The Immaculate Conception in the Thought of Adrienne von Speyr

Updated: May 30, 2020

The following article, written by Fr. Donald Calloway, a member of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, “seeks to present the Immaculate Conception in the thought of one of the most understudied mystics and Marian figures of the twentieth century, Adrienne von Speyr.” Fr. Calloway, MIC, is the author of several Mariological articles and editor of The Virgin Mary and Theology of the Body, Marian Press, 2005.

On December 8, 1955, Pope Pius XII made the following statement in an allocution to the Catholic Relief Services: “In honoring Mary, in every thought of her, We do homage to the superabundant mercy and love of the Redeemer of men, all of whom He wishes to draw into union with Himself through grace and His Holy Spirit.” (1) Pius XII could not have chosen a better day than the Solemnity of The Immaculate Conception to mention the superabundant mercy and love of God; the Immaculate Conception is, indeed, the masterpiece of God’s superabundant mercy and love.

Yet, as we celebrate the anniversary of that blessed day, December 8, 1854, when Blessed Pope Pius IX, overcome with such emotion that he burst into tears, (2) dogmatically declared that the Holy Mother of God had been conceived without original sin—thus declaring her to be The Immaculate Conception (Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus)—we still have to ask ourselves whether or not we have taken full advantage of all the insights given to the Church over these last one hundred and fifty years concerning this unique mystery of God’s superabundant mercy and love, The Immaculate Conception.

Historically, after the dogmatic declaration, the second half of the nineteenth century offered relatively few new insights into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception; even such original thinkers as Matthias Joseph Scheeben (1835-1888) and John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) had only minimal new theological insights. As a matter of fact, most of the studies on the Immaculate Conception being done at that time were of an historical nature, offering very little by way of new theological insights. While the fiftieth anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1904 brought about a renewed interest in the topic—Pope St. Pius X even wrote an encyclical letter to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the dogma (Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum, February 2, 1904)—nevertheless, it would not be until the end of the second decade of the twentieth century that individuals in the Church would begin to advance new theological insights concerning this truth about Our Lady.

Undeniably, one of the most prominent and original thinkers on the Immaculate Conception during the early twentieth century was St. Maximilian Kolbe. His various writings on the Immaculate Conception were far ahead of his time and are, even today, considered to be some of the most provocative statements in Mariology (3). As the century progressed on, it witnessed the promulgation of an encyclical by Pope Pius XII that initiated a Marian year to commemorate the centenary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Fulgens Corona, September 8, 1953). Once again this action by a supreme pontiff, similar to that of St. Pius X in 1904, served as a catalyst for renewed interest in Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception; this is historically evidenced by the in-depth theological studies on the Immaculate Conception undertaken by the International Marian Academy in Rome from October 24 to November 1, 1954. The lasting fruit of this Congress was a ten-volume work by some of the most prominent scholars of the day. (4) It is truly an essential and invaluable resource for anyone interested in studying the Immaculate Conception. (5) Furthermore, shortly after this monumental event, such erudite figures as Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., (6) Fr. Urban Mullaney, O.P., (7) Fr. Juniper Carol, O.F.M., (8) and Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (9) offered stunning theological insights into this mystery.

In our own day, Pope John Paul II, a great Marian Pope, has expressed a desire for there to be renewed efforts in studies done on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, with the explicit intention of “investigating new sources . . . to draw from them further starting points for theological research.” (10) Regarding this desire, the Pope notes:

A suitable opportunity to intensify this commitment (to Marian studies) will be the 150th anniversary of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The two Pontifical Marian Academies, each in its own sphere of activity and with its own competence, are called to make their contribution so that the observance may be an opportunity to renew the theological, cultural and spiritual endeavor to communicate to the men and women of our time the meaning and the genuine message of this truth of faith (The Immaculate Conception). (11)

Therefore, ardently desiring to respond to the call of the Holy Father that there be investigations into “new sources” for Marian research, (12) the following article seeks to present the Immaculate Conception in the thought of one of the most understudied mystics and Marian figures of the twentieth century, Adrienne von Speyr.

Adrienne von Speyr: Life and Charism

In 1968, one year after the death of Adrienne von Speyr, Hans Urs von Balthasar noted that even though Adrienne had dictated well over sixty volumes of work and successfully published thirty-seven books, no one up to that point had taken “serious notice of her writings. No newspaper except Lucerne’s Vaterland deemed her worthy of even a brief obituary notice.” (13) Sadly, though thirty-six years have gone by, the situation has only slightly improved. (14) This seems almost impossible to believe in light of her gargantuan spiritual and theological achievements, profound mystical experiences, partnership in co-founding a secular institute, and overall influence on one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar. To this day, her insights into various theological fields remain relatively unknown among theologians, scholars and laity alike. (15) Thus, who is this mysterious figure that the modern world seems to have forgotten?

Adrienne was born in Switzerland on September 20, 1902 to Theodor and Laure von Speyr. Born into a Protestant (thought not very devout) family, her father was of German-Swiss descent and was an ophthalmologist; Adrienne’s mother, Laure, was of French-Swiss descent and was a housewife. Adrienne was the second child, having an older sister, Helen, and two younger brothers, Wilhelm and Theodor. The family was of good standing in the community and had a long history of well-respected occupations: bell makers, physicians, clergyman (Protestant), and businessmen.

