The Community of Saint John
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translator:Community of Saint John
The Community of Saint John is built on an ocean of sufferings—physical sufferings, but above all interior ones: Godforsakenness, dark nights, descents into hell. The reader will discover all this in my soon-to-be published accounts of Adrienne von Speyr’s spiritual experiences. That Adrienne was the first to lay plans for the Community she would co-found with me is made clear by my book Our Task, which also presents a draft of the Community’s rule. The house erected on the “rock” of her suffering is built to weather all the storms that will inevitably rage both inside the Church and outside her (see Matt 7:25).
Why is John (whose entire corpus Adrienne extensively commented on) our chosen patron? Because he is the disciple of love who penetrated most deeply into the mysteries of the God-man and recognized the Christological identity of love and obedience vis-à-vis the Father; because he is the virginal disciple who was called to take the Virgin Mother into his home, to introduce her into the Church governed by Peter, and so to unite the “sancta immaculata ecclesia” (Eph 5:27) with the visible “apostolica ecclesia”; because he is a lover who, while remaining to the end (Jn 21:23), never puts himself forward (it’s Peter whom Jesus asks “do you love me more than these?,” including John), and actually ends up being pushed aside by the Church (3 Jn 9-10). It’s in his spirit that we treasure the evangelical counsels (poverty is pretty much self-evident nowadays), and it’s in his spirit that we try to take them as seriously as the Lord intends them to be taken in the Gospel.
We wish to be a “secular” community, because Jesus himself sends his followers exclusively into the world, where they are exposed like sheep among wolves. The fact that it’s harder to be fully Christian in such an exposed position than among fellow believers is something our Community embraces. This is true in all three branches, and it holds for our priests as well as for our lay men and women active in their secular professions. Whether he himself in a secularized parish or in a non-Christian professional environment, each member is called to play his part where he is placed. Though of course sustained and encouraged by his knowledge of having brothers and sisters in the same situation, he doesn’t try to disguise the evangelical solitude this situation brings, or to cover it over with an un-evangelical pretense that we are all “one big happy family.” Common life in small groups—especially for members of the women’s branch—is an ideal, but it is one that can’t always be attained. We meet for mutual exchange and support, although the priests, especially, do so only at longer intervals, so as not to disturb their collegial relationship with other members of the diocesan clergy. When our priests meet to discuss theological and pastoral issues, these gatherings are open to all their diocesan brothers, even when they are not members of the Community.
We resolutely strive to counteract the greatest danger facing ecclesial groupings in the wake of the Second Vatican Council: that of understanding one’s own movement (or sect) as the “only thing necessary,” and consequently, of wasting a disproportionately large amount of energy advertising one’s own cause. Nothing fruitful in the Church has ever depended on numbers, but on the credibility, the radiant witness, of the individual. Time and again, the Church experiences the truth of the Lord’s parable: The small measure of seed falls on good soil, where it makes up for every loss and brings forth fruit a hundredfold. We very consciously do not strive for power, either in the world or in the Church, but heed Paul’s words perennially true words: “When I am weak, then I am strong”; “God has given us Apostles the last place”; “we are like dying men, and behold, we live!”
We want our members to know and live the Church’s bi-millennial faith (which remains today what it always was) while being familiar with all the questions of the contemporary world. We are neither “right” nor “left”; such categories are inapplicable to us. So, too, are all political labels. We do, however, refuse to let our faith be watered down to the point of becoming apostolically ineffective. It is difficult today, especially for theology students, to survey the exuberant theological jungle with eyes wide open—which they should of course try to do—while preserving their life-sustaining enthusiasm for the incomparable subject: Jesus Christ. It’s similarly difficult for lay men and women to live in our society’s sexualized and atheistic cesspool without losing their appreciation of the fruitfulness of celibate life, but also without closing their eyes to the incarnational thrust of the Christ-event. Despite these difficulties, we refuse to live like Robinson Crusoes on some sacred island. Christianity, after all, seems to flourish best where it meets with opposition—as the experience of Eastern Europe is teaching us. Indeed, even in the West, the Catholic Church is on its way to becoming the only Christian body whose reputation can be blackened and besmirched with impunity (even Paul calls himself “the scum of the earth” in 1 Co 4:13). This, too, is a perennial implication of evangelical poverty that has become newly relevant again in our own day.
Naturally, we won’t refuse influential posts if they happen to come our way. But then we will be doubly on our guard against the dangers of power and dominion, and will not, as in the conquest of Latin America, bear the sword before the Cross. Engagement for the poor and powerless belongs to the core of the Gospel; the only difference between priest and layman on this score is the form such engagement should take. Full engagement is also demanded of each member, even though we know that “success is not a name of God.”
The whole edifice rests upon a theology our foundress experienced deeply in her life and gave unique expression to in her writings. In describing this theology, we should probably avoid the elusive term “mysticism,” since we are actually dealing with the charism of prophesy in its original sense: “the power to say what God is and wants—today.” Her life and writings are an inexhaustible reservoir for what Péguy called “ressourcement”: the act of drawing anew from, and being renewed by, the original source. We are convinced that the spiritual theology lived and formulated by the founders of the great orders—from Basil and Augustine to Ignatius of Loyola—is what guaranteed their members’ fruitfulness down through the centuries (and even millennia: think of Benedict!). By the same token, no other law can apply to the contemporary secular institutes. The good tree should be recognizable by its good fruits. But the tree—or the root or vine—is always Jesus Christ, who, for all his uniqueness, has the power to grant his chosen ones a share in being the vine, just as he’s able to give them a share in everything else he has and is. History shows how much prayer and suffering such vocations demand—just think of Saint Francis—and the diaries of Adrienne Von Speyr confirm this truth in their own way, even though Adrienne herself often worried lest anyone mistake her for a saint.
Our members sustain their engagement in the world by their constant personal renewal in contemplative prayer. It is thus that they, in their turn, become springs of living water for many thirsty souls.