Adrienne von Speyr and the Sacrament of Confession
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Adrienne von Speyr e il Sacramento della Confessione
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translator:Community of Saint John
Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) possessed, in an unusual degree, the charism of prophecy in the Pauline and Thomistic sense: the gift of the Holy Spirit, not only to see divine things, but also to be able to present them, despite their breadth and depth, in a form comprehensible for everyone and useful for the Church. Of the approximately 60 works she dictated to her confessor, all those dealing with the interpretation of biblical writings or theological themes have been published and are available for purchase (as has the autobiography she wrote with her own hand).1
There is no area of dogmatics—from the Trinity, Christology, and ecclesiology to sacramental theology, the Christian life, and eschatology—about which she didn’t say something that was not only profound, but also often new and promising for theology. But just as Christian truth can’t be “systematized,” since God the ever-greater blasts through every system, Adrienne von Speyr’s vision of divine mystery, for all the sober transparency of her diction, cannot be reduced to a linear order. To be sure, the triune God is the all-governing principle, but he is accessible only through the mystery of Christ and the Church, which also means: through the fullness of God’s encounters with the world, sin, and conversion—encounters themselves mediated by the Son’s Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection and the Christian life in all its various aspects.
Adrienne’s theology, then, remains polycentric. Nevertheless, its holistic vision takes in certain magnetic points that gather seemingly disparate aspects around themselves, order them, and make them visible. One of these points is confession. It’s no accident that Adrienne—first as a child growing up in a Protestant household, later as a medical student and physician, and finally as a convert who at the age of thirty-eight finally met a Catholic priest ready to take her questions seriously and receive her into the Church—was always in search of the Christian denomination in which confession would have its true, evangelical form. She sought confession in all kinds of sects, in movements based on a public confession of sin followed by life as a “reformed sinner,” and among physicians who built the confession of sins into their therapeutic methods. She also tried to confess her own sins to others, but the attempt never worked. It was only on entering the Catholic Church that she finally encountered what had always been missing: the ministerial authority to forgive sins conferred by the Lord. But for her, this perfect form of confession was not only the endpoint of a quest. It was also the point of departure for a theological vision of unprecedented richness that finds its central expression in her book Confession2, though it also requires some of her other works for its complete development. Our purpose here is not to analyze the above-mentioned book in detail; it contains too many aspects that exceed the scope of a single article. We leave aside everything Adrienne spells out concerning the kinds of confession (confession as conversion, general confession, devotional confession, etc.), the individual steps in the act of confession, the persons involved (the penitent, the confessor, and his office), and the life flowing from confession. Our goal is to concentrate instead on three pillars supporting the entire edifice, three pillars that show the originality and the load-bearing strength of Adrienne’s theology.
1. A thread running through many of Adrienne’s works is her notion of the “confessional attitude,” which could be described as the habitual readiness to disclose oneself unreservedly whenever appropriate and needful. This readiness is very close to Ignatian indifference, which is ready to lay all its cards on the table before God, or to the Johannine teaching that “whoever does the truth (α-λήθεια = Un-verborgenheit = dis-closure) comes to the light” (Jn 3:21), or to the Pauline “everything that is brought to the light is light” (Eph 5:14). The opposite attitude, namely sin, is accordingly characterized as the lie. Self-disclosure is not an act that ends in itself, but one that receives its meaning in self-surrender, in love. Mutual transparency means mutual donation of all that is one’s own.
The ultimate ground of the confessional attitude can thus be found in God’s triune life: “God stands before God in the attitude befitting God. Using analogical language, one could identify this as a confessional attitude, since it is the attitude in which God shows himself as he is, the attitude out of which the ever-new situation of vision and love arises… God’s being is not stagnation. He is eternal, eventful life. It is blessedness for God to unveil himself before God … the joy of mutual communication that embraces two things at once: showing and being shown.” To be sure, we know of this Trinitarian mystery only through the perfect confessional attitude of the incarnate Son before the Father: “The Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he himself does” (Jn 5:20), while the Son says “all that is mine is yours” (Jn 17:10). The Son makes visible for us that his (“Adriennian”) confessional attitude, his (Ignatian) obedience, and his (Johannine) love are one before the Father. Jesus gives those who are his a share in this fundamental attitude. He does this by communicating to them a share in his sonship, in his birth from the Father, by enjoining on them a mutual love modeled on his total self-gift (cf. Jn 3:16), and by providing a remedy for their lapses into sin and falsehood: the gift of Confession that enables them to open themselves to a fellow human being endowed with divine authority in the Holy Spirit and, in so doing, to emerge into the light of God bringing everything that is dark in them. This last point already brings us to the domain of the second aspect of Adrienne’s theology of Confession, which also forms its center: the theology of the Cross.
