Losing Oneself and Finding God

I vividly remember first seeing Karl Rahner in 1964 at Georgetown University’s 175th anniversary celebration. A major symposium had been prepared, during which he delivered—that is to say, William Dych, S.J., read for him—the great lecture on the theology of freedom. Awestruck, I sat in the massive gym and watched him praying the rosary as Bill spoke his words. Over the next 20 years I came to know Father Rahner increasingly well, first as his student, then as a commentator and lecturer on his theology, then simply as a visitor and friend, walking the streets of Munich or Innsbruck, Prague or Boston, talking theology, swapping stories, ordering ice cream and the occasional Manhattan (he loved the cherries).

What was he like? Well, certainly he was curious, a man of endless questioning about even the simplest things of life. He loved escalators and roller coasters for their adventure and excitement. Once he tried a blood pressure test in a department store, which malfunctioned and set off an alarm. There was instant panic: the great man, it was thought, was having a heart attack. While in Prague in 1969, he walked through the streets of the city to see what kind of food was available in stores for ordinary people. Sober and sometimes distant, he loved children and, because he was also so down-to-earth and such a master of language, was fascinated by their play. When he returned to Georgetown in 1974 to receive an honorary degree, he was especially curious about the film “The Exorcist” (a hit that year) and engaged in earnest conversation about it over dinner with his Jesuit hosts—in Latin.


Even more, he was creative, for example, in bridging the worlds of neo-Scholasticism and the new church of the Second Vatican Council and the late 20th century, or in recovering the unity behind the different branches of theology—but also in appropriating radical ideas, on mystery or evolution or the future. Of Teilhard de Chardin he had read only La Messe sur le Monde and a few letters, yet he could reimagine, with astonishing creative breadth, “Christology within an evolutionary view of the world.” Of Martin Heidegger’s notion of mystery, he did not even remember, while I was a student with him, that there was one; but of course he made the holy mystery of God a centerpiece of his thought.

What else would one expect from a brilliant man, a genius really, so filled—inebriated even—with the Spirit of God? What else would one expect of a mystic? “Old men should,” indeed, “be explorers.” So he never stopped thinking, probing, wondering, teaching, learning. At Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., in 1979, when at a student forum someone asked him what role imagination played in his thought, I translated his answer as: “All knowledge begins with sensation.” He quickly, vigorously corrected me, thundering: “No, no, all knowledge remains bound to sensation!” When a Jesuit scholastic then asked him what we could hope for from the new pope, he thundered again: “You must get over”—this required no translation—“diese monarchische Monomanie!

Karl was also in a way childlike, with a certain innocence and naïveté about him. After being awarded an honorary degree at Yale, he told us back in Münster how disappointed he was that they had not let him bring “das kleine Hütchen” (the little hat) home with him. When, after cutbacks in the faculty of psychology, student protestors interrupted one of his afternoon lectures, he kept repeating from the stage until the 45 minutes were over, “Let me teach my catechism!” In an innocent way he was also delighted with the window in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, which shows him among the great theological reformers.

He was also surely, in his own sober way, caring. Asked once which characteristics he most admired in other people, he said simply: “Decency, courage, cheerfulness, helpfulness, fidelity.” There were countless letters with appeals for help of one kind or another, which he often answered by himself until his last days. And I remember well an older doctoral student who was lame and whom Karl more than once helped with a generous stipend.

Admiring courage, he was himself courageous, as a person and as a theologian. Trying quietly to mediate a reconciliation between Hans Küng and the Vatican, he bore with being treated, as he told me, “wie ein Hofnarr” (like a court jester). Furious that his friend Johannes Baptist Metz was denied a chair at the University of Munich after it had been offered to him, he wrote his stinging “Ich protestiere!” in the Catholic weekly newspaper Publik Forum. Again and again at the synod of the German bishops in Würzburg, he rose to plea for greater openness and democratic spirit in the church.

But it was above all in faith that he was courageous. Before all doubts (Asked by a bishop during a visit to America House in New York City, after a lengthy discussion of how little we can really be sure of, whether there was anything he believed certainly, he recited in Latin, from beginning to end, the Apostles’ Creed). Before the bleakness of life (a wintry affair to begin with and especially, he thought, for the church in his later years). Before the absurdity of death (Considered often an anthropological, or incarnational, or perhaps sacramental theologian, he was in fact, most of all paschal—not tragic, but paschal). Before the senseless surge of suffering that seems only more staggering with each accumulated century. Before all of this, he invited us to join him in throwing his arms around the crucified Christ.

How would he want us to remember him? More than once, Karl referred to his 1978 essay “Ignatius of Loyola Speaks to a Modern Jesuit” as his last will and testament. As he did so often in his later years, he used a bold literary device to challenge his order and the contemporary church. Clearly we hear his own voice in that of St. Ignatius.

Two points at least are crucial in the text. First, Ignatius speaks of the direct experience of God:

As you know my great desire was to “help souls,” as I put it in my day; to tell people about God and his grace and about Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen, so that their freedom would become the freedom of God. I wanted to bring the same message as the Church has always brought and yet I felt, and with reason, that I could put the old message in new words. Why was this so? I was convinced that first, tentatively, during my illness in Loyola and then, decisively, during my time as a hermit in Manresa I had a direct encounter with God. This was the experience I longed to communicate to others.... I experienced God, nameless and unfathomable, silent and yet near, bestowing God’s life upon me in divine Trinity.... I experienced God beyond all concrete imaginings. I experienced God clearly in such nearness and grace as is impossible to confound or mistake.

