(extract from chapter 9, ‘Love and Fruit’ in Adrianne von Speyer, The World of Prayer (Ignatius Press; San Francisco, 1985))
Right now I am in the midst of reading nothing but Hans Urs von Balthasar for my doctoral work. It’s funny how reddresstheology has got out of step with my other reading, but there is so much I’ve read that I still need to share, and so much to digest before I can write sensibly about von Balthasar! For now, I’m still on the love theme for the blog, but it is by no means unrelated to Hans.
The following is an extract from a book written in 1951, by a woman mystic named Adrianne von Speyr, in which she describes the relationship between love and prayer. Adrianne was close friends with von Balthasar and he insisted on more than one occasion that his systematic theology should be read alongside Adrianne’s mystical writings. Her particular mystical gifts included numerous stigmata, healings and other miracles. Together she and Hans started a ‘lay’ order to encourage the total integration of faith, knowledge and a life lived for God. Their spiritual partnership is a crucial entry into understanding von Balthasar as a theologian – systematic theology cannot be divorced from spiritual experience, mission and ministry.
I’ve shared a large slab of Adrianne because it’s beautiful in and of itself and I found it such an inspiring piece of spiritual writing – a fabulous description of how we encounter love in prayer. This encounter is the gift of love as absolute value and essence (think Plato) through the reintegration of our whole selves with the ground of our Being – God. If you’re like me, you will bristle at the gendered language, but just take it as a reminder of the original context of the writing: post-war Switzerland in the Roman Catholic tradition. May Adrianne be a blessing to you today.
When God speaks out of love, his word is a word of love, and the person praying will try to receive and return it as such. It is remarkable that he often tries to speak a word of love to God, but rarely realizes in his heart that he is also hearing and receiving a word of love. In prayer he fulfills a kind of duty forgetting that that deepest meaning of this duty is love. Many people had the joy, as children, of praying with their mothers. Later on, life knocked them about, and they have forgotten how to pray. In some time of need they recall the warmth and security of their childhood prayers; perhaps they use their mother’s love as a bridge to get back to the love of God. But somewhere they get stuck in human emotion; they scarcely touch God’s sphere because they have forgotten to listen for God’s word of love.
If the man who prays knows that the essence of prayer is love, his attitude in prayer will be one of openness to love. He will try to be accessible to love: not by straining to catch special and extraordinary signs of love, but in a simple attention, not letting slip any proof of love which God gives, refusing nothing, misunderstanding nothing, whitewashing nothing, reinterpreting nothing. If he is a beginning in prayer he should be so inspired by the thought of love that he is never is a hurry, but takes his time. He may pause a while after each prayer, picking some thought, some idea, some word out of the world of love: However small and insignificant it is, he takes it into his daily life in order to fill that life with the love of God. In many ways modern man lives his life automatically. He at least ought to learnt not to pray automatically: He needs to rediscover a sense of wonder at the love of God, going on to impart a sense of eternity to his world once again…
God’s love is offered to men like an overflowing vessel from which they may draw. But there are different ways of encountering the love of God in prayer: Some are more central and others are more peripheral. Believers know that God is love and that the closer we get to him the closer we get to love. They know that, since he is love, this love is found at his very core, in the innermost being of his godhead, because in him this love is the very heart of truth. They also know that they too can be taken up into this central core. But as well as this – and perhaps in a more experiential way, through feeling – they know that they ought not only to become acquainted with the innermost center of love (indeed, they are probably not strong enough to resist this rushing torrent, this intense heat) but should also get to know all the scattered drops and rays which this love emits.
Every genuine life of prayer manifests two experiences: that of the central fullness and that of deprivation or aridity which, regarded as experience, seems peripheral. At some point the man who prays will be touched by some knowledge or experience of love which causes him to desire to come nearer the fountainhead and awakens in him the longing to be cast into the center. But it terms of tangible experience the center is the exception, an exception that becomes the rule that one can return to and live from the memory of what one once received. Such was Paul’s Damascus road, Ignatius’ conversion, Pascal’s “night” – and, on another plane, John’s Apocalypse, which is perhaps one of the deepest explorations of God’s center and which John himself found inexhaustible. All that he saw, heard and experienced here, all that he merely indicated as a background, was the center of the love of God, a center into which he was cast by his prayer. So the Apocalypse remains the experience of prayer kat exochen for all succeeding Christians, not because of it’s mystical quality, but in spite of it: Where the center is concerned, transposition into the mystical is only one possibility; by the Apocalypse belongs by right to everyone who prays, to such an extent that everyone can find nourishment for his prayer, and direct experience of the love of God, in the Apostle’s mystical experience.
Every praying person who loves and strives toward the love of God has his share in it. The love of God becomes everything to him, to such an extent that from it he can form his life decisions. Because God loves him he can take the risk of some particular surrender; because God loves him he can follow this or that path; because God loves him he can put up with a life which would be otherwise intolerable; because God loves him he can renounce the world and lead an apostolic life; because God loves him he can die as a Christian; because God loves him he can daily love his neighbour as himself. Everyone who prays is given such a share in love that it becomes his center, and his whole existence manifests traces of this central experience.