Life and Mission
The lives of Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar reflected what they treasured most: their shared mission to renew theology with the spirit of prayer and to found a community devoted to praising divine glory in the heart of the world.
Two Paths Toward a Common Task
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) and Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) first met in Basle, Switzerland in 1940. It was here that Balthasar, a Lucerne-born Jesuit already known for his theological work, had recently begun to serve as a university chaplain. Von Speyr, a native of La Chaux-de-Fonds in French-speaking Switzerland, was one of the first female doctors in her country; she was also the wife of Professor Werner Kaegi, the chair of the history department at the University of Basle. Raised Protestant, Adrienne had been attracted to Catholicism since childhood. Her encounter with Father Balthasar enabled her to take the decisive step, and she was received by him into the Catholic Church on 1 November, 1940.
From that moment, Adrienne began to receive a torrent of graces. Balthasar, her confessor, would transmit these graces to the Church, editing and publishing over sixty volumes of her writings (as well as founding the publishing house Johannes Verlag for this purpose). Adrienne’s original vision also enriched Balthasar’s own writing, which consists of some 115 volumes that cemented his reputation as one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said of him, “He is right in what he teaches of the faith … a witness to the Word which teaches us Christ and which teaches us to live.” In 1945, von Balthasar and von Speyr co-founded the Community of Saint John, a secular institute for priests and laypeople called to unite presence in the world with consecration to God.
According to Balthasar, the deepest aim of the common work was “an Ignatian opening to the world … based solely on the Cross, the origin of all fecundity.” Ignatius, Balthasar believed, was the patron and teacher of a mission sorely needed today: that task of remaining in the post-Christian world while drawing on the inexhaustible riches of the Trinitarian mystery.
Ignatius found an ideal complement in the person of John the Evangelist, the model “companion of Jesus” who stood under the Cross alongside Mary. In the perfect obedience of the Son to the point of death and descent into hell, the Beloved Disciple saw the ultimate revelation of triune love and the deepest source of hope. It is no accident that the Eastern tradition calls John “the theologian” par excellence: He is living proof that theology exists only in an attitude of contemplation, adoration, and service.
“Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother”: As he hangs on the Cross, Jesus founds the first virginal cell of his Church. Hence the central role Balthasar and von Speyr accord to consecration in the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The counsels, for them, enable Christians to follow Christ in his total self-offering, and so to embody the spirit of the Eucharist at the heart of the world without abandoning the center of the Church shepherded by Peter and his successors.
According to Balthasar and von Speyr, then, these four saints––Mary and Peter, John and Ignatius––teach us to see the redemption as what it is: the restoration and crowning of the original goodness, beauty, and truth of creation itself. For them, Christ crucified is not an afterthought, but the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. And it is in his light, they assure us, that we can once again seek and find God in all things––especially in our suffering and wounded brothers.