Inside Christ's Mind at the Passion

The Passion from Within by Adrienne von Speyr (Ignatius Press, 1998, 156 pages, $11.95)

Serious students of the Church who know their faith and have not yet chosen a book for Holy Week may have to look no further. Adrienne von Speyr's The Passion from Within will provide a great accompaniment to the triduum. The insights the author brings to her account of the passion of Christ are so direct and provocative that it is obvious why Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was such an aficionado of her writings.

Von Speyr, a 20th-century Dutch mystic, brings an intense and urgent spirit to her many works about theological topics. It's a pleasure to see her works introduced by Ignatius Press to English-speaking audiences, both in the fine translations of Adrian Walker and in Sister Lucia Wiedenhöver's here.

Written as a narrative of Christ's inner dispositions and attitudes, The Passion from Within moves slowly toward the culminating event of Calvary. The book follows him as he “parts” with progressively more intimate and costly aspects of his life: his body in the Eucharist, his will in Gethsemane, his life in the end.

The author effectively applies lessons from Christ's life to the Christian's. For instance, she points out that, on Holy Thursday, “The Church receives the body of Christ before he suffers the Passion; only afterward will he go and deliver his body up to death. … [I]f the Lord had suffered first and then instituted the Eucharist she would not be able to share his passion; she would be at once the triumphant Church with the Lord's death lying behind her.” If that is the case, then our participation in the Eucharist confers a great responsibility.

She makes difficult parts of the Passion come alive with meaning. Her reflections on Gethsemane, for example, show the hardship and the momentous nature of Christ's acceptance of his Father's will. Here as elsewhere she provides enlivening detail. In the chapter titled “The Lord is Distraught,” she describes how Christ might have felt as he, sinless, made himself personally responsible for all sin for our sake. For he has now come into completely unfamiliar territory and, in a sense, loses his bearings: “What is that noise in the darkness? A mouse? Or a house collapsing? Or the world coming to an end? Every means of taking stock of the approaching disaster is taken away.”

Thus, her high “theological” tone is occasionally punctuated with a novelistic passage, allowing von Speyr to give life to her ideas about the Passion. Her reflections can be supremely relevant. She helpfully devotes a chapter to “The Role of Money in the Passion.” And she dwells on Pilate, pointing out that we are in greater danger of becoming like him than like Judas.

One important caveat: The author is an exciting writer, but she is not a theologian. If a theologian's project can be summed up as “faith seeking understanding,” von Speyr's might be “faith seeking experience.” For instance, she dictated the culminating chapters of the book in a state she calls “hell” — a kind of heightened awareness beyond natural possibilities, bearing all the signs of a trance, that puts her at the Lord's side on Calvary, and later with him in the tomb.

These chapters are the most difficult. Their claim to such a degree of intimacy with the Lord's thoughts is unsettling. Von Speyr has so far been very credible. But now she asks us to accompany her in reflections that can only be explained supernaturally. The reader can feel backed into a corner, unsure of how to regard what she says.

The chapter “The Institution of the Eucharist” says a great deal about the importance of this sacrament. The author sees an interesting twist on “the Word became flesh,” as Christ speaks the words that are now used in the Mass. To von Speyr, with this act, “the flesh became words.” The insight is interesting, arresting and perhaps profound. But she stays with the thought. “And now the Lord himself is startled in the face of these words. He shudders.” The reader wonders: Did he shudder? Was it because his flesh was becoming words?

Later in the chapter, von Speyr speaks of a “human trinity” in our Lord: himself, his eucharistic presence, and his body the Church. Then she lists questions raised by our faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These can give a bracing and refreshing reminder of Christ's real presence. Or they can confuse or mislead. “If he becomes bread that we can eat, does his life end with this meal? And since bread can be produced repeatedly: Does he come to an end when we eat this bread? Is it a symbolic death, or do we perhaps really kill him when we receive him into ourselves? Was all human life ordered toward this ultimate reality of bread that is being eaten? Is the prophecy of the passion concerned with … bread?” And so on.

This sort of “theological” reflection, where intuition and not logic leads to startling discoveries, is exciting the way dangerous things are exciting. It is exciting because of the raw power of the conclusions she arrives at. But it is dangerous because those conclusions rest on the coherence of the author's fidelity to Christ, and not on the coherence of an argument. The conclusions can't be disproved, because no proof was offered. In the hands of a gifted writer less faithful to the Church, such artistry could be destructive.

Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the Register.