Sleeping at Sermons

When Soul-melting Sermons are Preached about Christ the Saviour, about the pardon of sin, about the glory of Heaven, there are some that would sleep under them . . . . Yea, some will sit and sleep under the best Preaching in the World . . . . Some woeful Creatures, have been so wicked as to profess they have gone to hear Sermons on purpose, so that they might sleep . . . (Increase Mather, Sleeping at Sermons)

A dozing congregant in a small New England meeting house would be hard to missa finger in the clerical eye. It is easy to sympathize with a minister’s displeasure at the provocation. (Easy, too, to enjoy Mather’s unintended window onto an endearing unruliness in the Puritan heart.)

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Puritans attending service in Plymouth, Massachusetts (17th C.)

Please do not count me among the wicked if I confess to . . . no, not sleeping during homilies. Not that. But I do defend against the lure of a catnap by coming to Mass armed with a book. No novels, no journalism. Nothing profane. I only take reading that Mather himself would call soul-awakening. It is my safeguard against sermons that could not melt butter let alone a backsliding soul.

My most constant companion is Henri de Lubacs The Discovery of God. It is a 1960 translation of Sur les chemins de Dieu, itself a 1956 recasting of an earlier work written in the crucible of World War II. The first was published in 1945, the year the Reich surrendered. It was the year of the Battle of the Bulge Bataille de Ardennes to the French of the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. It was the year Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung by Hitler’s order.

A slim handbook of thematically arranged quotations and reflections, the text is studded with passages to hold close in the spirit of prayer. These are deliberately fragmentary”marginal notes” the author calls them. De Lubac avoids all semblance of a theological treatise in order to prompt us toward an intimacy beyond the reach of systematic statements and analyses.

The text proceeds from Fnelon’s assertion: “What men lack most is knowledge of God.” De Lubac approaches the dual mystery of God and man from outside the conventional machinery of academic discourse. His own commentary interlaces with a treasury of observations the poetry of contemplative minds by Origen, Bernard, Hilary, Mircea Eliade, Paul Claudel, Anselm, Gabriel Marcel, John of the Cross, Aquinas, Martin Buber, many others. Each thread of utterances is self-contained, concentrated, and terse enough to grip wandering attention for the duration of a watery Sunday sermon.

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Artist Unkown. St. Ignatius Loyola Listening to a Sermon (late 16th C.). College St. Michel Fribourg, Switzerland

Simone Weil, her writing and her life engaged by history and politics, wrote the essays later published as Gravity and Grace at the onset of World War II. It is the book that brought her to prominence as a religious thinker and mystic. De Lubac cites it in a footnote, making use of her comment”We fly from the inner void since God might steal into it”to frame his own:

Man, alas, is above all frightened of God. He is afraid of being burned at his touch, like the Israelites who touched the Ark. That adds subtlety to his denials, cunning to his attempted escapes, and makes the pious inventive in devotional tricks to deaden the shock . . . . Whether incredulous, indifferent or believers, we compete with one another in ingeniously guarding ourselves against God.

Inventive in devotional tricks. That single phrase alone invites consideration. To accept the challenge of it is to leave oneself vulnerable to dismissal or angry dissent. I only wish de Lubac had risked answering his own summons.

His chosen extracts from Augustine are commanding in their brevity. The first, below, is exhilarating. The second and third could be taken as a chastisement against the assurance of theologians whose stock and trade is the discursive:

However far thought may rise, there is always further to go.

If you have understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God. If you were able to understand even partially, then you have deceived yourself with your own thoughts. ( Sermon  52)

Whatever is understood by knowledge is limited by the understanding of the knowledge . . . . If you have reached an end, then it is not God. ( De civitate Dei)

My favorite is a caution artists understand: that a certain clarity of thought can exist apart from language. Augustine, wary of the limits of language, phrased the intuition this way:

Have we said anything, uttered any sound, which is worthy of God? . . . A sort of battle with words ensues. Since if what is ineffable is what cannot be said, yet what can be called even ineffable is not ineffable. This battle with words is to be prevented by silence rather than stilled by speech. ( De Doctrina Christiana)

One aspect of this lovely book unsettles me. It is this: In all two hundred pages there is not a hint of the agony of its time. It was composed in Lyons during the years of devastating aerial bombardment by Allied forces over German-occupied France, between 1940 and 1945. (According to Andrew Knapps Forgotten Blitzes, a study of Allied bombing of Italy and France, Britain and the United States together dropped nearly eight times the tonnage of bombs on France as the Luftwaffe dropped on the United Kingdom.)

