Omaha woman speaks at Vatican symposium
An Omaha woman had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share her insights about a 20th century mystic with more than 70 theologians, religious and lay people at the Vatican Nov. 18.
Kris McGregor, executive director of Discerning Hearts, an online resource of Catholic podcasts on evangelization and spiritual formation, spoke at the Nov. 17-18 international symposium, "Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967): A Woman in the Heart of the 20th Century."
McGregor said the opportunity to speak at the Vatican was unexpected. "It was very humbling … and an awesome experience," she said.
Titled "Adrienne and the Mystery of Mary," McGregor’s presentation in Rome focused on von Speyr’s writings on Mary’s spirituality and her "yes" to her role in God’s plan of redemption.
The invitation to speak came after a July 6-9 seminar and retreat at St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, where McGregor spoke about von Speyr. That event, titled "When the Christian Faith Takes Flesh: Journey with Christ Toward the World," attracted 45 people from around the country.
The Vatican learned of the seminar and McGregor’s presentation through another presenter at the Schuyler event – Father Jacques Servais, a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and director of Casa Balthasar, a house of discernment, both in Rome.
Held in the heart of the Vatican Gardens in Casina Pio IV – the home of Pope Pius IV – the Vatican symposium was co-sponsored by Casa Balthasar and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
St. John Paul II convened the Vatican’s first symposium examining von Speyr’s works in 1985. The latest symposium was supported by Pope Francis as part of his ongoing efforts to "lift up women in the church," McGregor said.
She recently spoke to the Catholic Voice about von Speyr’s mystical experiences, her Marian spirituality, her theological insights and how they can help shape the faith of Catholics today.
Q. Who was Adrienne von Speyr, and why was she important to Catholic thought and theology?
Adrienne von Speyr was born in 1902, and was a Swiss wife, mother, daughter. She was a physician and a woman who underwent a significant conversion, being received into full communion in the church in 1940 at the age of 38. She’s a highly relatable witness of the faith. And after her conversion – Father Hans Urs von Balthasar was the one who gave her final instruction and brought her in, and began to be her spiritual director and spiritual guide – she would begin to receive tremendous graces that would help her to break open not only Scripture, but important theological understanding.
This is not a woman who trained in school to be a theologian. In these insights, in this particular calling, in this listening that she was able to receive because of the graces of that full communion, she would become a foundress of a community called the Johannesgemeinschaft, which is essentially the Community of St. John, a community of women who are themselves laywomen and who are hidden out in the world, conveying that type of message. In the Omaha area, a similar type of institute might be the Pro Sanctity Movement that’s located in Elkhorn.
Q. Can you describe her mystical experiences, and how they shaped her faith?
Well, Adrienne described her mystical experiences to Father von Balthasar only, as her spiritual director, and under the seal of the confessional. They would gather 20 minutes a day out of her very, very busy day – again, as a wife, and a mother, and also a physician; she would see over 80 patients at times in her practice. But they would sit for 20 minutes and she would contemplate Scripture. She would be given a track of Scripture, or there would be some type of insight that she would have. And then she would essentially give that in vocal form to von Balthasar, who would then transcribe it.
And this kind of fits into a long tradition of female mystics, who have had priests or monks as their ... can I say, divine secretaries, to write this out. I’m thinking primarily of Hildegard of Bingen, who was very well educated and very literate, especially in ecclesiastical language. But she had a monk, Volmar, a Benedictine, who recorded her visions and wrote out her letters. So in those gatherings, her mystical contemplations would be communicated, and in essence, like her visions and her insights, always ended up serving the church.
Adrienne had a great passion, and as a believer had what might be called a thirst for catholicity. And by catholicity, I mean both an unreserved, joyful adherence to all of the teachings of the church, and an attitude of total surrender to the truth, upon which such adherence rests. You begin to see this in her writings about these mystical contemplations of hers. It always ended up serving, in a very objective way, a nurturing of that attitude in anyone who would encounter her writing. She would help nurture a Marian "yes" to the Incarnate Word.
Adrienne is one who goes very deeply into the transcendent nature of the soul, in this particular case, Mary. What were the foundation elements of her "yes"? What was the experience of her suffering? What was the truthfulness of her openness? It’s a very, very deep type of language, very steeped in mystery.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit more about von Speyr’s Marian spirituality, and what we can learn from it?
Well, that Marian spirituality, essentially, all goes back to the "yes." For many of us as Catholics, we understand that – the Annunciation. From that moment, when Mary said "yes" to the angel, who asked her such an extraordinary thing: "Will you be open? Will you receive? Will you be the bearer, the mother of God?" and she says "yes" wholeheartedly. That receptivity is the same type of "yes" that all of us are called to. That when we say "yes" to God, when we said "yes" at baptism, then the divine life comes and dwells within us. That is the nature of what it is to be a Christian. It is to be able to receive a sharing of the divine life – not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. Of course, we learned that from St. Paul.
That sharing in the divine life, which is the nature of the Christian life, is so often misunderstood today. Sometimes, when we talk about joining the church, we consider it almost like a membership in something. And we are a member, but we’re a member of the mystical body of Christ. And so, that appreciation of just what we said "yes" to, is really intrinsic. And we see Mary as that model. Mary, in her willingness to receive that mission, goes out and serves the world, and her readiness is to do whatever the Father’s will is. To surrender, to offer suffering, to journey with, to be totally ready to do whatever the Father’s will is. And in essence, that is what we are called as Christians to be able to enter into as well.
