A Destabilizing Woman

Author: Jacques Servais, SJ

A Destabilizing Woman

Jacques Servais, SJ

The international conference on Adrienne von Speyr

“A Woman in the Heart of the 20th Century,” or we could say — following a symposium held late last year in Rome and at the Vatican — “at the beginning of the third millennium”. The attractive personality of Adrienne von Speyr physician, wife and mother, prophet, author of Scripture commentaries and of works on a variety of spiritual topics gathered around itself, fifty years after her death, about eighty participants coming from more than twenty countries: women and men, among whom were many young adults, largely either married lay people, consecrated or on the way to the evangelical life. Most of the presenters, too, were lay people (and married). With their testimony, or better yet with contributions that reflect a lively and prayerful faith, all confirmed just how fit Adrienne’s work is for nourishing the Christian life of whoever, like she herself, in an exceptional way is committed to a profession, taking on family duties, dedicating himself to the service of the poor and marginalized, not to speak of his various other obligations and personal sufferings through illness.

The vast resonance of this massive work, the fruit of a close collaboration with the theologian (and fellow Swiss) Hans Urs von Balthasar, is explained by its historical relevance for today. Adrienne, with profound, painful participation (not only interior), passed through the century of the “death of God , the radical solitude of man, the horror of the gas chambers. One finds in her work so much consonance with Pope Francis’ kerygmatic ministry: one need only think of the idea of confession as the sacrament of the merciful Father, or the image of the Church as “field hospital.”

As a physician, present at the two key moments in human life, birth and death, Adrienne teaches how to listen to every single person, with his drama and his wounds, with an attention that goes to the whole of his being, body, soul, and spirit, and becomes ‘com-passion’, an authentic solidarity before the Saviour: without any sense of superiority, with a vulnerable heart, open to let itself, like the Lord’s blessed poor, be embraced by divine mercy and be healed.

Lucctta Scaraffia underlined this clearly: contact with Adrienne is “destabilizing”; it forces us to leave behind our own schemas, to open ourselves to a greater demand, ever greater, excessive, even if it is always the sign of a tender divine “hope” for us, and this makes understandable the resistance that she has encountered and that continues to oppose a broad spreading of the message that she wants to communicate to the Church today. Here we touch on a central point of her charism. She brings us to an immediacy: standing before the living God who does not fail to interrogate us “down to the marrow” (Hcb 4:12). She brings us the Word of God unmuddied, not primarily as a concept, but as dabar, a word-event that unveils itself to us. Through her, Revelation takes on new life. To read Adrienne is to encounter the Word, without mediations. It is to encounter the Lord who calls to conversion today; it is to set out on the path behind Him and follow Him where one doesn’t wish to go, but in the end is extraordinarily happy for going.

Such a radical form of life surprisingly close to the spirit of Saint Ignatius, who by no coincidence was most dear to Adrienne, aims deep down at putting us in the attitude of the Handmaid of the Lord in listening to the Word, the attitude of Mary who is the living quintessence of the Church: sponsa Christi. Adrienne’s “feminine charism” is, in reality, at the heart of the Christian attitude: to give entirely of oneself and let oneself be expanded to make ever more room for the other, as a mother does when she welcomes the child in her womb and lets him grow within her, delicately and with courage. Everyone, not just woman, is called to this active “letting it be done”: to consent that the other, and most, of all God, enter into our lives and so, through us, into the world. The commitment to service of neighbour, of the one far away who becomes a neighbour, is what Adrienne lived with a rare fullness because she humbly entered into God’s commitment to the world: in the condescension of totally gratuitous love with which God the Father creates the world, and in the unimaginable love of the incarnate Son, dies on the Cross, and descends into hell in order to carry even into sin’s blackest darkness this love of the Father, to whom He always remains united in the Holy Spirit. According to Balthasar, the greatest gift that Adrienne received from God and left for the Church was to participate in the mystery of Holy Saturday: to follow the Lord into pure darkness, into the realm of non-love, where He remains in the obedience of love. Only with this kenosis can the Son bring the world back to the Father and so re-stabilize and renew the order willed by Father from the beginning. After Balthasar’s death in 1988, many symposia were held on his work in various parts of the world, but there, Adrienne’s work received little attention or was even totally ignored. After the symposium in Rome in 1985, dedicated to her ecclesial mission, this was, I believe, the first public event specifically dedicated to her.

Between Hans Urs von Balthasar and this woman with her multifaceted figure was a fruitful complementarity: she, coming from Protestantism, was able to reach parts of humanity little accessible to Christians, while the Jesuit priest, a cradle Catholic, opened up untrod paths in his dealings with the history of universal thought, in particular of secular thought. This is a complementarity all the more relevant for today in that it can illuminate the question of the man-woman relationship in the Church and in the world. Their testament is good news, especially for our time marked by confusion and fear: in the end, only if I receive myself from a good Father can I, without fear, live for the reason I was created: “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord” (Spiritual Exercises 23), which is then nothing other than true love.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 March 2018, page 11

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