Speyr, Adrienne von
SPEYR, ADRIENNE VON
Medical doctor, mystical writer, stygmatic; b. La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, Sept. 10, 1902; d. Basel, Switzerland, Sept. 17, 1967. She was born into one of Basel's oldest families and schooled in the Protestant tradition. A three-year bout with tuberculosis preceded her study of medicine. She worked her way through medical school to become a doctor in 1928. In 1927 she married Emil Dürr, a widower with two small sons, and a professor at the University of Basel. His death in 1934 drove her to the brink of suicide. In 1936 she married Werner Kägi also a professor of history. She maintained a busy practice, seeing up to 80 patients a day, until failing health compelled her to restrict, and eventually give up, her practice in the mid-1950s.
Interior Life. This active exterior was accompanied by an intense interior life. She records that as a child and
adolescent she was aware of the presence of angels, had encounters with ignatius of loyola, and a vision of the Virgin Mary. In spite of these extraordinary occurrences she suffered distress from the pain of her unfulfilled religious search. Her meeting in the autumn of 1940 with Hans Urs von balthasar, then chaplain at the University of Basil, and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism ended the quest which had thus far characterized her inner life. Von Balthasar, who became her confessor, writes of a "veritable cataract of mystical graces" which "poured over Adrienne in a seemingly chaotic storm" (Balthasar, p. 33) immediately after her conversion. Experiences of a mystical nature intensified. In 1941 during Holy Week she began experiencing the interior sufferings of Jesus. Von Balthasar attests to exterior stigmatization occurring in 1942. Her self-forgetting availability for the Word of God seemed to enable her to "travel"—to be transported in prayer to various parts of the world where she comforted the physically tortured and the spiritually suffering (von Balthasar, pp. 39, 40).
Mystical Writings. Von Speyr's meeting with von Balthasar marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship of mutual respect and cooperation which had significant impact on the life of each. Citing her extensively in some of his major works, von Balthasar repeatedly speaks of her influence on his theology: "Today, after her death, her work appears far more important to me than mine, and the publication of her still unpublished writings takes precedence over all personal work of my own" (Balthasar, p. 13). Von Speyr's understanding of her mission to establish a secular institute with von Balthasar was the occasion that caused him to leave the Jesuit Order. If she was an inspiration for him, she needed him as a catalyst in the moment of her conversion, and as a co-founder of the secular institute, but most importantly she needed him as a confessor who over a period of 27 years listened to her insights, wrote them down, and was instrumental in the publication of what to date includes some 63 volumes.
Meditative commentaries on the Bible make up a major portion of von Speyr's work, reflecting her conviction that Christian mysticism necessarily proceeds from Holy Scripture. Each word must be considered as containing the infinity of the divine Word, the entire Christ, the trinitarian source.
Experience, rather than scholarship in the conventional sense, is the basis of her writings which she composed in a state of mystical intensity, never remembering what she had already dictated. Thus it is not surprising that mysticism and the visionary have a predominant place in her work. In her commentary on the Apocalypse and in her two-volume work on objective and subjective mysticism (which von Balthasar has termed "experiential dogmatics") we find a systematization of her thought. In contrast to the Gospels in which "the truth of God assumed the form of a human being" (Apokalypse, p. 16), the vision takes place in a realm in which time is suspended, neither in heaven or on earth, but in an indeterminate third place. It reveals an absolute, not a "relative", "incarnational" truth, such as we find in the Gospels. As such it can only be revealed to a human being in a state of ecstasy in which the mystic "becomes a pure instrument of registering" (Apokalypse, p. 17). The defenseless availability of the mystic makes possible a perfect obedience to God and to her confessor, God's representative for the individual. Von Balthasar tells how von Speyr was granted the gift of testing the authenticity of mystics such as Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, and many others by "reliving them" when "under obedience" to him as her confessor.
Bibliography: a. von speyr, Apokalypse (Einsiedeln 1950); Das Wort und die Mystik (Einsiedeln 1970); Confession, tr. d. w. stott (San Francisco 1985); The Gates of Eternal Life, tr. c. sharp (San Francisco 1983). h. u. von balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, tr. a. lawry and s. englund (San Francisco 1981).