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The evacuation of these young bombed out evacuees was sponsored by the Comit Ouvrier de Secours Immeddiat, financed largely by the confiscation of Jewish-owned goods.

The absence of all recognition of the nature of the times in which de Lubac wrote both awes and confounds me in equal measure. The roads that run from God to man and from man to God pass through the killing fields of the day, through all the days before and those yet to come. Blood drips on the philosophia perennis. No theologian knew this better than de Lubac. Wounded during battle in World War I and active in the French Resistance, the man did not live detached from the broken moment to which he was called. Reading The Discovery of God , I regret his omission of any reference to the multitude of experiences, the demonic and contradictory context, in which these reflections were shaped and ordered.

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Rouen after Allied bombing in the spring of 1944

De Lubac admits only the confident complaint religious men are fond of invoking : “Man without God is dehumanized.” But does that hold quite so well as we think? History, including Christendom’s own, demonstrates that man with God is no stranger to dehumanizing impulses. Man in the name of God, man sealed with fervor for God, is poised to kill no less than console. Man, called into being by a God Who both loves and judges, hunts the infidel, hounds the reprobate. Made in the image of God from the dust of the planet, he distinguishes between the damned and the saved, discernment variable according to cultural preference. Man-with-God holds a double-edged blade, one side as ineluctable, lethal, as the other.What de Lubac so gracefully calls “the mark of God upon us” is, perhaps, a more fearsome thing than we permit ourselves to think.

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Yahya ben Mahmoud al-Wasiti. Teaching in a Madrasa before men and veiled women. Manuscript from Baghdad (1237). Bibliotheque National, Paris

It gets wearying, these pulpit and podium appeals to Love-and-Beauty. They point to the single keyhole through which we are counseled to view terrible enormities. The vacant and the monstrous. The horror of the void. Where is there room for the necessity the candor of dread?

I am left carrying my books.

Jihadist headhunters

Mystics, Mediums, Max & Moritz

An ornate chapel has been built on the peculiar alliance between Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr. Among pockets of the elect it is judged doltish, possibly wayward, not to attend services there. Or so it seems from some of last week’s email.

Permit me to say it again: Credulity is no friend to the truths of our faith. On the contrary, it discredits the uncreated mystery we are called to witness. Rather than serving to renew the faith, it undermines it. The Church gains nothing from Catholics who circle the wagons against a mild tug on the swaddle around von Speyr. Anyone quick to damn skepticism as calumny, or confuse fair questions with “aspersions” or “an attack,” acquiesces in the popular canard that faith is an enthusiasm averse to rational reflection.

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John Adams Whipple. Hypnotism (c. 1845 daguerrotype). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Theologians are scholars. By making cult figures of them, we exempt them from the give-and-take at the heart of every scholarly or scientific pursuit. The truth of things is hard won. This is not Delphi. Balthasar was no oracle; Von Speyr, no sibyl. The mystic and her publicist are legitimate subjects for discussion. Audit is a necessary stay against gullibility, one of Screwtape’s most durable tools.

Some groused that Idolatry of Devout Ideas psychologized the dead. Come now, is that objection not a bit obtuse in the face of Balthasar’s own spotlight on von Speyr’s emotional/psychological state? His First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr bares—quite unnecessarily—her sexual hesitancy. The detail is as suggestive as it is gratuitous, more appropriate for an analyst’s couch than the confessional. He reveals that, several times, he heard her call out “almost despairingly” for her mother while she was “dreaming.” A lapse of tact and of taste, the intimacy of the disclosure invites readers to wonder where Werner Kaegi kept himself during these mystic sessions.

Balthasar submits this oddment for our edification:

In grammar school and even in the higher grades, whenever someone had broken something, she had the habit of coming forward and taking the blame and the punishment for it herself so often that the teacher no longer believed her.

