A TEACHING ON PRAYER
"The Christian stands and falls with prayer" . So said Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most prominent theologians of the twentieth century. What has made, and continues to make, Balthasar's theology so appealing to so many people is that at the heart of his theology is Christian prayer. In fact, Balthasarian scholars will attest to the fact that it is imperative when approaching his theology to know that his theology and spirituality are absolutely inseparable; indeed, they are intertwined, each flowing into the other. What follows is a short teaching on prayer as seen in the light of Balthasar's theology and in particular as it was influenced by his relationship with Adrienne von Speyr.
If we were to play a word association game using the word 'prayer' the associated words that may come to mind would be, something like, 'talking and listening to God.' This 'talking and listening to God' is without question an intrinsic part of Christian prayer, but for those who desire to grow in their relationship with God prayer must inevitably move to deeper levels. Prayer must become more than saying words to God, more than asking favors of God. Prayer, at some point, must deepen into a personal relationship and a dialogue. The Christian must come to the point when their prayer is a simple 'being with' God. And in this 'being with' God, the Christian must be willing to be moved by him and respond to him. What is at the essence of Christian prayer is not so much what we say to God, but it is our stance and posture before him in prayer which is really at the heart of it.
Von Balthasar was deeply influenced in his life, and consequently in his spirituality and theology, by Adrienne von Speyr. Von Speyr was a convert to Catholicism and she entered the Church under Balthasar's direction. She was, what we would call, a mystic. She was a deeply spiritual woman whom the Lord permitted to have deep insights and experiences of the mysteries of our Faith. Balthasar was her spiritual director, and under his direction Adrienne communicated to him her mystical experiences. Adrienne's experiences did not simply remain on the level of personal experience however. Her experiences were deeply imbedded with theological insights and teachings. It will serve us well now to look at her understanding of Christian prayer and to hopefully draw insights from it so that we too might grow in our prayer.
There are a few indispensable elements which we must keep in mind when looking at prayer in the writings and lives of Balthasar and von Speyr. For both Balthasar and von Speyr the model of Christian life and prayer is the Blessed Virgin Mary. This concept is absolutely indispensable for understanding their teaching on prayer. What is also very important in understanding their theology of prayer is that it is deeply informed by the theology of John's Gospel (love) and also by the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola (obedience). The spirituality of Adrienne von Speyr may be summarized in these words which Balthasar wrote of her: "(Marian) surrender to all that the Word of God can demand and to all it can offer to the understanding and (Ignatian) indifference impregnated with Johannine theology" .
According to von Speyr and Balthasar, what kind of stance or posture should the Christian have in prayer? This is not to be understood as a physical posture, but the spiritual posture of the person. Simply put, the Christian must strive to be like Mary. This is much more profound than it sounds upon first hearing. The person who meditates on the life of the Blessed Virgin will ultimately have some fundamental insights. Mary did not live for herself; she was the 'handmaid of the Lord' . Mary's life was placed completely at God's service. She was completely willing and ready to serve. She was both virgin and mother (virginally fruitful). She 'pondered' in her heart. These elements are indispensable for growing in Christian life and prayer. For Adrienne, the ultimate stance of the Christian in prayer is "a continual and complete movement away from oneself, in self-forgetfulness and virginal readiness for the Word of God" .
Let us look more deeply into this concept of 'self-forgetfulness and virginal readiness for the Word of God.' It must first be stated at the outset that self-forgetfulness does not mean self-hatred. It does not mean that the self must be negated in order to enter more deeply into prayer and relationship with God. Self-forgetfulness means not being preoccupied with self; it means turning away from "psychologizing introspection" and turning toward the Lord. A concrete example will suffice. Many times when we pray we are tempted to enter into prayer with a list of things that we must bring to the Lord. We are tempted to sit before the Lord and tell him our problems and ask him to give us an answer to this prayer or to give us an insight into this situation, etc. Again, these things are important for our prayer, but they are not the essence of our prayer. Von Speyr would tell us that the focus of our prayer must not be the self, but the Lord. Our primary stance in prayer must not be to 'figure myself out' or to 'get something out of it'; our primary stance must be openness before the Lord. We must go to prayer first seeking the Lord and his Will rather than on ourselves. Here, we see the example of Mary.
Self-forgetfulness flows into the concept of 'virginal readiness for the Word of God.' As Mary was not preoccupied with herself but was ready to serve, so too are we called to be like her. This concept of virginal readiness is so profound that we must take a few moments to speak more about it. Throughout the centuries artists have tried to depict for us the scene of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. Mary is always seen in prayer, at times she is depicted with her head bowed and her hands open. Art helps us to ponder this mystery more deeply. Her bowed head shows her humility and her worship of God, her open hands reveal her readiness to serve and to accept God's will. When Balthasar and von Speyr speak of virginal readiness they are pointing us to the model of Mary.
