Guardini | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 17, 2010Guardini | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 17, 2010

"His (Romano Guradini's) key words were: 'you see...' because he wanted to guide us to 'seeing,' while he himself was in a common inner dialogue with his listeners. This was the innovation in comparison with the rhetoric of the old days; rather, that far from seeking rhetoric he talked to us in a totally simple way, and at the same time spoke of truth and led us to dialogue with the truth. And there was a broad spectrum of 'dialogues' with authors such as Socrates, St. Augustine and Pascal, Dante, Hšlderlin, Mšrike, Rilke and Dostoyevsky."
--Benedict XVI, Discourse to Congress on Romano Guardini, October 29, 2010. [1]

"This human nature (of Christ) had a full living experience of God, knew him, experienced him, willed him. He who said 'I', 'was' this unity. We cannot express it. What a statement that was when he said: 'I am'! What an act this 'I am'; what a being there, standing there, self-being, self-knowledge, self-act! No battle here against non-existence, none of the pain and danger of our uncertainty—he is inviolable, Lord in Being."
--Romano Guardini, The Humanity of Christ, 1958. [2]


The name of the Italian Swiss-German philosopher, Romano Guardini (1885-1968), often comes up in the works of Joseph Ratzinger. The title of his 1999 The Spirit of the Liturgy is from Guardini. In the Preface of that book, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "One of the first books I read after starting my theological studies at the beginning of 1946 was Romano Guardini's first little book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. It was published at Easter 1918 as the opening volume of the Ecclesia Orans series edited by Abbot Herwegen, and from then until 1957 it was constantly reprinted. This slim volume may rightly be said to have inaugurated the Liturgical Movement in Germany." [3] Ratzinger's book is a tribute to and a carrying on the inspiration of Guardini.

And the passage that I cited above from Guardini's The Humanity of Christ about who Christ was finds perfect continuity with Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth, where we are confronted with the fact that the central act of our history is precisely that "I am" entered into our time. He was true man and true God. This very fact changes the world and our understanding of it and of what it means.

With this background, it is not surprising that Benedict XVI would give a very personal and insightful discourse in the Vatican's Clementine Hall at a conference devoted to the work of Guardini.

The pope recalled that Guardini once taught at the University of Berlin in the 1920's. On his 80th birthday in 1965, Guardini gave a reflective lecture on his life's work at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. Guardini explained his method. He continually questioned himself to see what the life of a Christian is about. Guardini was not concerned with merely recording what others held. Evidently, Ratzinger had been present at Guardini's Munich lecture. "What impressed us as young men," the Pope recalled, was that Guardini did not come before them to dazzle them with a "'firework display' of opinions found within Christianity or outside it." He adds that of Christianity "we wanted to know 'what it is.'"

These young men clearly recognized in Guardini a different kind of teacher. "Guardini did not want to know one thing or many things, he aspired to the truth of God and to the truth about man." Not unlike the theme of Msgr. Sokolowski, who reminds us that truth can only exist in a mind actually knowing it, Guardini achieved this truth "in a living exchange with the world and with men." But added to this search for truth is a specific Christian element.

"Man knows that he stands in a relationship to God which precedes him, and from which he cannot withdraw." Man knows that he is not the cause of himself, even if he pretends to be autonomous. "The principle that establishes the yardstick is not our own thought but God who surpasses our units of measurement and cannot be reduced to any entity that we may create." Man is not the "measure" of all things, but, as Plato said, God is. This theme of the divine meaning of our being is repeated here.

If we look at the way God reveals Himself, moreover, we see that He reveals Himself "as the truth, not an abstract truth but rather one to be found in the living and the concrete, ultimately in the form of Jesus Christ." Christ did not say that truth is a proposition, but "I am the truth." How does one go about seeing or confronting this "truth"? He must first "leave behind the autonomy of arbitrary thought." These are carefully chosen words. The modern world, as the pope is aware, is built on precisely this notion of the autonomy of thought. That is, our minds are measured by nothing but themselves. The mind must rather direct itself to "accept what is." Guardini travelled away from autonomy back to "listening, to receiving" the truth. We do not "make" it; we find it.