He chooses the anecdote as testimony that von Speyr’s foot was on the straight way to sanctity early on. Clinicians and alert parents might see it differently. Unripe messianic pretension is an unwholesome trait, all the more worrisome in a child. [Please do not email to remind me of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice on behalf of a condemned man. A vast gulf separates unsurpassable charity from girlish play-acting at martyrdom.]

That aside, what is Book of All Saints but an obsessive, sometimes cattish, catalog of pronouncements on the motivations of the dead? The text is a clotted analysis of the character and intensity of their “inner attitude” in the privacy of their erstwhile prayer life. Von Speyr presumes to inhabit their prayers, giving a posy here, a dig there. And tattling all the while. It is a distasteful séance.

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Greg Clarke. A.A. Milne’s Piglet on the analyst’s couch.

We can return to von Speyr’s post-mortem sessions in the by-and-by. Stay, for now, with the means Balthasar uses to usurp anticipated dissent, and to steer reception of her commentaries in a smiling direction. He adopts a style of argument common to art world apologias: criticism is equated with noncomprehension. It is a device that betrays the assumption that disagreement is, of necessity, baseless. Unsporting if not unscholarly, it gainsays the possibility that some demur precisely because they comprehend.

In his foreword to von Speyr’s The World of Prayer, the theologian ignores his own warning against a gnosis that “puffs up.” He pulls rank, patronizing those readers “who are less inclined to follow demanding theological trains of thought.” They are advised to read his introduction, then jump ahead to the “easier” chapters, standard-issue devotional writing. Herewith, an instance of the trinitarian thought that challenged readers are instructed to save until later:

. . . it is as if, in contemplating the Son, the Father always sees more and more what he, the Father, is; . . . he see thereby how the Son uninterruptedly accepts the gift of divinity, gratefully accepts everything from the Father, and in gratitude has become what the Father expected of him . . . . At first they have no other wish than to contemplate and know each other in worship.

Theologians can decide whether von Speyr’s language, laden with anthropomorphic projection onto the mystery of the Trinity, passes hermeneutical muster. Of interest to all readers, however, is that the trope of God worshipping God, God loving God, appeared years earlier in Simone Weil’s meditations. Dead at 36 years of age in 1943, Weil was not reading von Speyr. However, von Speyr, who could complete a French novel in one night (We have Balthasar’s word for it.) and, we are told, read her contemporaries—including Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—could easily have been familiar with Weil. So could Balthasar. It is no stretch to think so; on the contrary, it would be surprising if at least one of them did not.

Weil’s essential Platonism (“I came to feel that Plato was a mystic, and that all the Iliad is bathed in Christian light, and that Dionysus and Osiris are in a certain sense Christ himself . . . .”) and thoughts on beauty (“In the authentic feeling of beauty, God is.”) would have drawn the eye of the theologian. Weil’s political writing appeared in the 1930s. Subsequent writing, which took an increasingly mystical turn, were available in Europe from the late 1940s; obligatory in the Fifties and Sixties. She was a compelling figure in twentieth century intellectual life, a ready muse for von Speyr and her counseling stenographer.

Thematic and biographical correspondences between Weil and von Speyr—not least a precocious religiosity, fascination with conversion (unconsummated by Weil), and lust for affliction—present themselves for attention. The word impersonation indicates calculation and, so, should be discounted. But unconscious mimicry—susceptibility to bookish identities, and auto-suggestion—is quite another matter. It bears consideration.

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Wilhelm Busch. The teacher Lämpel in Max Und Moritz (1885).

Balthasar attributes bad faith to anyone who questions his account. It is a bullying tactic that intimidates without clarifying or confirming the matter under discussion. As of 1981, the earth still had not moved for von Speyr’s writings. They were in print but had been ignored or indifferently received. The theologian complains:

Up to now, no one has taken serious notice of her writing. . . . The few reviews of her book were mostly drab; no one was willing to compromise himself.

What did they say, those drab reviews? Did they glimpse the devil in the details that Balthasar advises us to ignore? Could they, perhaps, have noted that the writing was tedious, a repetitive blend of piety and bathos, the prose reading at times—but for the punctuation—more like the flat, affectless work of Gertrude Stein than that of a woman in a noetic state? Or was the feckless press simply not up to the task of recognizing her genius? Just how the word compromise applies is ambiguous; but Balthasar’s disdain is not. That brief sentence manages to convey that neglect was somehow a cop-out; something disreputable clings to it.