2. Because it is falsehood, sin seeks concealment from God’s truth (cf. Gen 3:9-10): “Whoever does evil hates the light and does not come into the light” (Jn 3:20). On the Cross, Jesus does the opposite: He bears the whole sin of the world and shows it to the Father in an attitude of unchanged openness towards him. This is why we can speak of the Cross as the primordial confession, though we must add that, in laying sin bare before the Father, Jesus does not treat it as someone else’s concern, but approaches it as our brother who, far from disavowing solidarity with it, is resolved to drain its cup of darkness and alienation from God to the dregs. The source of this project is a decision of the entire Trinity to save the world—a decision which the Son makes himself available for in eternity (cf. 1 Pt 1:19) and which in the saving economy takes the form of a task given by the Father and an obedience rendered by the Son: “God (the Father) has reconciled the world to himself in Christ … and made him who did not know sin to be sin for us so that we might be made the justice of God in him” (2 Cor 5:19,21). The Cross is the primordial confession, then, on account of what makes it absolutely unique: Here, the sinner’s entire God-forsaken condition is suffered to the end in an equally absolute obedience of love, and in this event the truth (the truth, precisely, of what sin is and wreaks) proves more powerful than falsehood.
The work of the Son’s obedience is the glorification of the Father and his saving will in the world. It for this that he is glorified in the Father on Easter (Jn 13:31-32): The raising of Jesus is at the same time the absolution gifted by the Father to the world. It is thus eminently fitting that the sacrament of Confession be bestowed precisely on the first Easter: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive…” (Jn 20:22-23).
Thanks to the foregoing, sacramental Confession finds its place as part of the following of Christ. It contains something of the Passion—confessing has a penitential character—but the fact that one is allowed to confess at all is a gift of Easter grace. Adrienne von Speyr of course always thought in terms of the individual recipient of the sacrament (the problem of a general absolution without personal confession of sin couldn’t be an issue for her, since she dictated the book at the end of the 1940’s), especially since she saw the institution of the sacrament as the recapitulation and end of a long series of experiences with individuals on the part of Jesus. His contact with the sick, with sinners, with the uncomprehending (like Nicodemus) was always a personal one: It was this one’s sins that were forgiven, that one’s eyes that were opened… This contrasted with the Old Covenant, where God’s partner was always primarily the people: The people fell away from the Lord, the people begged for mercy, the people turned back to God, and so on, whereas individual personalities like Moses or the kings were only representatives of the people. To be sure, the individual imputation of sin and conversion, the pre-condition of any real ethical action, had come into focus at least since the time of Ezekiel. Nonetheless, there could be no sacraments in the proper sense before the coming of Jesus or his act of handing over his own essence and salvific destiny to his Church.
Confession, as Adrienne explains, is for the sinner, for those to whom other realities like the Eucharist are still too lofty, holy, and incomprehensible. “I have been baptized, but I do not live according to the rule of Baptism. I have been confirmed, but I am no apostle of Christ. I acknowledge everything the Church does for me, but it doesn’t seem to help. The saints are held up to me as models, but I myself am no saint. I live in sin. And as a sinner I can always claim the last word, Church or no Church. But when I am told that the confessional is reserved for sinners, it’s clear to me that here, at last, is a place for me. It is meant precisely for me. The kneeler was crafted just for me. Naturally, I can also grumble about Confession. But in spite of that I know it fits my actual situation. If someone talks about the communion of saints, it’s clear to me that I’m not a member. But if someone says there’s a communion of sinners and asks who belongs to that, then I know infallibly that I belong there.”
