What I learned about prayer from Hans Urs von Balthasar
Aug. 12, 2005, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. By any account he ranks as one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century. At first Balthasar was a rather isolated figure, with little influence on other Catholic theologians. He never attended the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert, for example, as many of his contemporaries had done. But since his death on June 26, 1988, his thought has become increasingly recognized for its remarkable erudition, daring innovations and solid grounding in the tradition.
Because I have spent much of my life trying to convey Balthasar’s massive achievement through translations, essays and monographs, I am often asked what first drew me to his theology. Actually, it was rather accidental. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1966 and came across a book by him titled simply Prayer. The first paragraph showed me that here was a writer who got down to business right away. The opening lines struck me as so relevant to my own experiences in prayer (or rather lack of them) that their author captivated me from the start. Here is how the passage begins:
Prayer is something more than an exterior act performed out of a sense of duty, an act in which we tell God various things he already knows; a kind of daily attendance in the presence of the Sovereign who awaits, morning and evening, the submission of his subjects. Even though Christians find, to their pain and sorrow, that their prayer never rises above this level, they know well enough that it should be something more. Somewhere, here, there, is a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up—a seed that has the power to grow into a mighty tree bearing abundant flowers and fruits, if only I had the will to plant and cultivate it.
Ah yes, I said, that’s me! Rote prayer I knew well enough from my Catholic upbringing, but when I entered the novitiate I thought there should be something more. Yet here I was, trying to pray one hour in the morning and a half-hour in the afternoon, but I was apparently still the same religious automaton I had always been. Balthasar seemed to know just what I was feeling: Christians, he said, often feel like a foreigner forced to speak in a language whose rules they have never learned, or a stuttering child who wants to say something but cannot.
Still, how was Balthasar going to solve the problem he had so accurately diagnosed? Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the problem resolved not just over the course of the whole book but in the very next paragraph! The point of prayer, Balthasar said, is not to learn some new way of speaking, a task as arduous as memorizing French irregular verbs. No, prayer is first an act in which we learn, in his words, that “our halting utterance to God is but an answer to God’s speech to us.”
This might sound all well and good, but how is one to pray in a language God has spoken, when one’s very aridity in prayer makes God seem so silent? Again, the answer was not slow in coming: “Just consider a moment: is not the Our Father, by which we address him each day, his own word? Was it not given to us by the Son of God, himself God and the Word of God? Could any man by himself have discovered such language? Did not the Hail Mary come from the mouth of the angel, spoken, then, in the speech of heaven; and what Elizabeth, ‘filled with the Spirit,’ added, was that not a response to the first meeting with the incarnate God?”
Prayer is first an act in which we learn, in his words, that “our halting utterance to God is but an answer to God’s speech to us.
Among other things, this passage explained to me why the Rosary is so popular. For it is almost entirely composed of these God-given prayers to help us in our need. Why worry about aridity or “experience” when we can resort to the Rosary when contemplative prayer seems to fail? Of course, Balthasar did bluntly assert in the first paragraph that prayer is something more than stereotyped formulas, and the Rosary is often considered to fall into just that formulaic rut. But as the book progressed, Balthasar explained that by interiorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary, one gradually learns to make use of the key privilege of prayer, what the New Testament calls parresia.
This term is usually translated “frankness” or “free speech.” But because of habits learned from a typically American devotion to the First Amendment, “free speech” does not really get at what the Greek term meant to the New Testament writers. Rather, true intimacy with God means we can be free to say whatever is on our minds. The Psalmist provides an admirable example of such bluntness; he feels no compunction about expressing his bitterness, sense of persecution, laments, sufferings, sicknesses and so forth. In other words, all inner movements of the soul are appropriate to bring before God—and that is true freedom.
After novitiate ended, I did not give much more thought to Balthasar (very few of his works had yet been translated). Then a Jesuit teacher of mine mentioned that Balthasar was at that time (in the 1970’s) working on a massive theological trilogy (Part I was eventually published in English as The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, seven volumes; Part II as Theo-Drama, five volumes; and Part III as Theo-Logic, three volumes) that would try to reverse the direction of Immanuel Kant’s three famous critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of [Aesthetic] Judgment. Kant, following in the wake of René Descartes, had begun by questioning the human faculties of knowing. Only after he had solved that problem to his satisfaction did he then go on to discuss ethics. Finally, almost as a kind of afterthought, he considered the question of the perception of beauty, which he tended to subsume into the concept of the “sublime,” that subspecies of beauty that leads to disinterested, unengaged contemplation.
