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One of Adrienne von Speyr's most cherished concerns was to rekindle Christians' desire for contemplation and thus to renew the Church's prayer. Light and Images: Elements of Contemplation is one of the most important of her works on the subject. She sets forth the deepest theological foundations of contemplative prayer according to the reciprocal relationship between "light" and "images".

Like the simple images that open up infinite depths to the eye of faith, this little book contains an overwhelming wealth of insight into contemplation. One comes away from it with a vastly transformed understanding of the nature of prayer and an appreciation for its irreplaceable role in Christian life. With its disarmingly simple language, Light and Images is immediately accessible; and yet the new perspectives it offers on prayer surprise and challenge at every turn. The book is therefore both an incomparable introduction for those who wish to learn what it means to pray, and excellent spiritual reading for those seeking to draw more deeply from the Church's great treasury of prayer.

This excerpt from Light and Images is chapter two, titled "Perceiving God's Will."


Adam was able to understand the words the Creator addressed to him; in fact, they were clear and unambiguous. He did not have to pore over them in order to get more out of them than he had initially understood. But when sin arose between man and God, Adam was forced to learn how to make excuses. These excuses were words of untruth, of distance and alienation, words reflecting a desire no longer to understand; they raised a line of separation between God's word and its being understood. The immediate contact was broken off, the receiving organ damaged, the feeling dulled, and God's will henceforth seemed uncertain and obscure.

In the Old Covenant, those who were commissioned by God and the believers who followed them sought to reinstate this original relationship as far as possible in order to make it clear what God wanted. But they were directed to make use of hints, reflections, and comparisons in order to have somesense of how a sinner ought to approach the one who is totally pure. It was no longer the un-mediated relationship between God and the man who had just sprung forth from the Creator in his original innocence; instead, the relationship was sullied by all the detours and subterfuges of untruth. The vision of the highest truth was moreover so obscured that man preferred to associate with other men as a way toward this truth, rather than immediately with God, Only occasionally did he let his guard down; for the most part, he put up intermediate stages and mediating authorities and enclosed even God within these man-made walls. Man tried to restore the clarity and precision that God's word lost by replacing it with the pseudoclarity of human words. And when God's voice rang out and the prophets had to proclaim it, it was no mean task for them to make God's will intelligible also to others. But there could be no doubt that the people understood. The ones who were called and designated to proclaim often had to invent their own speech in order to make the message intelligible to sinners. The naked word would never have reached them.

But then God's Word, who had been with him from all eternity and who was the Son, allowed himself to become man, so that the Father would have a man who could perceive his will and accept it in a proper way, without the need for mediation or translation. And because of him a genuine perception was to take its place again on earth among other men as well. The Word made flesh spoke to man; he formulated sentences filled with divine meaning for believers, he gave instructions for living properly and allowed the Creator to be seen in what he did and what he said, He was not only a man but also a Way, a way that one could follow and that led back to the Father. He allowed himself to become transparent in pure service and obedience so that the human spirit could once again become transparent to the Father. When the apostle begs the Lord, "Show us the Father!" and the Son answers, "Whoever sees me sees the Father", it becomes immediately clear that his existence has given rise to a point of intersection between the Father and man, a point wherein they can encounter one another in an immediate way. Admittedly, man does not realize that he is genuinely able to see the Father in the Son; he has been unacquainted with this immediate contact with God for so long that he falls to grasp the new and unsuspected access to the Father that he is being offered.

But the Son also teaches man a new way to pray. He showed him how to say the Father's prayer. He also showed him his own prayer as a Son, a prayer that grows out of his vision and perfectly grasps the Father's will, a prayer that has appropriated this will and call thus become the praying man's model for how the triune God's will ought to be understood in the world. Here man can be raised up beyond his own level and brought onto God's level, and he can even acquire a grasp of God's eternal will. He does not grasp this with his natural reason, but with his prayer-reason. Prayer carries him beyond himself and places him in this grasp, without him becoming aware of it. He is placed on the path of obedience, and obedience allows him to receive a share of God's omniscience. In a certain respect, "Thy will be done" means also that man receives a sense for this will, even if he is unable to express it in words; he is brought over into this will, even if he does not understand how to interpret it; he carries out this will, even if he does not know where it is taking him. And yet not everything remains obscure to his understanding, because this will leads him ever deeper into the will.