The surprising idea of a “communion of sinners” brings us to another fundamental concern of Adrienne’s. This concern is one that makes sense in light of our remarks concerning the Lord’s vicarious suffering on the Cross. It’s on the Cross, in fact, that the very sinners who, being universally ensconced in their egoism, seemingly form the opposite of a communion nonetheless find themselves already gathered together. The Cross also marks a shift in sin’s center of gravity, which no longer lies in the individual sinner, or in the guilty conscience he would like Confession to rid him of, but in the injury done to the Son of God. The object of real contrition cannot be the “I,” vexed with itself for having fallen from its own ideal, but can only be the One who assumed the guilt of this “I” and took it away. God has been offended: that is the truly horrible thing, and the fact that I, too, have contributed to the offense is only one aspect of the horror. What’s just been said explains why, in many of her works (as well as in her own spontaneous way of confessing), Adrienne so vigorously emphasizes the social dimension of Confession alongside the personal. We find the same emphasis in her portrayal of saints like Francis, who, in confessing his own sins, focuses much more on the offense done to the Lord than on his own person. This is true a fortiori of saints who didn’t have to convert from a life of sin. Think of Aloysius: “He confesses the distance” between himself and the infinite love of God, whose ever greater being is always beyond his reach. When Adrienne speaks of the social, she is not at all endorsing what usually goes under that name today: the idea of a sociological entanglement in objectively unjust economic and political conditions. Rather, what she has in mind is something belonging to the mystical Body of Christ, in which strictly speaking there is nothing private. Just as, in her view, something of the world’s sin inevitably enters into every confession of personal sin, every absolution received by an individual believer also inevitably extends beyond his person to affect the entire world in ways he cannot imagine. The same is true of Communion. No one can receive it for himself alone. Indeed, such solitary reception would blatantly contradict the very idea of communion, which is always simultaneously a communion with God and a communion with the mystical Body of Christ, whose boundaries no man can determine. Just as participation in the Body and Blood of Christ involves coming to participate in the Reality given up “for the life of the world,” so, too, participation in the Cross as the primordial confession sacramentally actualizes that encompassing absolution pronounced on Easter over the whole world Christ had reconciled with God.
3. There is a third and final aspect of the theology of the “confessional attitude” that we will only briefly mention here, since it is a part of Adrienne’s particular charism, albeit one that, while of course given “for the benefit” (2 Cor 12:7) of all in the Church, was not meant to be imitated or aspired to as such. I mean the gift she was granted of being able to see and describe the “confessional attitude”—and so the attitude of prayer—of individual saints and other ecclesial figures before God. This gift helps to bring out an astonishing fullness of personal variations: Every saint, even every Christian, bears something unique and unrepeatable in his relationship to God. But something else becomes visible, too: Even canonized saints reveal certain defects in their confessional attitude on earth, at least in certain phases of their development, and these are unveiled without any attempt at cosmetic retouching. This is to show that the confessional attitude is universally perfect in heaven, and that the heavenly Church makes something like a “confession” to the earth in order to instruct and admonish, but also to console, those still struggling for the right confessional attitude on earth. Certainly much of this remains mysterious: The ability of the blessed to look back untroubled on their earthly mistakes, and even to confess them before other members of the communion of saints, is a rather under-considered aspect of Christian doctrine. But this heavenly confession begins to make more sense in light of Adrienne’s account of the primal Trinitarian and Christological foundation of the “confessional attitude,” which also informs her frequent references to the “confessional attitude” of Our Lady: “She does not feel excluded from the communion of those confessing, since she participates to the highest degree in the confession of her Son. She is involved in the confession of every sinner at the point where the Son as man is perfectly transparent before the Father, and, perfect though she be, she remains in a constant striving after this ever-greater transparency.” And if we may speak of “striving” even in Mary’s case, how much more may we do so in the case of all the other saints, who in their diverse ways strove for this transparency here below?
There was another way for Adrienne to gain insight into the confessional attitude of the saints. She was charged with penances that became progressively harder until, in the final stages, they appeared “beyond reason.” She had to traverse these last steps in the spirit of different saints, and, as she did so, it became apparent that many let themselves be led in silent humility into this “beyond,” while others, facing the same difficult passages, faltered and refused to go on. Those who go to the extreme may wonder how God can go so far in his demand, but it is not for them to decide what God’s possibilities are. Mary Ward says during one such trial: “‘Ultimately, it’s not we who determine what God can and cannot do. And we ought to be happy if he takes away from us all fixed concepts that put limits on him.’ She wanted something bold and new. And she recognizes that God can be bolder still than she had imagined.” Jeanne de Chantal says, “It is hard. But I try to take it on and shift the weight of the trial. What’s hard is not in me. Let God test, I will obey.” Mechtild of Hackeborn says, “I’m sorry that I said earlier that I didn’t believe God could demand more. I should not have presumed to know where the limits of God’s demands are.”
These are only a few examples of a perfect confessional attitude. Faithful to her own idea, Adrienne believed a confessor could ask those under his care to confess whenever he thought it good for them to do so. For Adrienne herself, this was not a problem. Rather, it was merely the actualization of something already potentially—and even actually—present.