Balthasar’s foreword to the Ignatius Press edition leads with a preemptive strike against skepticism:

I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements. There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom “nothing can be which ought not to be.”

That quote from Herr Lehrer Lämpel, a cartoon Teufelsdröckh in the Max and Moritz stories, mocks dissent. Immediately recognizable, even endearing, to the German audience initially addressed, it deflects attention from the fact that no one, not even the dullest or most dishonorable skeptic, has a personal stake in von Speyr’s visionary status that is remotely equal to Balthasar’s. Everything we know of von Speyr, who wrote in obedience to Balthasar’s command, has his signature on it.

Whether Adrienne von Speyr was a saint or an unstable woman animated by an exaggerated religious ardor and “zeal for penance”—Trilby with a rosary—remains to be determined. What is clear is that Balthasar was acutely invested as a professional theologian in the nature of public reception of von Speyr.

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Anonymous. St. Diadochus of Photike (Photice).

Von Speyr’s posthumous surveillance of Diadochus of Photice, fourth century theologian, mystic, bishop, saint, is intriguing. It beckons readers to ask if she is speaking about herself, her own prolixity and the source of her own spiritualist communions. Balthasar’s cue to her divination appears in parentheses:

He prays, strangely, in batches. At one time with a great flood of words; then once again there are only individual words. . . . Then, once again, come effusions, many sentences uttered immediately one after the other, which press upon one another back and forth, because the words also form sentences, and the sentences can say so much.

(Visions?) Hard to say. Is it really a vision when prayer dominates so much that a person thinks he is having visions? When the word acquires such a fullness that it already contains the image and reveals itself thus as an image of eternity? He is a little like a small child to whom one tells stories and who from the start experiences and “sees” everything you tell him because it becomes so vivid for his imagination.

Note: One more thing needs to be repeated: My concern here is with the promotion of von Speyr, not with points of Balthasar’s theology. I am not in the business of determining heresy, who might, or might not, be in hell; who is orthodox, who is not. I am not interested in playing what Kierkegaard called “the game of Christianity.”

Any letters that insist on talking about B’s theology are off-topic and will be remaindered.

Idolatry of Devout Ideas

The name of Hans Urs von Balthasar has become a kind of a code word among Catholics. Like the password to a speakeasy, it signals membership in a confidential circle on sequestered ground. Nonmembers have to tread carefully. Signs to “Keep Off the Grass” are everywhere. The lawn is beautifully kept.

At the risk of tripping over those staked warnings, I have to admit a high degree of nonplussment over the writings of Adrienne von Speyr and Balthasar’s drive to promote them. I spent the summer with Balthasar’s First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr , her Book of All Saints , her Confession , and The World of Prayer, each with an introduction by Balthasar. A curious phenomenon, von Speyr. Curiouser still is the aura of mimicry—Simone Weil speeds to mind—and nineteenth century spiritualism that accompanies her story. Equally nonplussing is the hagiographic obscurantism that marks Balthasar’s presentation of his protégée and alter ego.

 

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Anonymous. Franz Mesmer’s “assistant magnetizer” practices Animal Magetism—or Mesmerism—on a patient. From Ebenezer Sibley’s A Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences. London (c. 1798)

 

What triggered interest in von Speyr was a passage from Balthasar’s own book on prayer which sets on a mantle shelf next to Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer . Of the two, it is Merton I turn to with any frequency. Merton wrote for wayfarers on their knees; Balthasar, for the podium. Despite occasional passages of true loveliness (“All faith is resurrection faith.”), particularly welcome allusions to Martin Buber’s I and Thou , his Prayer is more lecture than companion. Merton’s lyrical acclamation—“Alleluia is the song of the desert”—finds faint echo in Balthasar’s prose.

After stating, rightly, that contemplation must not “get stuck in the intellect,” but instead should result in “a touching,” Balthasar adopts a marital analogy. A strange one:

Love for her husband means that the woman can put up with weeks of loneliness at home while he has to be away on business; it may be that, as the years go by, her love for him enables her to bear bodily contact with him without revealing the effort it costs her.

