Adrienne von Speyr: a Mystic for Today

by Dr. Matthew Sutton          September 14, 2012

Mysticism, spirituality. Reading time: 4 min.

On September 17, 1967, forty-five years ago, the Swiss Catholic physician and mystic, Adrienne von Speyr, died. Her life as a married woman with two step-children, as a gifted medical physician, and as a spiritual writer of many books has inspired many people to deepen their mission of prayer and compassion. Dr. Matthew Sutton, from St. John's University, is the author of a doctoral dissertation on Adrienne von Speyr. He shares with us his theological and personal encounter with the Swiss mystic.



Above all, Adrienne von Speyr's life was living in heaven on earth. This way of life continues to impress readers of Adrienne who see in her writings that the world and all its concerns are never abandoned by the Christian. All concerns of the world in their particularity must continually be placed into the universality of the Lord where they are transformed from finite enclosures into the infinite rooms of the Father's compassion.
In my personal and professional life, Adrienne has found me. You see, in Catholic academic theology, Adrienne von Speyr has often been ignored because of the towering theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a Adrienne's confessor and friend for twenty seven years. In my research as a Catholic theologian, I have always seen in Balthasar's theological writing an allowance for the mystical. When I discovered that the intensity of this allowance came from his friendship and collaboration with Adrienne, I wanted to know more about her and why he said that so much of his thought is already present in Adrienne in a "more immediate, less technical fashion." My writing, especially my forthcoming book, Heaven Opens: The Trinitarian Mysticism of Adrienne von Speyr, comes out of a desire to present the center of Adrienne's spirituality–the encounter with the compassionate countenance of God the Father through the suffering presence of his incarnate Son and the all-embracing power of the Holy Spirit. Using my academic study of Catholic Trinitarian Theology, I attempt to converge professional academic theology through an encounter with the mystics found in the heart of the Church.
Adrienne is relevant today because when you learn her life story, she seems so familiar and compelling. She was born in a upper-middle class home that was changed dramatically by the death of her father. Her intense struggles with ill health and an anxious mother did not prevent her from achieving great success in medical school. As a medical physician, she was deeply committed to compassionate, prayerful service to her patients while also living and enjoying her marriage and children. All the while, the Lord sought to deepen his relationship with her. When she entered the Catholic Church through the care and wisdom of Balthasar, everything changed in her spiritual life as the Lord took her to the most beautiful and difficult places of his love.

My work on Adrienne provided the bridge to Heart's Home. When I began teaching theology in New York City at St. John's University, I continued to develop my website on Adrienne and through this site was invited to coffee and cake with Fr. Gonzague LeRoux and Sr. Regine Fohrer. In both of them, I immediately met Adrienne. She was present in them –in their living in the Lord in the heart of the Church seeking the lost sheep through prayer, compassion, and presence. In them, I saw the deepest commitment to the forgotten of our societies who must be remembered through visiting them in their suffering–not through programs (as important as they are) but through personal, compassionate presence.

In my favorite book of hers, Handmaid of the Lord, we learn about living within Mary's "Yes." Compassion as a mission can always degenerate into a compartmentalized project of our own working. But, the way of Mary teaches us to say "Yes"  to the Lord and *his working* in us. This Marian "Yes" means that when we encounter someone who is suffering (or even our own suffering) we may not always have the right understanding, the right word, or the right action. And yet, imitating Mary at the Cross, we learn to say, "Yes, Lord, even here where I do not understand, I will be present here with this person, open to this person, and ready to receive this person as your own."
On the forty-fifth anniversary of her death, let us read one of Adrienne's central insights:
"As a sheaf of grain is tied together in the middle and spreads out at either end, so Mary's life is bound together by her assent. From this assent her life receives its meaning and form and unfolds toward past and future. This single, all-encompassing act accompanies her at every moment of her existence, illuminates every turning point of her life, bestows upon every situation its own particular meaning and in all situations gives Mary herself the grace of renewed understanding. Her assent gives full meaning to every breath, every movement, every prayer of the Mother of God. This is the nature of an assent: it binds the one who gives it, yet it allows him complete freedom in shaping its expression. He fills his assent with his personality, giving it its weight and unique coloring. But he himself is also molded, liberated and fulfilled by his assent. All freedom develops through surrender and through renunciation of liberty. And from this freedom within commitment there arises every sort of fruitfulness." (Handmaid of the Lord, pg. 7)