Being led into the will is something that happens through love. Even if man does not know what it means, he nevertheless understands that his obedience is a response to God's love and that this love embraces him all along the way. He is led by love into the mystery of God's triune love. And it may happen that inconceivable marvels become revealed to him in this, there may be moments in which he comes to see himself as one chosen and loved, and God makes him worthy to consecrate himself to him. But this consecration is not something he can understand in earthly terms, because two spheres come together here which cannot be brought into a fixed and unambiguous relationship. One sphere contains the things that God wants to show, in such a way that the thing shown becomes perfectly meaningful and transparent for the one who experiences it; it gets arranged in his faith, it becomes a part of his love, it inspires him to a renewed commitment or an increased prayer; it also shows him how the prayer of love of neighbor is meant for him, what God expects from him in this respect, how certain lines of the following of Christ have been traced out for him. But at the same time the love of God and obedience to him and the being led into his otherwise closed world (insofar as it has not been revealed through words and experiences) consist in realities that are and remain invisible, because they have their place within the exchange of triune love. This invisibility does not necessarily have to be identified with the Little Thérèse's "voyage underground" and with her "tunnel", because the one who has been taken up may be accompanied by a powerful certainty and security. But it can nevertheless seem to him that he has become blind, that he has lent out his eyes, indeed that his eyes have become superfluous, because God acts and sees so much on his behalf that he has been relieved of the obligation of seeing for himself

He cannot remain in God's will without prayer. And this prayer will consist in part of what is ordinary and performed out of duty, it will consist of words that make sense to the one who prays, familiar thought processes, petitions, promises of self-gift, which he knows and which have been entrusted to him over time. But at the same time it is as if this prayer were lifted up [aufgehoben], no longer spoken by him, but rather taken over by a love in which he has received a share: the Church's love for God, God's love for the Church or for individual people. The words can no longer be grasped individually; their meaning has become unimportant, because a greater reality has gotten the upper hand, an invisible reality that encompasses him, and that somehow crosses and covers the inner mysteries of God with invisibility.

Things may also happen in the love between human beings which flow into one another as if all defenses were down. Man passes beyond limitations; indeed, he is even lifted over walls–some that he knows but also some that he does not know–so that the share that was intended for him not be diminished, so that he need not do the measuring himself; he need not draw his own border limits; he need not have the responsibility of tracing out his own path. He passes unencumbered, because he is being led. Thus, a small child finds his way through the most difficult stray paths when he is able to walk holding his father's hand. From his own perspective, he may be aware only that there is a house here, and that there are other houses further on, and that at this corner or the next there is something familiar; but that is as far as he can make out, because the distances and the pathways and the connections are not clear to him. The child thus learns to have more trust in the father and his guidance. The man who prays has a similar experience, which is often difficult to put into words but is no less real, an experience that brings him to a stricter obedience, to an increase of prayer, an experience that lends him new strength, which clearly does not come from himself, and a certainty in faith, which is indispensable for his self-gift and his service. Before, he had no idea how necessary this certainty was. It is only now that he experiences it, only now that it has become clear to him in this sense.

A Christian, who has been praying in a contemplative way for a certain time, and who does it with joy even if he has not grasped its full meaning, who has perhaps begun to contemplate out of respect for another person who showed him this kind of prayer, needs a long time before he begins to see how much he is already connected with God's world and God's truth, how far along the path he has already come, a path that never goes backward. The same is true in the perception of God's will: it cannot happen in any other way than by submitting oneself, by giving one's a priori Yes, one's assent, which in the world of prayer always occurs before the question has become entirely clear. Thus man is drawn ever more deeply into God's truth and his design. He was already inside, as a part, before he realized it; without knowing what the consequences would be, he submitted himself, and this submission placed him so much at God's disposal that he, God's instrument, has now received a hidden knowledge; he -has become one who knows even about things that have not at this point been given to him to investigate. And since he has been carried beyond limitations in prayer, he should no longer try to put back the boundarystones, the limitations and fences, once again in the everyday world, in the modesty of the task he must carry out, which requires his attention in another way and which requires the engagement of other capacities. He ought to remain in the trust that corresponds to this transcendence; he ought to know that the path that God calls him to walk is a particular path, which is always meaningful for God as long as man obeys. To introduce human measures would be to weaken prayer, to use the hours that belong to God for one's own ego and thus to steal from God and to bring his displeasure upon oneself For God cannot repeat what he intended to do, or something similar, and thus the following of him suffers as a result.

But once man has obeyed, he now knows something new: he knows that a human being can become aware of God's will; that this particular following of God is part of his will. And he thereby also learns what matters to God above all other things: that more love be given to him and more love be given to one's neighbors. Every will of God that man is permitted to experience in some way can be brought back to love.



Adrienne von Speyr
was a 20th century Swiss convert, mystic, wife, doctor and author of numerous books on spirituality. She entered the Church under the direction of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Her writings, recognized as a major contribution to the great mystical writings of the Church, are being translated by Ignatius Press.

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