St. Augustine said that Mary conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived him in her womb. In other words, Mary as a faithful Jewish girl was expecting the Messiah and in her heart she had been preparing for his coming. In her silent prayer and meditation she received the Lord spiritually in her heart. Her virginal readiness is seen in its deepest sense in the Annunciation. Just picture the scene for a moment. Mary, the sinless virgin, hears the words of the angel "behold, you will conceive and bear a son" and she responds "behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word." Because of Mary's posture before God, her virginal readiness, she was ready to receive and to serve. But, it was God who prepared her; it was he who filled her with grace. She received the Incarnate Word in her womb, but it was God who initiated and made her fruitful. We too are called to be receptive as Mary was, but we must, like her, understand that it is God who initiates. We are to imitate her virginal readiness so that we too will receive the Word of God within us. Just as Mary was a vessel for Christ, so too are we to be his vessels.
Another Marian aspect that we find in Balthasar and von Speyr's theology of prayer is the concept of 'Marian consent.' We have seen that the posture of the Christian in prayer must be self-forgetfulness and virginal readiness, but there is also the element of consent that must be in the life and prayer of the Christian. Mary was ready to receive the word of God because she was completely open to his grace working in her life. But Mary's receptivity did not simply remain passive. Upon hearing the Word of God she acted on it and responded to it; she consented. Mary's virginal readiness led to her "yes." And Mary's yes effected all of human history! It is worth citing a rather lengthy passage from Balthasar to really grasp the depth of meaning here. "Why this beginning in Marian consent? Because Mary, in virtue of her unique election, is the only one capable of excluding from her yes every conscious or unconscious limitation-something the sinner always includes. She if infinitely at the disposal of the Infinite. She is absolutely ready for everything, for a great deal more, therefore, than she can know, imagine or begin to suspect. Coming from God, this yes is the highest grace; but, coming from man, it is also the highest achievement made possible by grace: unconditional, definitive self-surrender. It is at once faith, hope and love, it is also the original vow, out of which arises every form of definitive Christian commitment to God and in God. It is the synthesis of love and obedience - of John and Ignatius . "
Mary's posture before God, her grace-filled capacity to receive his Word, was necessary for her to consent to God's will. We learn another lesson here. As we sit silently with the Lord in prayer, virginally receptive to his Word, we are given the grace to respond to his Word. It is only by being open to him that we can consent to what he asks of us. As Balthasar wrote, Mary's yes was "the original vow, out of which arises every form of definitive Christian commitment to God." We are only able to commit to a vocation in life, to the mission which God gives to us, if we are virginally ready to receive from him all that he asks of us. Consent to God flows from our readiness to serve him; and readiness to serve him only comes from being in silent communion with him. We must know the One whom we are called to serve. This consent is not simply an act of service, but is a complete surrender of self to God and all that he asks of us. In a word, it is perfect obedience. In order to summarize this concept of Marian consent I will cite the eloquent words of Balthasar once more.
" The absolute identity between love and obedience is to be found in Mary, where love expresses itself in this will to be nothing other than the handmaid of the Lord. No light falls upon her, all falls upon God; no accent falls upon her consent, the entire emphasis lies upon God's Word. Pure transparency. Pure flight from self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word, and in this state of emptiness, obedience, poverty and virginity are all one."
The final element that I would like to focus on in the theology of prayer according to Balthasar and von Speyr is 'Christian fruitfulness.' It is no surprise that here also we look to Mary as the model. It should be clear that the concepts of self-forgetfulness, virginal readiness, and Marian consent are very much interrelated; in fact, they flow into one another. Christian fruitfulness is, then, the 'fruit' (no pun intended) of the Christian's prayer. Mary heard the Word of God and in her readiness to serve him she consented to be the vessel of the Incarnate Christ. We also learn a lesson from Mary giving birth to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. "Mary's consent is the archetype of Christian fruitfulness. Only with man's yes can God begin something of Christian, supernatural meaning. Only in this yes can the Son of God become man: at that time in Mary, and now, anew in each one who attempts to join in her consent" .
As Mary received the Word and gave birth to him, so to are we called to receive God's word and bring him to birth in ourselves and in others. When we unite ourselves to Mary's yes and consent to try to serve God as she did, then we will be fruitful in our Christian mission. This kind of surrender to God, however, is only possible through prayer rooted in self-forgetfulness and virginal readiness to receive God's Word. Here we see the balance between Martha and Mary, between the active and the contemplative life. There is no fruitful active life without a deeply rooted contemplative life. Mary's active consent (her surrender) to God and consequently her giving birth to Christ, flowed from her silent contemplation, her readiness of heart. The grace to respond to the vocation which God has given to us flows from prayer.
I have tried to choose some very important and practical themes on prayer from Balthasar and von Speyr. Although these points are theological it is obvious that they are the fruit of much prayer and meditation. It is my hope that the theology of prayer as found in the life and writings of Balthasar and von Speyr and as outlined in this paper will help to deepen our own prayer lives and help us to grow in deeper union with the Lord Jesus. If we look to Mary as our model and try to imitate her we can be sure that we will grow in holiness and in our love for the Lord.
St. John's Seminary / 127 Lake St. / Brighton, MA / 02135 / 617-779-4189
"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46)
Mike Najim, Seminarian, St John's Seminary, December 12, 1998
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