Over at First Things, Maureen Mullarkey raises some long overdue questions about the relationship between the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, the woman whom Balthasar considered a mystic and whose insights he incorporated into his own vast and controversial theological project. Mullarkey’s essay is illustrated with a late-eighteenth-century print depicting a mesmeric exchange between a man and a woman, and she wonders whether Balthasar might have influenced her mystic states at least as much as her visions influenced his theology. Von Speyr seens to have dictated a second autobiography in what sounds an awful lot like a trance. Mullarkey writes:
A hyper-suggestible female susceptible to the ascendent will of an authoritative male is the classic stuff of the literature of parapsychology. In this instance, it is also an invitation to consider the power of theology to seduce and the ways of an eminent theologian to mesmerize. At the same time, it beckons a glance at the corresponding fascination of a theologian with a living mirror of—and prod to—his own transformative ambitions.
It has always puzzled me how a man of such prodigious learning as Balthasar could be so credulous when it came to von Speyr’s effusions. In her book Balthasar: A (very) critical introduction, Karen Kirby also wonders about the relationship. On the one hand:
What other theologian of the twentieth century has been so profoundly influenced by a woman, and acknowledged that debt? As we have seen, Balthasar described von Speyr’s thought and his own as two halves of a single whole; he put tremendous effort into transcribing and publishing vast amounts of her work; and at her prompting he left the Society of Jesus and made himself, for the central period of his intellectual life, something of an ecclesial and theological outcast.
On the other hand:
One could say, very briefly, that he is the channel [sic] through which she is available; we have almost no access to von Speyr except through Balthasar. And we can presume that her understanding and her articulation of her experiences was to some extent at least–perhaps to quite a significant extent–shaped by his intervention.
When in 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger gave the Erasmus Lecture for Richard John Neuhaus, he stayed around for a couple of days of conversation about the historical-critical method. During a coffee-break I expressed my reservations about some of Balthasar’s speculations and exegesis, especially his claim that Christ’s descent into hell meant that he suffered the pain of the damned. The Cardinal replied, “Oh, he got all that from Adrienne von Speyr and you know, she used to be a Calvinist.”
I have a further interest in a possible diagnosis of parapsychology. My maternal great-great-grandfather Charles Partridge, a very successful New York City businessman, was a leader of the spiritualist movement in the mid-nineteenth century; he even founded a weekly newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph, in which to publicize the messages received from the Spirit-world either by rappings on tables or by trance-communications.
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.