Q. Earlier, you mentioned her mentor, Father von Balthasar. Who was he, and how did he influence her?
Well, Hans Urs von Balthasar is considered one of the pre-eminent theologians of the 20th century. He has an incredible body of work, which for many, you can look at as associations. He was dear friends with, and mentored in a very real way, St. John Paul II – also a collaborator, dear friends with Pope Benedict XVI. His writings on the nature of God, the beauty of God, have influenced so many in his collaborations, along with the French theologians Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou – very, very influential.
When von Balthasar met Adrienne, he was a chaplain at the University of Basal. And it was upon meeting her and accompanying her as she began to have this incredible insight because of the graces that she was receiving, that it greatly influenced his understanding. And he would ultimately say that what she had to write, and what she was doing, was actually more important than all of his work. On the outside, no one even knew about her mystical experience. No one, none of her family, even had a clue this was happening as far as her mysticism, until after her death, when von Balthasar would publish some of those writings. So he is always pointing to Adrienne; if you want to see what a life steeped in faith and listening to God’s will looks like – look to Adrienne.
And again, she was someone who was very active in the world. She represents the universal call to holiness. This is what it can look like, and it’s happening every day in the lives of so many Christians. When you read von Balthasar, you can see elements of Adrienne throughout all of his work.
Q. Von Speyr wrote about 60 books on Catholic spirituality, many of which were very deep and challenging to read. But what would you say are some of her more accessible works?
I think the ones that she wrote and offered up to the public during her lifetime, in particular the Scripture commentaries, are absolutely wonderful. I would start with "Three Women in the Lord," or "Elijah," as entry points. "Handmaid of the Lord," her writings on Mary and Mary’s spirituality – also very, very important. Again, they’re not studies.
Pope Benedict XVI had described a type of mystagogy of prayer. There’s a certain pedagogy that occurs in catechesis that is a structure to learning the different truths of the faith. And once you’ve learned them, then you make the decision, "Yes, I want this." Then you ask for baptism, "I want to become a part of all of this."
And what ends up happening for the baptized Christian is that once you’ve said "yes," and you become a part, you’ve been initiated into mystery, when we’re initiated into the sacraments, we become a part of that, we enter into mystery. Pope Benedict says that once you’ve entered into that, especially when you’re reading someone like Adrienne, we are experiencing the mystagogy of prayer. We are listening to Adrienne pray, and encounter the one Jesus Christ, the Father, whatever her prayer is taking her into. And in turn, we learn how to pray and encounter ourselves. So this entrance into mystery is very, very important for those who have said "yes." All baptized Christians are called to engage in that.
And a very important book, too, is "Confession." Confession is a very important part of Adrienne’s spirituality; it is complete openness and a readiness to reveal yourself to God. And Father John Ricardo (a Michigan pastor, author and speaker) wrote the foreword for the new second edition of that. He said that was the most influential book in his priesthood. And he uses "Confession" every Lent, with all of his RCIA classes.
You can find these books at any Catholic bookstore, you can find them online, or through Ignatius.com.
Q. In summary, what do you think Catholics can take from von Speyr’s work and how can it help shape their faith?
I think it will lead them into deeper prayer and a deeper appreciation and a love for everything, that catholicity, the gift of that full experience of the Catholic faith. It is in that life in Christ. Every year, we will have (catechumens and candidates) come to a cathedral anywhere in the United States to meet a bishop on that second Sunday of Lent, or the first Sunday of Lent. Of those who come, studies have shown that a third of them, after they’ve been received into the church, have left the faith. They’re no longer practicing. And by year four, half of that number is gone.
We have Catholics who no longer fully embrace that complete willingness to live the fullness of the Catholic faith. And why is that? Because we’ve initiated them into mystery, and then we kind of abandon them. We’re very good at kerygma, announcing how wonderful Christ is and why it’s important that they get to know him more fully. We bring them into catechesis, we teach them and we teach them. And as exemplified by the catechism, we teach them about Christ, about God the Father and the Holy Spirit. We bring them into an understanding of the sacraments, and the moral life through the commandments.
Their appetites have been whetted; they’re ready. We receive them into the church, they’re being steeped in the fullness of grace like Adrienne was when she came into that full conversion at the age of 38, but unfortunately for an overwhelming majority of people, that’s it. And they no longer have that experience of what it is to be in that mystical body of Christ, and how to process all of that.
I think one of the reasons the church has taken the extraordinary step of not only bringing Adrienne forward once in the symposium 32 years ago, but wanting to bring her back once again, is because the church knows this is needed. People are questing for, you’ve heard it – "Well, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual" – they’re questing for mystery. There’s a hunger. Well, there’s nothing more spiritual, nothing more mysterious than the belief that bread can be turned into the actual presence, the body of Christ. There’s nothing more mysterious than an encounter with a God who loves us so much, will take on all of our suffering and die, and continues to work in our lives every day.
There’s nothing more beautiful than that. And once we can go deeper into that and begin to open that door of mystery, and to reveal that all of us in a very real way are called to that mystical encounter, and not to be afraid of that, I think Adrienne can be a wonderful guide.