Today we remember the death of the Swiss doctor and mystic Adrienne von Speyr. Born and raised during the early twentieth century in a respected upper-class family in Protestant Switzerland, in spite of the prognosis of terminal tuberculosis as a teen she became one of the first female medical doctors in the country and she had a thriving practice, where she saw between sixty and eighty patients a day and cared for the poor free of charge.to attain her chosen career as a physician. She founded the Community of St John with the theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar who published much of her 'mystical' commentaries after she died.
She was attracted to elements of the Catholic faith, from an early age. After the tragic death of her first husband, she suffered a crisis of faith and stopped praying the words “Thy will be done” in the Our Father. Her first husband had been a widowed university professor with two young sons and she helped to raise these boys, she was never able to bear children of her own. Two years after her husband’s death, Adrienne remarried. Her second husband, recognized that Adrienne had some extraordinary spiritual gifts, and encouraged by her husband she met the Swiss Jesuit priest Hans Urs von Balthasar ( pod of June 26) . He was would become one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century and had an extraordinary cultural and intellectual hinterland. He became her spiritual director and she confided her trouble to him and inability to pray ‘Thy Will be Done;, He responded by telling her that she give her consent not to what she thinks she can do but to what God can do with her if she lets him and this gave her great reassurance. After a brief period of instruction with Balthasar, she entered the Catholic Church in 1940, at the age of 38.
Her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1940, set the Protestant city aflame with gossip. Eventually, her sons and others in the family converted, too, under the influence of von Balthasar. She would founded a secular institute for lay people and priests with Balthasar called the Community of St. John although she also remained deeply involved in her own family and available to the many people, whether poor and needy or wealthy and notable, who came to her for advice and friendship. Von Speyr lived a very intense spiritual life and described her mystical experiences to von Balthasar as her spiritual director and under the seal of the confessional. He recorded both her visions and her dictated contemplations. She would share contemplative material with the community but not outside and Von Balthasar made sure that all von Speyr’s German publications received the imprimatur (see pod of Sep 6) . Her visions of hell and conversing with Mary, St. Ignatius and other Saints were kept quiet, even her closest family members knew anything about her mystical experiences until after her death. Then von Balthasar began publishing the rest of her writings. Her family knew that she spent nights in prayer, that she wrote journals and letters, that she had published a couple of small books, but they had never read them and were unaware of her mystical life. She was publicly known as a charming and generous woman who lived a conventional upper class professional life as well as a full and devoted family life with many friends among prominent Swiss surgeons, artists, journalists, philosophers, and theologians. No contemporaries questioned her sanity or accused her of hysteria.
The majority of von Speyr’s published works are biblical commentaries occasioned by her contemplations and her contemplative insights were for the Community’s immediate benefit. Her contemplations on the Gospel of Mark, for example, were written as “meditation points” for the lay sisters’ daily meditations. Thus, her reflections are not an attempt to explain concepts and doctrines in a comprehensive manner but are an invitation to the reader’s own contemplations with the goal of practical application. Von Speyr presented a perspective on the Son of God’s descent into hell which would become integral to von Balthasar’s own theological considerations ( pod of Aug 10) . Her four-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, has been growing in influence. Poet and playwright T. S. Eliot said of von Speyr's meditations on John, "Von Speyr's book does not lend itself to any classification that I can think of. It is not dogmatic theology; still less is it exegesis.... There is nothing to do but to submit oneself to it; if the reader emerges without having been crushed by it, he will find himself strengthened and exhilarated by a new experience of Christian sensibility." A popular Lenten devotional, The Passion from Within , can be read simply as a devotional. Some of her shorter books, such as Three Women in the Lord and The Cross: Word and Sacrament, or Man before God are not explanations of doctrine but meditations on man’s condition and his relationship with God through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. A good place to learn more about her life is von Balthasar’s First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr. Von Balthasar talks about her influence on his theology and her "experiential dogmatics "On the whole I received far more from Adrienne, theologically, than she from me.... As her confessor and spiritual director, I observed her interior life most closely, yet in twenty-seven years I never had the least doubt about the authentic mission that was hers.... [H]er work appears far more important to me than mine.... I am convinced that when her works are made available, those who are in a position to judge will concur with me about their value and will thank God that he has granted such graces to the Church in our time.”