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The Immaculate Conception in the Thought of Adrienne von Speyr

Updated: May 29, 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 her work cannot help but be inspirited by her theological insights and orthodoxy. (32) Regardless of the fact that she was a woman who experienced all kinds of “private revelations” and mystical experiences, if her orthodoxy were in question would Pope John Paul II in 1983 have requested that an International Colloquium take place to study her thought? (33) The Holy Father, in an audience with the one hundred and fifty participants of this colloquium, gave them his blessing in the following words: “With all my heart I invoke abundant divine graces for the organizers of this Colloquium and upon all of its participants.” (34)

Adrienne’s Marian Thought

In light of all the above it only seems natural that when dealing with such a profound mystic as Adrienne von Speyr that the Blessed Virgin Mary occupy a central, necessary place in her overall thought and spirituality; for it is impossible to be an authentic Christian mystic without having a Marian modality in one’s relationship with the Trinity. The fact that Mary is at the core of Adrienne’s thought is clearly evidenced when one reads her works; (35) there is hardly a work in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is not mentioned, and most of these contain substantial treatments of various themes dealing with the Holy Virgin. Yet, as is the case with most of Adrienne’s work, her profound Mariological thought has gone relatively unnoticed—the exception being the theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar. (36)

It is worth noting that the only book in which Adrienne completely planned and saw to completion on her own was a book on Mary: Handmaid of the Lord. (37) This work was written in 1946 and published in 1948 as Magd des Herrn. Von Balthasar, besides being her spiritual director and noting that she possessed an “almost incomprehensible familiarity with the Mother of the Lord” (38) also noted that when seeking to do a systematic reading of Adrienne’s works the book, Handmaid of the Lord, should be read first. (39) This is due to the fact that Mary’s fiat is at the core of Adrienne’s spirituality and thought; any attempt at trying to understand Adrienne outside of a Marian modality will, in the end, prove to be a fruitless endeavor. (40)

The fact that Adrienne underscores Mary’s fundamental stance in relation to God as handmaid—though this in no way implies that she intended this relation to serve as a fundamental Mariological principle—serves to underscore her understanding that all of Mary’s various relations to God (mother, bride, daughter, etc…), and all of her prerogatives and privileges (Immaculate Conception, Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity, Assumption, Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix, Queenship, etc …), manifest the reality that Mary, as she herself states in the Magnificat (Lk.1:38), is and does all things as ancilla Domini. It is this notion, Mary as handmaid, which serves as the staring point of Adrienne’s theological project; this does not, however, rule out or exclude other fundamental approaches in the Marian thought of Adrienne; for example, Adrienne always presents Mary, whether in person or in mission, as a nuptial person—in this sense Mary is always the nuptial handmaid.

Thus, mindful that we are dealing with one of the most profound and understudied “Marian” mystics of the twentieth century, it only seems appropriate as we celebrate the anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to present and expose Adrienne’s thought on this singular privilege of Our Lady. In doing this, however, it must be remembered that Adrienne was not a systematic thinker in Marian studies; her thoughts on this topic are not, therefore, collected in one systematic essay or book. Neither are her various statements to be interpreted against a strictly scientific theological backdrop; Adrienne was not an academic theologian, and her works should not be read as though she were. On the contrary, because she was a mystic her expressions flow from the heart and were never intended to be placed in the same category as, for example, a strictly academic work in Mariology; this must be kept in mind throughout the duration of this article. Nevertheless, this work seeks to present her thoughts on this topic by employing a thematic approach that can be gleaned from her various writings on the Virgin Mary. From these writings I believe there are three specific areas where Adrienne has something to say concerning the Immaculate Conception: 1) Trinitarian Dimensions 2) Mission 3) Co-Redemptrix.

1) The Immaculate Conception: Trinitarian Dimensions

The Trinity is at the heart of all of Adrienne’s theological expositions. Whether she is commenting on the mission of the prophets, confession, the mystery of death, or some other theological topic, there is always a Trinitarian dimension involved. This also proves to be the case with the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

a) The Father and the Immaculate Conception

In most of the writings on the Immaculate Conception in past centuries it was often the case that the only persons of the Trinity mentioned in conjunction with this great mystery were the Son and the Holy Spirit. Adrienne, on the other hand, emphatically holds the Immaculate Conception to be a “matter of the triune God.” (41) Of course, past centuries would not have denied this dimension; (42) yet, it cannot be denied that God the Father seems to have been somewhat neglected in many theologians’ treatment of this subject. Most likely this “neglect” was due to the theologians’ desire to focus on the redemption wrought by the Son, and the sanctification achieved by the Holy Spirit—attempting to understand the sinlessness of Mary while trying to safeguard the divine prerogatives—without doing theological harm to either. It is easy to see, therefore, how the Father could be overlooked. One century after the dogmatic definition, the integrity of the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit having been safeguarded, Adrienne has put the Father at the forefront of the mystery.

