Getting to know Adrienne von Speyr: Mystic, author, and inspiring female role model

Von Speyr’s “theological understanding,” says Vivian Dudro of Ignatius Press, “did not come from formal theological studies, of which she had none, but from Scripture, sacraments, suffering, service, and spiritual discernment in obedience to the Church…”

Vivian Dudro is Senior Editor at Ignatius Press and author of many articles, reviews, and columns for various Catholic publications, including the National Catholic RegisterCatholic World Report, and Catholic San Francisco. She recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the life and work of Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967), who was a Swiss convert, mystic, wife, medical doctor, and author of over sixty books on spirituality and theology.

CWR: First, for those who might know little or nothing about Adrienne von Speyr, who died 50 years ago this year, what are some of the basic facts about her life and work?

Vivian Dudro: Adrienne von Speyr was one of the first female medical doctors in Switzerland. She had a thriving practice, where she saw between sixty and eighty patients a day and cared for the poor free of charge.

Although raised in a Protestant family, Adrienne was attracted to elements of the Catholic faith, even experienced aspects of the faith, I would say, 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. When she met the Swiss Jesuit priest Hans Urs von Balthasar, she confided her trouble to him. His response—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—gave her great reassurance. After a brief period of instruction with Father Balthasar, she entered the Catholic Church in 1940, at the age of 38.

Adrienne’s first husband was a widowed university professor with two young sons. Adrienne helped to raise these boys, but she was never able to bear children of her own. Two years after her husband’s death, Adrienne remarried. With the support of her second husband, who recognized that Adrienne had some extraordinary spiritual gifts, she and Father Balthasar developed a fruitful spiritual friendship. While in a state of prayer, she dictated to him more than 60 books on Scripture, theology, and prayer. She and Father Balthasar also founded a secular institute for lay people and priests, the Johannesgemeinschaft (Community of St. John).

CWR: When did Ignatius Press begin publishing her books and how many of her books has Ignatius Press published so far?

Vivian Dudro: When Father Joseph Fessio S.J., founded Ignatius Press 40 years ago, its mission was to publish in English the works of Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), Henri de Lubac S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Adrienne von Speyr. Ignatius Press has published 30 of Adrienne’s books so far.

CWR: What are some of her essential works? Is there a particular book you would recommend to someone who has never read her work before?

A good place to learn more about her life is von Balthasar’s First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr. As for her own works, I recommend beginning with some of her shorter books, such as Three Women in the Lord and The Cross: Word and Sacrament, or one of my wee-bit-longer favorites, Handmaid of the Lord and Man before God. Adrienne’s books are the fruit of prayer, and they demand to be read slowly and prayerfully. They are not explanations of doctrine but meditations on man’s condition and his relationship with God through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

CWR: This past year you’ve taken part in a couple of events focused on von Speyr, including a recent conference in Rome. What has been the focus of these events?

Vivian Dudro: The first event was a July conference in Omaha, Nebraska, which introduced about 45 people, men and women between the ages of 20 and 72, to excerpts from Adrienne’s works that correspond with themes in The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Most of the participants had not read Adrienne before, yet her words moved and challenged them.

The conference was organized by Father Jacques Servais S.J., the director of Casa Balthasar, a house of formation and discernment in Rome, and Kris McGregor, the founder and executive director of Discerning Hearts in Omaha. Cofounded by Father Fessio, Cardinal Ratzinger, and others, the Casa offers young men who think they might have a calling to the priesthood a place to pray and to study the works of von Balthasar, de Lubac, and von Speyr. Discerning Hearts runs a website and an app that offer free audio downloads about the Catholic faith. It has a series about Adrienne’s life and her first book, Handmaid of the Lord.

The second event was a symposium held at the Vatican in November. Organized by Father Servais and Lucetta Scarafia, a writer and editor for L’Osservatore Romano, it brought together more than 70 people from about 20 countries. These men and women—priests, religious, and laypeople—have either a background or an interest in Adrienne. Ten papers on various aspects of her life and work were presented, with the goal of making her better known and understood. Three consecutive popes—John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis—have appreciated Adrienne’s contribution to the Church. John Paul II attended a symposium on Adrienne 25 years ago, and without the encouragement and permission of Pope Francis, this year’s symposium would not have taken place at the Vatican.

