The Word: A Meditation on the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel

Prologue

Ignatius Press reissued Adrienne Von Speyr’s The Word: A Meditation on the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel earlier this year (it is available in paperback or Kindle).  It was first published in English in the 1950s.  The entirety of Adrienne’s commentary on the Gospel of John was later published by Ignatius as a four volume set in the 1990s. If you own Volume I of this series, The Word Becomes Flesh, this meditation on the Prologue is already included there. The set is in print.

The Word is a good introduction to Adrienne’s commentary on scripture, in terms of both style and substance. And if you had to pick just one work to read, it would be entire four volume commentary on the Gospel of John.  Its been a while since I read it, but the John commentary seemed to capture all the main points of her theology that is repeated elsewhere in her various books.

She apparently used her standard approach to meditations with The Word. She would read and briefly meditate on lines of scripture during the afternoon at her residence, and then dictate to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He said he made limited edits to what she gave him. One line of scripture would yield several pages of commentary on average. They would do this for half an hour a day for many years. She and Von Balthasar did tend to organize these commentaries in very long paragraphs, usually only two per page. I found I needed to focus more than I normally did when reading her works.

I will include an extended quote from the first chapter that I liked, which is all derived from meditating on John 1:1:

“In this sense the revelation of the Word of God always makes too great a demand upon the creature. At first the Word that God addresses to us looks harmless, like a human word. But instantly the fire within it begins to stir, insatiably embracing everything, demanding everything, consuming everything. At first the Word of God appears to be a word one can answer; it seems as though the balance between speech and reply could be maintained, But as one begins to understand that the Divine Word is eternally in the beginning, it becomes more and more clear that man’s starting point never reaches the point of beginning and falls farther and farther behind. Skill and art of a human kind can always be learned, even though the purpose of the first lessons may not be clear. But gradually we acquire confidence, survey the subject as a whole, and with practice learn to master it. In learning the language and the art of God, in contrast, our view of the whole progressively diminishes. All our supports are wrested from us, and what remains are an ever-deeper insight into our failure and an increasing longing. We lapse farther and farther into the beginning.

All human accomplishments develop in an orderly manner according to some method or following some plan. Anyone wishing to learn a foreign language adopts a definite method. We imagine we can approach the Word of God in the same way and grow perfect in relation to him. But as often our plan in relation to God seems to us to be bordering on the maximum, it turns out to be the minimum from God’s point of view, a method that has not even grasped the first word of God’s language. Our own program will call for the performance of maximum of devotions but a minimum of real devotion. We confuse devotions and devotion, offering God the former in order to withhold the latter. Our whole performance before God is a pharisaical program, the center of which is our own perfection, with the result that it is blind to the Word spoken to us, the ever-new and ever-unexpected Word. The whole of man’s progress consists in perpetual destruction of the human center thus making way for the ever-new beginning in which is heard the Word. For the Word alone leads to God and to the beginning. Man can be led to the beginning only if he himself is in the beginning. The only way to love is to overcome one’s own point of view.

Man lives in three stages: beginning, center and fire. But since man has no center in himself and may not have one, he is led by the Word into the fire, so that he may come to the beginning, which is God. Beginning and fire are one.”

(emphasis added)

A common point in Adrienne’s writing is that God is always the “ever greater.” This would seem self-evident to a Christian, but it leads her and Von Balthasar to express discomfort with the description of our life as a spiritual ascent, or with the notion of measurable progress. They tend to see our life as more like a descent or kenosis. There are no proofed systems of spiritual development.

The commentary on the “fire” and loss of one’s “own point of view” also points to Adrienne’s meditation on the particular judgment and Purgatory in this and different books, which I will include to demonstrate the consistency and unity of her writing:

“Stepping into the realm of his manifest reality, a man steps into his ultimate destiny and is so drawn into the eschatological fire … Fire is an essential trait of the triune God, who cannot endure anything impure and must devour it.”

“Our average view of sin on earth is anthropocentric, I am accustomed to fashioning and arranging my actions according to my own views. Now this has to stop. Self knowledge becomes unreliable, since all assessment has passed to God.”

“In the face of God’s radiant evidence, man says Yes, but this is not the yes of insight; it is the surrender of my sight to the way God sees things.” “Purgatory has, as it were, a great stratagem … the ‘I’ is so disintegrated that the ‘Thou’ gradually acquires contours; what comes into being is a ‘a hope’ (which resides totally in the Lord) which is the end of my knowing better and the beginning of my surrender. I have to be extracted from being with myself so that my ‘I’ can be ‘situated’ in God.”

From the Theo-Drama, Volume 5: The Last Act, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar quotes from Objektive Mystik, by Adrienne Von Speyr (yet to be published in English)

We will live in God’s truth, and not our own narrow viewpoint. We will have no need to ask any more questions as Truth is self-evident. We see with new eyes. The part about keeping God at a distance with a program of “devotions”, as opposed to true Devotion deriving from obedience to the Word …. I find reflective of my own experience.

As you read her works its like seeing a great structure slowly coming into view on the horizon. There is unity, harmony, connection. I do not recall contradictions. This doesn’t happen by accident across so many books if you are making it up as you go along.

I would recommend this for anyone interested in Adrienne looking for a representative work that is not too long.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Spiritual Reflections

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