Adrienne gets to the heart of the Father’s relation to the Immaculate Conception when she states that “in order to facilitate the Son’s work, the Father redeems the Mother of God in advance, so that she might be capable of giving birth to the infant Redeemer.” (43) This reveals that even though redemption is achieved by the Son, there also exists a redeeming role for the Father; the Father is not left out of the role of either redemption or sanctification. On the contrary, it is the Father who is the origin of both, though each person of the Trinity participates in a way proper to His person. To clarify this, Adrienne will state the following:

The Father gives the redemption of the world to the Son, and the Son accomplishes it. Both are one in their will to redeem, but not in a simple identity of will, insofar as the Son has a human will and suffers. It is therefore possible to make something of a distinction. (44)

Adrienne will affirm—as do all orthodox Christians—that “Mary is planned and created both from and for the Cross.” (45) There would be no Immaculate Conception without the Cross of Jesus Christ. Yet, due to the fact that the work of redemption originates in the Father, she will also state that “the hour of the Cross is the hour of the Father.” (46) What this means is that the Father is not un-prepared for the reality that will happen to His eternal Son on the Cross.

On the contrary, because of His fatherly providence in sending His Son to accomplish the redemption of the world, the Father makes preparations for the Son, even offering to the Son, as gift, the perfect fruit of His (the Son’s) redemption, namely, the Immaculate Conception. Adrienne describes this action of the Father in the following way:

Mary’s Immaculate Conception can be called a gift of the Father to the Son. Nonetheless, Mary is redeemed naturally, that is to say, she is redeemed through the Son. But within this resides something similar to the Father accompanying the Son’s work; a proof before the proof; an assurance, given to the Son en route by the Father, that everything will go according to plan. (47)

That the Father gives the Immaculate Conception as a gift to the Son as a fruit of His (the Son’s) redemption, and as a co-operator in the Son’s work of redemption, should come as no surprise to those conversant with sacred scripture. In the Farwell Discourse of Jesus disciples we are told that the Father has given to His Son, as gift, those that are to be redeemed and, as a consequence of that redemption, those who are to participate in the Son’s redemptive mission (Jn.17:18, 24). (48) Therefore, if the disciples are gifts from the Father to the Son, how much more the woman who was to bear Him and cooperate with Him in the salvation of the world! She would of necessity, as a pre-redeemed gift from the Father, have to be immaculately conceived in order to fulfill her maternal role of giving flesh to the second person of the Trinity. Concerning this, Adrienne makes the following observation:

With the mystery of her Immaculate Conception, Mary therefore stands at a point of intersection in the Trinity, because she is a gift both from the Son to the Father and from the Father to the Son; the Father is preeminent in this since it is he who gives her to the Son in order to be able to get his work underway in the first place. (49)

One last point that needs to be mentioned concerning Adrienne’s presentation of the role of the Father in the immaculate Conception, and this should come as no surprise, is the presentation of the Immaculate Conception in nuptial (spousal) categories:

In her Immaculate Conception, Mary has the distinctive characteristic of heralding the coming of the even greater purity of the Son and his divinity. She is like a wedding ring that the Father gives to the Son as a deposit to show that the work of redemption will succeed. The Father’s gift (the Immaculate Conception) gushes forth through the Cross, but does so like a special rivulet that flows from the Father into the Mother. (50)

In this understanding Adrienne presents the Father as giving the Immaculate Conception to the Son for the purpose of both divine motherhood and spiritual betrothal. In the spiritual betrothal sense the Immaculate Conception stands as both archetype and mediatrix of the spousal union that occurs between God and man. Mary, as the Immaculate Spouse of Christ, is ultimately what the Father desires all human persons to be transformed into as the result of His Son’s mission to die for the life of the world. The Immaculate Conception is simply the Father’s pre-redemption gift to the Son. (51) Ultimately, it is the Father who prepares and gives the bride to His Son. Once again, these themes are very consonant with the sacred scriptures. One has only to think of the various Patriarchs and how each of them prepared a bride for their son, for example, Abraham-Isaac/Rebekah, Isaac-Jacob/Rachel. (52)

b) The Son and the Immaculate Conception

Concerning the relation that exists between the second person of the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception, Adrienne