Prayer (Hans Urs von Balthasar)

Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar

This book was recommended to me by a reader: Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I probably wouldn’t have had any interest if it hadn’t been explicitly pointed out to me that the title in French is Contemplative Prayer. OK, that is a much more interesting book!

This book exists, as von Balthasar himself notes, as a kind of summary of his most important thoughts and ideas and focus. The thrust of the book is this:

  • Contemplation is necessary to each and every Christian journey.
  • Contemplation is possible because God is the Word and speaks. We listen. We must become silent and deep enough to listen.
  • What are the links between this contemplative, innermost listening and the listening in the Liturgy? in Scripture? in the mediative presence of the Church?
  • What does contemplation show us? There is the humanity of Jesus; there is the blessed Trinitarian life in all its silence and in all its speaking.
  • What tensions or seeming-contraries-in-tension exist in a contemplative act and in a contemplative life? For example, dogma and prayer feed off one another.

I found the book very good for anyone who, though with a background of some sort in theology, wants a simple theology related to prayer and contemplation. It is, in my opinion, much easier to read than the other books I’ve tried by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Here are three very good quotes from the book:

The simple thing is the greatest thing… As for the will of the “Father in heaven”, it is always clear and transparent, simple and intelligible to the simple heart… It is the will of all those in heaven who share his will, all who, together, enter into the Father’s loving will in all its concrete dimensions… People are only rarely aware of this when they pray. Unless they are rare mystics who actually encounter heaven’s inhabitants – angels, saints, the Mother of the Lord, or the Son himself – they are inclined to act as if they were encountering God in a solitude which is total on both sides, God’s and theirs; as if they were alone in approaching God, alone in trying to come to grips with his word and law. This is wrong in both respects.

This is something the Christian contemplative must be aware of… His life is a service, λειτουργία, of the gracious God, lived out in full personal responsibility, but also as part of the entire company of the saints, which gives his service value in God’s sight.

The fact that I, at this far-off spot in history, can be inserted into the reality of Christ by contemplation and discipleship, is something I owe to the reality of the Church.

Another thing that struck me is the place Father von Balthasar contrasts the wisdom of “sages” and the wisdom of Christian saints (the passage I quote is long but very illuminating):

The Christian never takes the form of a “sage”, that unmistakable man met with in all systems of philosophy whose lofty enlightenment arouses our admiration (and in time gets on our nerves). It may be part of a Christian’s mission to know and say many things about God and divine matters. But most of them, including the genuine contemplatives, the saints, are most and reticent in their knowledge. When they are commissioned to say something to someone, it is as though the words simply come to them from afar, as if they themselves are not totally responsible for the significance and the effect of what they say. Therein lies the simplicity of discipleship: the “surplus” fruit of contemplation is removed right at the outset and put at the disposal of God and the communion of saints. The “sage” has a kind of panoramic view, a kind of spiritual equipoise in the midst of all his actual and possible insights; the like is never available to the Christian because his wisdom lies in God far more than in himself. Somehow or other his head is in heaven, where he lives hidden with Christ, whereas his earthly self, dying daily and rising to new life, treads the path of discipleship and is “salted with fire” (Mk 9:49).

This is an historical comment which I’ve made before, in my own way, and was glad to see appear here (it gives confidence):

This doctrine of the contemplation of heaven can easily be purged of certain Platonic accretions found in the Fathers and redirected along the clear, simple lines dictated by the realism of the Gospel… The Platonic error lies less in the exaggerated emphasis on contemplation as the vision of eternal Ideas than in the underestimating and despising of activity, of earthly work, which seemed beneath the dignity of the educated Greek. At this point Christianity has reversed the values by reference to the humble form of the carpenter’s son…

But for all the talk of the Church of Heaven (which I appreciate very much!) there is also focus on the Humanity of Jesus; for example:

True holiness in the Church, with its influence on history, has always been connected with the straightforward endeavour to take the humanity of Christ seriously, and all the kitsch to be found in Christian life and Christian art arises from the failure to take it seriously.

Here is an intriguing one:

Compared with former times, the contemplative life of today’s Church often manifests a greater fullness of Christianity’s ecclesiological and soteriological aspects.

An intriguing comment! Given that the parable of the sheep and goats comes from a parable about the end of the world (Mt 25) and that this is the place that one most easily goes to support the contemplative idea of seeing Jesus in our neighbours, I think that’s an interesting remark. It would be hard to deny that this aspect of “seeing Jesus in others” was often on the sidelines until a Charles de Foucauld and a Jacques Maritain. But now it is much more “front and centre”. That is one example of Hans Urs von Balthasar being right in this quote.

This quote –

Contemplative prayer has a radiation of its own in ways the person involved does not know (and will not know while on earth).

– reminds me of Marie-Joseph Le Guillou‘s work regarding the Transfiguration of the human body by the Spirit and the emphasis of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain on the secretness of contemplation, its diffusive effects, and our poor eyes.

In general, I came away from the book much better and much clearer in my head and in my heart. However, there are few passages in which I found a choice of words unusual. For example:

No mystic in the tradition of negative theology has undergone more profoundly than [Christ] the “dark night of the senses and the soul” which signals the entrance into the absolute…

This is a bit confusing. For Saint John of the Cross’ poem and for his explanations in the Dark Night and the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the “dark night” as described is specifically intended to purge beginners of certain sins and ways of acting, and progressives in the spiritual life of their own bent in sin and imperfections. All of which doesn’t apply to Jesus. In his humanity, Jesus could, of course, enter more deeply into the absolute who is the Divinity. But I think this is a very different sense from that in which the “dark night” is typically used and is faithfully used, given the lengths at which John of the Cross insists on the dark night being “necessary” because of sins and imperfections in us. This is just a question of words. No doubt. But it could be clearer.

This book is much more and much greater and much deeper than the few quotes given here. It is a wide and deep plan of contemplative prayer for all. As mentioned above, I recommend it as a work on prayer for people with a theological background or inclination.

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