And so it was. Karl has Ignatius say that the first and foremost task of Jesuits is to guide men and women through the Spiritual Exercises, leading them to God. Then, second:

I wanted to follow the poor and humble Jesus and no other. I wanted something that does not come of itself, which cannot be derived from “the essence of Christianity,” something which the prelates of the Church and the higher clergy in the countries which still regard themselves as bulwarks of Christianity did not practice then and do not now. I wanted something that was not determined for me by the ideology of the Church nor by social criticism, even though both played some part. I wanted something that my foolish love of Jesus Christ inspired in me as the law of my life, with no deviation to left or right.

The only center there could be for Karl’s theology was God and the cross of his Christ.

In the l954 essay “On the Experience of Grace,” Karl urged us to risk the sounding of our depths. Listen to your experience, and to each other’s experience, he said repeatedly. “We will always be tempted again to take fright and flee back into what is familiar and near to us: in fact, we will often have to and will often be allowed to do this. But we should gradually try to get ourselves used to the taste of the pure wine of the Spirit, which is filled with the Holy Spirit. We should do this at least to the extent of not refusing the chalice when His directing providence offers it to us.”

And further:

The chalice of the Holy Spirit is identical in this life with the chalice of Christ. This chalice is drunk only by those who have slowly learned in little ways to taste the fullness in emptiness, the ascent in the fall, life in death, the finding in renunciation. Anyone who learns this, experiences the spirit—the pure spirit—and in this experience is also given the experience of the Holy Spirit of grace. For this liberation of the spirit is attained on the whole and in the long run only by the grace of Christ in faith.

Let each one of us, then, look for the experience of grace in the contemplation of our life, but not so that we can say: there it is; I have it. One cannot “find” it so as to claim it triumphantly as one’s own possession. One can only look for it by forgetting oneself; one can only find it by seeking God and by giving oneself to God in a love which forgets self, and without any assurance of returning to oneself. One should now and then ask oneself where one has something like this wholly emptying and, at the same time, vivifying experience.

To intimate the dynamics of this experience of self-donation—of kenosis, really—Karl strained language to its limits, ringing changes on a range of words at once ordinary and poetic. He spoke of our giving ourselves over to God (sich übergeben), of surrendering ourselves (sich hingeben), of giving or risking ourselves away (sich weggeben, sich wegwagen), of denying ourselves (sich verleugnen), of no longer really disposing of ourselves (nicht mehr über sich selbst verfügen), of letting oneself go (sich loslassen), of no longer belonging to oneself (nicht mehr sich selbst gehören). And he spoke of the moment when “alles und wir selbst wie in eine unendliche Ferne von uns weg gerückt ist” (“when everything including our very selves is torn away from us as if into an infinite distance”).

This sounds, of course, like Ignatius of Loyola, who at the end of the Spiritual Exercises suggests a final exercise to help the retreatant seek the fullest possible love of God by making “this offering of myself”: “Take, Lord, and receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. Whatever I have or hold, you have given it to me. I surrender it wholly to be governed according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. With these I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.”

But Karl had pressed the notion of self-surrender to the utmost, arguing that true emptying of self—as paradigmatically occurred in the death of Jesus—is done without the assurance of acceptance and embrace by God. Indeed, recent study of the Spiritual Exercises, according to a Latin text used by Ignatius, reveals that the text of the prayer above ends not with a request “only for God’s love and grace”—a not inconsiderable recompense—but with the barer request: “Give me love of yourself along with your grace, for that is enough for me.”

This is the man whose centenary we celebrate this year and whom I continue to remember as much for his personal holiness as for his genius and accomplishments.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 11 months ago
Thanks to Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., for his magnificent tribute to my former professor, Karl Rahner, S.J. (11/8). I was a student at the University of Innsbruck from 1958 to 1962 and witnessed firsthand the genius and humility of this great priest-theologian.

The church owes an immense debt to Karl Rahner, who inspired so much of the renewal of the Second Vatican Council.

While Rahner could be very serious and profound, he was also very gentle and gracious. I recall sitting with him in the exam room for my oral final. Here was a struggling young American taking an oral exam in the presence of this world-renowned theologian. He pardoned my nervousness, he repeated questions in German and Latin and, like a father, complimented me to give encouragement. The students rightly called him “Karl the Great.”

11 years 11 months ago
The article by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., reminiscing about Karl Rahner, S.J., (11/8) revived a personal memory from my seminary days in Rome about 30 years ago. My “house job” was to handle the ordering for the North American College bookstore.

The European publisher of Rahner’s Theological Investigations informed me that one of its volumes, already in circulation, had been misbound. I seem to recall that an entire fascicle was missing, and this was evident by a gap in the pagination. The publisher said that if I would call back the defective copies sold at the bookstore, they would be replaced, free of charge, with new, correctly bound ones.

As the many flawed books were returned, I could not resist checking the “gap.” Most of the owners had extensive underlining, highlighting, marginal notes, etc., from the bottom of the left-hand page through the top of the right-hand page. No reader had noticed the non sequitur caused by the missing fascicle.

In his recollections, Father O’Donovan observed, “Karl strained language to its limits.” In this instance, so did his readers.


The latest from america

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019
Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019