We can, of course, be rightly oriented to God but still not fully comprehend Him. Obviously, to fully comprehend God, we would have to be gods ourselves, which we are not. We need to see what others maintain. The most reliable source of hearing what God says of Himself is in the Church. Guardini read the great thinkers of the past to see how they "saw" the world. He had a style of his own. He was in dialogue with thinkers of the past. He kept prodding the students. "You see?" "You see?" It is almost as if our knowledge of the truth is not complete until we see others also "seeing" it.


Guardini was not interested in mere rhetoric. He talked simply. The pope recalls: "He spoke of truth and led us to dialogue with the truth." This "talking simply" of the truth is the mark of a great teacher. Listening to him is the mark of a great student. No wonder years later, as pope, Ratzinger recalls his early memories of this man. And the conversation included those with whom Guardini was encountering—Socrates, Augustine, Pascal, Dostoyevsky. They "reveal the present in a word from the past."

One of the great issues from Plato and Aristotle, through all religious and philosophic traditions, is the relation between the metaphysical investigations and the way we live. "The principle of ontology over ethos applies to him (man). Upright conduct therefore derives from the being, from the very being of God correctly understood and listened to." There is thus a direct relation between how we live and how we understand the world. We neglect metaphysics at our peril. We must all live in the world that is. Otherwise there is no possibility of correcting one another, even of understanding one another. If we each have formed an autonomous world, we cannot comprehend the world of the other. We have nothing in common.

When he first encountered the young, Guardini noted that they yearned "for the truth." They looked for what was "primary and essential." Guardini became involved in teaching the young. He stressed "self-determination, personal responsibility, and an inner disposition for the truth." Ideals had to be "purified and deepened." And what about our freedom? "The only person who is really free, he used to tell us, is the one who is 'completely what he should be, in accordance with his own nature. Freedom is truth.'" Freedom was not the conformity between what we are and what we autonomously made ourselves to be, but the conformity with what we ought to be, with the kind of beings that we are created to be. "Man's journey leads to truth when he practices 'the obedience of our being in relation to the being of God.'"

Here Ratzinger returns to his early 1946 reading of Guardini. The locus of our freedom lies in our "worship of God." This too was the conviction of Catherine Pickstock in her After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Why is this relation of thought and correct action so? Because worship implies that we are rightly oriented to the highest things. It is from this vantage point that we can see the place of everything else. Guardini recombined spirit and flesh. "Prayer is extended through physical and community action, hence the oneness of reality of a whole is revealed." Spirit and matter are open to each other and penetrate each other.

Guardini even had a good word for the university. He saw "the university above all as a place for seeking truth." But is this seeking what we find there? "The university, however, can only be such when it is free from all exploitation for political advantage or other ends." This understanding of the university too was a theme that Benedict approached in his "Regensburg Lecture." The university needs to be an arena in which truth can be recalled, known, and taught. But this will not happen in a world that considers man to be an autonomous being who makes up his own truth. In such a world, there is really nothing to discuss.

In his famous 1956 book, The End of the Modern World, Guardini wrote: "Complicated motives lay behind the modern world's concept of nature. Primarily, there was the will to be free for autonomous world domination—from which, however it would follow that self-glorious man should assume genuine responsibility for his actions. But for finite beings there is no such thing as autonomous responsibility, in claiming it, man usurps what belongs to God." [4] We see in these words of Guardini the shadow of Nietzsche, who often comes up in the writings of Benedict XVI. The autonomous man has nothing to worship but himself. Since every man has equal autonomy, there is no ground for comparison. We end up with as many worlds as we have men.

The way of Guardini was more secure. "Far from seeking rhetoric, he (Guardini) talked to us in a totally simple way, and at the same time spoke of truth and led us dialogue with the truth." No wonder the pope could recall the things he heard when he listened to Romano Guardini. "You see? You see?" "Man knows that he stands in a relationship to God which precedes him and from which he cannot withdraw."


[1] Benedict XVI, "A Man of Dialogue in Search for Truth," L'Osservatore Romano, English, November 17, 2010.
[2] Romano Guardini, The Humanity of Christ (New York: Pantheon, [1958] 1964), 144.
[3] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 7.
[4] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington: ISI Books, [1956] 1998), 191.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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