As a young girl Adrienne exhibited an uncanny and perspicacious ability for learning; for example, she could read and write before she formally entered school. Her youth was like any other girls’ youth—playing with dolls, visiting grandparents, and taking time for tea parties. Yet, she never quite got along with her mother. Her mother was harsh, cruel and cold. Most of what she learned about religion came from her grandmother and from occasional Sunday school classes she attended. Interestingly, she always seemed dissatisfied with the doctrine of Protestantism, even expressing to a local minister the opinion that clergymen should be celibate; she even found the public-style of confession practiced by the Salvation Army quite distasteful and in need of being done privately, that is, one-on-one. Remarkably, despite that fact that her environment was often times quite anti-Catholic, she seems to have been predisposed by grace for a truly Catholic understanding of Christianity. As a matter of fact, when she was six years old she had an encounter with a mysterious man that later in life she would identify as St. Ignatius of Loyola, (16) and at the age of nine she gave a type of “lecture” to her fellow classmates concerning the Jesuits and their notion of reservatio mentalis. (17)

All throughout her youth and adult life Adrienne suffered from various types of physical difficulties: spondylitis, appendicitis, diabetes, tuberculosis in both lungs, arthritis, partial blindness, a heart attack and cancer. Yet, perhaps the “wound” that was the most intriguing was the one that she received when she was fifteen years old. In November of 1917—while still a Protestant—she allegedly had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels. (18) This experience left her with a mystical wound under her left breast for the rest of her life, the meaning of which would only become apparent when she met Hans Urs von Balthasar. This Marian experience would truly prove to be the beginning of a wonderful intimacy with the Virgin Mary that Adrienne would only fully come to know once she became Catholic. For the time being she experienced a type of “faraway tenderness for the Holy Virgin.” (19)

Due to her aptitude for learning Adrienne decided to pursue medical school. Though her family was quite opposed to this decision—female doctors were practically unheard of in Switzerland in those days—she eventually achieved her goal and became one of the first female doctors in all of Switzerland. In 1927 she met the widower Emil Dürr, a history professor at the University of Basel. Emil and Adrienne were soon married and living a happy life in their respective careers; Adrienne also became the stepmother of Emil’s two young boys. Unfortunately, Adrienne soon found herself a widow when in 1934 Emil died in an accident. She was left to care for the two boys, continuing in her occupation as a doctor.

In 1936 Adrienne married Werner Kaegi, the assistant of her late husband Emil. This was a happy marriage; however, as a result of her first husband’s death, she struggled with the ability to fully pray the Our Father, especially the words “Thy will be done.” Over the years she had made numerous efforts to try and speak to a Catholic priest but none of these attempts were ever successful. It was at this point—shortly after having suffered a heart attack in 1940—that she met one of the most learned men of the twentieth century, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar.

At the time of their meeting in the fall of 1940, von Balthasar was a Jesuit priest serving as the student chaplain at the University of Basel. This encounter would serve as the beginning of a friendship that would last twenty-seven years and prove to be, as the learned Marianist Fr. Johann Roten phrased it: “a psychological and theological symbiosis.” (20) After her death, von Balthasar himself adamantly insisted that her work was more important than his, (21) stating that after their meeting in 1940 their work “can never be neatly separated” (22) due to the fact that their common work comprises “two halves of a single whole, which has as its center a unique foundation.” (23) Thus, after 1940, it is truly pointless to try and disentangle their work. (24) Yet even in the light of such clear and unambiguous statements from von Balthasar there are some renowned scholars that still continue to be perplexed over Adrienne’s necessary place in von Balthasar’s theological project. (25) Some miss the point altogether. (26)

As divine providence would have it, it was shortly after her meeting with von Balthasar that Adrienne became a Catholic on the feast of All Saints, November 1, 1940. After her conversion, she continued to work as a doctor, seeing some sixty to eighty patients a day. (27) It was not long after her conversion, however, that she began to experience ecstatic flights, stigmatization, bilocation, vicarious suffering, and the Passion of the Lord during Holy Week. She began to go into ecstatic states where she would dictate (28) voluminously about such things as the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, and a plethora of other theological topics. Perhaps the most impressive of her dictations were those that are considered commentaries and/or meditations on sacred scripture. These biblical commentaries are simply stunning in their insights into the mystery of God’s Word. Von Balthasar, for his part, played a very important role in all of these happenings.

After leaving the Jesuits—he left of his own free will, yet under the guidance of von Speyr—von Balthasar lived in the Kaegi household in order to do his theological writings and be available for the dictations. Together they founded a secular institute, the Community of St. John (Johannesgemeinschaft), which was dedicated to living a consecrated way of life while living in the world. Their common mission and spirituality would truly be monumental and unlike anything of its kind in twentieth century thought. (29) As it turns out, the wound Adrienne received in the vision of the Virgin Mary in 1917 served as a source of vicarious suffering and spiritual fruitfulness in her common task and mission with von Balthasar.

Adrienne suffered heroically during the last years of her life. She began to go blind around 1965, and was only able to sleep for two or three hours a night due to nocturnal ecstatic flights. On September 17, 1967, at the age of sixty-four, Adrienne died. Her final words were addressed to von Balthasar, her long time friend and spiritual director. She simply stated: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” (30)

Undeniably, Adrienne’s ecclesial charism and mission have not been fully appreciated and understood. She remains a woman wrapped in mystery. Many do not desire to take her work seriously on a theological level because of the “private revelation” dimension of her life and work. (31) This is most unfortunate; anyone who reads