I had been given a heavy dose of Kant during the required years of philosophical training leading up to ordination, and I had a vague and barely articulated sense that Kant was looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. My Jesuit teacher came to my rescue at this point, by explaining to me that Balthasar was deliberately trying to reverse that direction because of his realization that if Christians do not first perceive, prior to all apologetic arguments, the beauty of revelation, then they will not then be drawn out of themselves to give a proper assent to God’s revelation in Christ. That response is what constitutes Christian ethics in the real sense of the word, which deals primarily with our initial yes or no to God’s call; only secondarily does it deal with the precepts of the moral law. Finally, only in a life of Christian discipleship will we ever come to see the inherent plausibility of the truth claims of revelation. In other words, we cannot render a judgment on the truth of revelation outside of a prior obedience to Christ’s call, which will never come (at least in any lasting sense) until we first are drawn out of ourselves by the beauty of the life of Christ.
As mentioned earlier, Balthasar worked in relative isolation from the rest of the guild of theologians all the way up to his death, a fact he himself recognized. But for him at least, this was not due so much to the accidents of his biography (for example, he never earned a doctorate in theology) but to his anti-Kantian starting point: beauty. As he said at the outset of his trilogy: “Beauty is the disinterested one. It is that aspect of reality without which the ancient world refused to understand itself. But ‘beauty’ has now become a mere word; while beauty herself has finally now bid farewell, imperceptibly and yet unmistakably, to our brave new world of commercial interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.”
Christians have the obligation to hope for the salvation of all.
This vision caught my imagination immediately, but I was left baffled by the sheer immensity of the trilogy as it was then coming to birth. Even today I am left a bit nonplussed by the erudition upon which Balthasar drew to make his argument. Karl Rahner, S.J., once wrote the following about Balthasar as a tribute on the occasion of his 60th birthday:
He writes minute patristic monographs on the ancient Church Fathers and with the same scrupulousness does a commentary on an almost forgotten section of Thomas’s Summa and makes a part of the theology of Aquinas come alive again. But he can also sketch out magnificent collective portraits of the Fathers (on Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and others) as hardly anyone else can do. He has written an intellectual history of the nineteenth century.... [But above all] he is a systematic theologian, writing a theological aesthetics, the only one that has ever been written, a work that makes the bold claim of pointing out to theology its unique and definitive center. What he says about Christian eschatology, about the relationship between nature and grace, about the Catholic position on that modern Protestant Church Father, Karl Barth, about the theology of history, and much more—all that has become an integral part of contemporary systematic theology. He is a spiritual writer who writes about contemplative prayer, unlocks the Scriptures for meditation, gives a Christian interpretation to existential angst, and praises the Sacred Heart in a Christ-book of hymnic flight.
Karl Rahner has often been seen as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s great rival in Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council. This has a certain amount of justification and probably goes back to their different evaluations of Kant’s philosophy. (Rahner was a “transcendental Thomist,” a school of Catholic philosophy and theology that tried to harmonize Thomas and Kant.) But whatever their differences, both appreciated the other’s achievements. In fact, one of the very last quotations in the last volume of Balthasar’s trilogy (a short summary-volume called simply Epilogue) comes from Rahner, and the citation quotes him very favorably. Rahner had asserted that whatever the actual outcome of the final judgment (some to heaven, some to hell), Christians have the obligation to hope for the salvation of all. Balthasar explicitly agreed with this on the last page of one of his last books. Shortly after Epilogue was published, Balthasar died of a heart attack, three days before he was to receive the cardinal’s red hat from Pope John Paul II. So it turned out to be a nice touch that one of the last things Balthasar wrote included a final agreement with, and appreciation of, Rahner—as Rahner had always appreciated him.
Perhaps the time has now come, in this centenary celebration of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s birth, for the rest of the church to follow their example.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, 1905–1988
Aug. 12, 1905 - Born in Lucerne, Switzerland
Nov. 18, 1929 - Enters the South German Province of the Society of Jesus
1929–31 - Novitiate
1931–34 - Studies philosophy at the Jesuit philosophate in Pullach, near Munich
1934–37 - Studies theology at the Jesuit theologate at Fourvière, Lyons, France
July 26, 1936 - Ordained in Munich by Cardinal Michael Faulhaber
1938–39 - Works on the editorial staff of the Jesuit monthly Stimmen der Zeit
September 1939 - Returns to Switzerland after the outbreak of war
1940–49 - Appointed student chaplain at the University of Basel
Nov. 1, 1940 - Meets the Protestant physician Adrienne von Speyr, who converts to Catholicism under his direction
Oct. 15, 1945 - Founds the secular institute Johannesgemeinschaft (Community of St. John) with Dr. von Speyr
Feb. 11, 1950 - Leaves the Society of Jesus to guide and direct the Johannesgemeinschaft
Feb. 2, 1956 - Incardinated in the Diocese of Chur, Switzerland
Sept. 16, 1967 - Adrienne von Speyr dies
1969–72 - Member of the International Theological Commission, appointed by Pope Paul VI
1972 - Founds the journal Communio: International Catholic Review
May 28, 1988 - Named to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II
June 26, 1988 - Dies three days before the consistory