CWR: What are some themes or topics that are currently being taken up by theologians and others who are studying her work?

Vivian Dudro: Adrienne von Speyr was an educated, professional twentieth-century woman—in short, a modern woman—who was graced with a profound understanding of being a Christian amid the concrete realities of life in the secular world. She therefore has much to offer Catholics in the present moment. Indeed, there is a sense that her hour, so to speak, has arrived.

Given that she combined the roles of wife, mother, doctor, and founder of a secular institute, I find her an inspiring female role model. My talk at the symposium focused on the feminine genius, described by Pope John Paul II, that I find in her works. She does not write of this directly, nor does she write about her own personal experiences (except in a memoir of her early life), but she often points to the receptivity, the responsiveness, and the expansiveness that are given by the sign of the woman (as bride and mother) and that are required of every Christian. These are the qualities that make room for God in our lives and thereby allow him to enter this world.

Two works of Adrienne currently receiving a lot of attention are Handmaid of the Lord (about Mary) and Confession (about the Sacrament of Penance). Both of these have been recently re-released by Ignatius Press with new covers and new forewords.

With respect to Adrienne’s mystical experiences, which have hindered some people from taking her work seriously, I would like to mention that she was no stranger to suffering. Emotional abuse by her mother, bouts of depression, tuberculosis, miscarriages followed by barrenness, untimely death of a beloved spouse, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and finally blindness—all of these were seen by Adrienne (though not without struggle) as ways to draw closer to God and to intercede for others. She understood the power of vicarious, redemptive suffering even as a young girl, when she asked if she could bear a little boy’s blindness for a day so that he could see. During World War II and the Holocaust, she accepted suffering so as to relieve suffering, in imitation of Christ. It should not be surprising that such a magnanimous soul received many special graces.

CWR: Von Speyr’s life and writing were closely tied (as you’ve noted) to the work of her spiritual director, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, who stated, “On the whole I received far more from Adrienne, theologically, than she from me.” What do you think he meant by that?

Vivian Dudro: Von Balthasar was a genius—a man of great intellect, talent (including musical talent), and learning. He was also a spiritual man in deep communion with Christ and his Church. My sense is that he saw in Adrienne a personal and frank relationship with God that gave her a heightened receptivity to his Word and an intense and courageous willingness to serve him. She too was an intellectual giant (she taught herself Greek and Russian, for example, and led classes in medical school when her professor was ill). Among her friends were some of the Catholic luminaries of her day (such as Romano Guardini, Hugo Rahner S.J., Henri de Lubac, Reinhold Schneider, and Gabriel Marcel).

Yet Adrienne’s theological understanding did not come from formal theological studies, of which she had none, but from Scripture, sacraments, suffering, service, and spiritual discernment in obedience to the Church—avenues of wisdom that are open to anyone with faith enough to pray.

About Carl E. Olson 1077 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

7 Comments

  1. Her writings, ( used copies can be purchased for a fraction of the cost on Amazon for those with limited financial means) have been critical in leading me on a deeper faith journey and have served as spiritually rich commentary alongside the daily lectionary readings.

    • Thanks for the links!

      Benedict XVI in “Last Testament – in his own words”, an admirer of Von Balthasar, puts himself at a distance from Von Speyr (p.148).

      • I think it is of a little value to post either links from web search engines or references to page numbers in some books.
        As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with Speyr.
        If someone found something suspicious, it would be great to share it, but to read through some book only to find that someone put something out of a context… Generally, it is not worth of a time.

        Another great material (briefly mentioned in article) is Discerning heart’s series with Adrien Walker, editor of English edition of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth and editor of Communio:
        http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/a-handmaid-of-the-lord/

        • “I think it is of a little value to post either links from web search engines or references to page numbers in some books.”
          And I, on the other hand, think each must be weighed on its merits, not on whether you think they are of value or not.

    • Thank you. This writing of Martin is most excellent! If in the end God will “outwit” human freedom, why didn’t he just do that from the beginning? Was not the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ enough mercy for Baltharzar?

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