance of the Father
• The Cross: Word and Sacrament
• The Gates of Eternal Life
• The Holy Mass
• The Mission of the Prophets
• The Passion from Within
• They Followed His Call
• Three Women and the Lord
• Victory of Love
• With God and with Men: Prayers
• World of Prayer
Books by Hans Urs von Balthasar about Adrienne von Speyr:
Related Book Excerpts and Articles:
• “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.'” (on Mark 10:6-9) | Adrienne von Speyr | From Mark: Meditations on the Gospel of Mark
• Nothingness and Limit | Adrienne von Speyr | From “Limit and Its Overcoming”, chapter one of Man Before God
• Selections from Lumina | New Lumina | Adrienne von Speyr
• Creation | Adrienne von Speyr | From The Boundless God
• Death, Where Is Thy Sting? | Adrienne von Speyr | From The Mystery of Death
• The Confession of the Saints | Adrienne von Speyr. Chapter 11 ofConfession
• Perceiving God’s Will | Adrienne von Speyr | An excerpt from Light and Images
• The Immaculate Conception in the Thought of Adrienne von Speyr | Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC (MotherOfAllPeoples.com)
Adrienne von Speyr, a renowned mystic and spiritual writer from Switzerland, was received into the Catholic Church at the age of 38 on the Feast of All Saints, 1940, by one of the theological giants of the 20th century, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. He became her spiritual director and confessor until herdeath in 1967 during which time Adrienne was favored with many gifts of authentic mystical prayer. Balthasar considered one of the central characteristics of Adrienne’s prayer to be her transparency to the inspirations she received from God, along with a deep personal communion with the saints. Over a period of many years, Adrienne would see the saints (and other devout people) at prayer, and she would dictate what she saw to Fr. von Balthasar–while she was in a state of mystical prayer. Through a unique charism, she was able to put herself in the place of various individuals to see and describe their prayer, their whole attitude before God. Not all of her subjects are saints in the strict sense of the word, but all struggled, with varying degrees of success, to place their lives at the disposal of their Creator.
This book presents these unique mystical insights into the prayer lives of many saints taken from Adrienne’s direct visions of them in prayer. Among the long list of saints in this book are St. John the Apostle, St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. John Bosco, St. Bernadette, St. Dominic, St. Edith Stein and many, many more. In this powerful spiritual work, the reader is able to participate in the devotional and spiritual life of the Church throughout the centuries by learning how numerous saints and devout people prayed, thus reflecting on the timelessness and beauty of the prayer of the Church.
“The Book of All Saints is a wonderful gift to the Church because it shows us how the saints pray and because it invites us–by contagion, as it were–to pray ourselves.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Visit the Book of All Saints website for more info, photos, and other materials.