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Nothingness and Limit | Adrienne von Speyr | From "Limit and Its Overcoming", chapter one of Man Before God | Ignatius Insight

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There comes a moment in every man's life when he begins to reflect on his place in the whole of the cosmos, on his future, and on the limits of what he can do. But he cannot think about his future without making his past part of the present moment. He sees what he has planned and achieved so far; he also sees everything that has not been achieved, the failed remainder, which perhaps stands before him as his own failure. He remembers days of work, days of rest, his nights, his daydreams, the great deal that he has received, and the little that he has given. He sees that it will not be easy to balance the books because so many seeds have not borne fruit. Many entries are left with question marks next to them; occasionally there is a successful item that could be marked with a round figure. And yet, it is not at all clear that this figure is really round; it is part of a series along with so many other figures that do not come out right.

And now man plans. He draws conclusions from his experiences. He wants to reach farther and different goals. But suddenly he hesitates: whatever plan he makes, he must always reckon with himself He cannot envision any future that fully satisfies him, because he cannot count on any full performance from himself He knows himself well enough to realize that he will always be an obstacle to himself because he does not remain faithful to his best resolutions. Wherever he turns, he encounters his limits. And yet he must go on, and he cannot do this unless he has before him a road, a destination, an image of his future—unless he undertakes something that satisfies him and that he brings about by his own power.

Once again he looks back on his past. He attempts to take a sober look at the obstacles that he himself placed on the path, to draw up an account of all that he has neglected. He tries to do this in a spirit in which he calls things by name and perceives the truth about the forces at work. None of this is easy, because as soon as he gives these failures their real name, he becomes painfully aware of his own responsibility. This failure humiliates him, and now things might seem darker to him than they really are. His confidence in the future wavers. He realizes how much remains undone; how often something was tried, abandoned, and forgotten again. The very first difficulty threw him off track; he simply gave up.

The past weighs on him and paralyzes his new resolutions. He knows beforehand that it will not work. He looks around in search of heroes who made up their minds to do some great work and did not let anything keep them from it. He would gladly be such a person, with the corresponding strength, ability, and perseverance. There is no end to his wishes and yearnings, but resignation debilitates them. He knows that, when all is said and done, he is no hero. Everything about him is futile.

It may occur to him that there are also Christian heroes. In their lives things really have been performed and accomplished, things whole and holy. If we examine more closely what they have done, if we try to penetrate into the mechanism of their achievement, we find aspects that can be understood together with a great deal that remains opaque. And yet the deed stands there in its rounded integrity, and it is impossible to detect any seams in it. This is curious, disturbing, and unsettling. From where does this unity come? Suddenly it becomes clear: In the Christian hero, the saint, man's nothingness is overcome. It has been absorbed into holiness. This indivisibility is grace, and it comes from God. God takes care of his own to the point of completely enveloping and covering them with his grace. But they are not buried underneath it, and they do not lose their distinctive face; they are not paralyzed by the weight of an excessive giving. Rather grace permeates, saturates, and sets aglow their entire being and places them in a new physical condition. Grace unites itself to man's innermost being; it produces in the saint, as it were, an incarnation that reenacts the Incarnation of the divine Son. Christ is God who became man in order to perform as God-man his integral, seamless deeds. The saint is a graced man and is permitted to perform equally integral deeds. By God's arrangement and action, grace and man have become a single reality. The resulting work retains the properties of both—those of man and those of grace—but forever united.

Whoever considers this successful outcome understands that man's nothingness represents a state of deficiency. Man lacks something. His sin has moved him away from the place where he should and could stand. He can, of course, fool himself into thinking that through sin he merely has strayed onto a bypath from which he still sees the right way. But deep down he knows better. He no longer sees the right way. He has become entangled in a thicket that his eye can no longer pierce in any way. Reflection alone cannot help him find the way out. He does not know how best to use his remaining strength. He needs grace for this, and therefore he must first of all submit. He must make himself so light that grace outweighs everything else in him. He must forget himself—this is the only true conclusion that follows from the recognition of his nothingness—in order to allow grace to stream into the empty space that he is.

As far as he is concerned, then, he is incapable of imitating the Christian hero. He cannot set off on his own to follow him. And nevertheless the image remains, the example with its radiant, inviting appeal. On the one side, he stands with his failure, his doubts, and with the need to make plans for his life that he knows he cannot sustain. On the other side stands the round deed of the apostolic man that shines upon him, challenges him, and fascinates him. Yet he realizes that he cannot leap over the intervening gulf by imitating from this side the deeds of a person who is on the other side. Rather he must get out of himself The first comprehensive deed concerns the "I" itself He must go out of himself; he must step outside of his own self And this is a sort of annihilation, a forgetting and a losing of himself, and a call for a new solitude. It is a bursting of his own center in order to free up space for God, who enters into this center and from there makes something new out of him. Who above all takes him into his service. This possession must become the unifying point in him, but he will not be able to occupy, fix, or experience this point himself He is catapulted out of the limits of this nothingness, but he cannot trace this described trajectory, because he has surrendered and lost himself.

All at once the word "nothingness" acquires a new meaning for him; it is now nothing more than a signal, a warning sign.

Man Before God

by Adrienne von Speyr

In Man Before God, the mystic Adrienne von Speyr offers her reflections on this personal encounter with the God who is eternal love. Acknowledging the limitations of man in the face of the boundlessness of God, she considers both the various ways God continues to speak to man--through his Word in Scripture, through his Son in the sacraments, though saints and neighbors--as well as the necessity for man to respond. Through her guidance, we come to see every circumstance as an invitation to encounter and worship God.

From this perspective she explores with clarity and simplicity such topics as:

• the meaning of prayer and contemplation
• living in the Word
• the relationship between discipleship and Eucharist
• the place of Mary and the Church
• the meaning of work and the religious life, joy and truth, knowledge and darkness

Related Book Excerpts and Articles:

Doctor, Convert, and Mystic: The Life and Work of Adrienne von Speyr |
Selections from Lumina | New Lumina | Adrienne von Speyr
Death, Where Is Thy Sting? | Adrienne von Speyr. From The Mystery of Death
Creation | Adrienne von Speyr
The Confession of the Saints | Adrienne von Speyr
Perceiving God's Will | Adrienne von Speyr
Introduction to Adrienne von Speyr's The Book of All Saints | Hans Urs von Balthasar

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. Read about her life and work on her author page.

Ignatius Press has been translating and publishing many of the works of Adrienne von Speyr since the early 1980s. Here is a listing of her books currently available from Ignatius Press.

Handmaid of the Lord
John, Volume 1
John, Volume 2
John, Volume 3
John, Volume 4
Letter to the Colossians
Letter to the Ephesians
Light and Images
Lumina | New Lumina
Man Before God
Mary in the Redemption
My Early Years
Mystery of Death
The Book of All Saints
The Boundless God
The Christian State of Life
The Countenance of the Father
The Cross: Word and Sacrament
The Gates of Eternal Life
The Holy Mass
The Mission of the Prophets
The Passion from Within
They Followed His Call
Three Women and the Lord
Victory of Love
With God and with Men: Prayers
World of Prayer

Books by Hans Urs von Balthasar about Adrienne von Speyr:

First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr

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