Bodily contact is a squeamish euphemism. A woman’s sexual embrace of her husband—the irreducible heart of marriage—is depicted as something costly that requires “stamina.” It is a form of “humble service.” In other words, male desire is tolerated, not welcomed, by a wife. The depiction is wondrously close to the popular trope (“Lie back . . . .”) spun from an entry in Lady Hillingdon’s 1912 journal entry:
“When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.”

Is this what the theologian learned about married love by living with von Speyr and her second husband Werner Kaegi? Apparently so. Judging from First Glance, it is possible to hazard a guess that the mystic’s sufferance, like that of Lady Hillingdon’s, might not have been tested often.

Von Speyrs’s first marriage was to Emile Dürr, a history professor and widower with two young sons. Balthasar’s depiction suggests a narrative by the Victorian Mrs. Gaskell. Adrienne entered medical school aware that a man a woman had something to do with making a baby. Still, “in some inexplicable way, she remained unenlightened until her clinical semester.” Von Speyr met Dürr while she was a medical student. He was attracted. Friends, aware of her nescience, conspired to make a match. Von Speyr gave in to friendly pressure, less out of reciprocal feeling than “sympathy” for a good man and his children.

The physical aspects of marriage proved “distressing” and “strange” to her. It could hardly have been otherwise for a woman convinced that she had been marked by Mary and that “physically, she belonged to God.” Nevertheless, Dürr was “kindness itself.” (Too kind to press himself on a disinclined wife?) We are told that as the years went by—there were not many of them—she came to love him. Undoubtedly, she did. But did they share a bed? Had the good man been cheated, perhaps, by the nature of his wife’s sympathy? We are told only that they lived “harmoniously,” spoke together of God and, on vacation in Italy, prayed together in local churches.

Dürr died suddenly in 1934, leaving her with two stepsons. Her motherhood disappears summarily from Balthasar’s précis of her life. The boys plummet from sight, unnamed. Only their grandfather—Professor Adolf Baumgartner—earns a name by virtue of his acquaintance with more prominent names: Nietzche and Burckhardt. In 1936, Von Speyr married Werner Kaegi, who replaced Dürr at the University of Basel. Although Balthasar spent over fifteen years living under the same roof with Kaegi, he dispatches the mystic’s husband, his own housemate, in two scant lines: “His multi-volume work about Jacob Burckhardt is famous. He died in 1979.”

Never erased is the initial impression of von Speyr’s sexual reluctance. That, in addition to a fervent, not to say morbid, religious sensibility escorted by a pietistic disposition toward submission (her “Marian” character), begets the image of a woman exquisitely poised to fill the role of medium to Balthasar’s dominant spellbinder. Balthasar quotes admiringly the statement of one of Adrienne’s friends: “You are made for obedience.” Obey she did, producing two autobiographies at his request plus a flood of additional works dictated to him while in a dazed reverie. (In his forward to the 1981 re-edition of First Glance , Balthasar cites thirty seven in print at the time; Ignatius Press sets a total at sixty.)

The first autobiography was written by herself in longhand. The second appears to have been orated. In Balthasar’s delicate obfuscation, it was “very different” and “entirely charismatic in character.” His comment on the circumstances of this second narration merits attention:

My command enabled her under obedience to recount her life from the level of consciousness of her childhood and youth. She writes then about some of the same events [as those in the first autobiography], but also about other matters which she herself had completely forgotten.

Completely forgotten until under command of an authority figure and in a somnolent state? This points us toward the territory of recovered memory syndrome. Readers are left standing at the permeable boundary between fantasy and reality. Were certain of von Speyr’s memories reconstructed or invented? Her visions inspired or induced?

The impression of something insalubrious, askew, hovers over what is proffered as mystical insight. It is impossible to close Book of All Saints— which includes Balthasar’s verbal prompts to Adrienne in her visionary state without gratitude that the Church does not require assent to private visions. The sensus fidelium is granted latitude for good reason. Credulity does faith no service. And skepticism, too, can be a gift of the Spirit. An astringent grace.

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.

To be clear: Balthasar’s theological project is the concern of theologians. It is not mine. My own interest—unease, really— is with the selling of Adrienne von Speyr. It will take a posting or two to explore why von Speyr’s “mission” to restore and renew the prayer life of the Church earns a certain suspension of confidence. For now, it is enough to heed Merton’s warning against “the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings . . . the smug assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, and possess all the clichés of the inner life . . . .”