Beguiled by Balthasar

The light of divine glory
Shines in the breast of night:
Who can see it? A heart
Whose eyes keep watch, e’er bright.
Angelus Silesius

Years ago when I was a student in Rome finishing up a dissertation at the Angelicum, I needed to schedule a formal defense of my thesis, which centered on the mysterious descent of Christ into hell and its myriad implications for the sufferings of men. Following which, I was told, a handful of Dominican tigers would then pounce, carving up into little strips the carcass of all my painstaking research. If the thesis survived their dissections, I was told, they’d give me the doctorate, and we could all go home happy. In the meantime, my clever wife, having anticipated the happy outcome of the ordeal, went ahead and planned a modest little reception to celebrate her husband’s success. After which, she and I—and four little Martin children—would leave Rome forever. Well, not quite that long. We hoped, God willing, to be back in a few years, but exactly when wasn’t on the horizon that particular afternoon.

And while I got the degree, the defense proved a bit dicey on account of a single obstreperous reader of the dissertation who, noticing a great number of footnotes from a certain theologian by the name of Hans Urs von Balthasar, commented somewhat sourly on the fact that, after all, it wasn’t as if he were an actual cardinal of the Catholic Church, so why all the fuss?

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I don’t remember my response, only that it may have been a bit sputtering, and that the exchange left us both unsatisfied. What I do remember, however, and with the keenest pleasure, is that the very next day before boarding the train for the long journey home, the news was broadcast to the world that Hans Urs von Balthasar had just been named a cardinal of the Catholic Church. And that he would shortly be packing his bags for the flight to Rome to pick up his red hat.

But that was not to be, God having arranged a couple of days before leaving his home in Switzerland, to call him to another and, one hopes, far better home. But then it was never a hat he particularly wanted to wear. In fact, I later learned, Balthasar had turned the pope down twice before, only deciding on the third go-around that, really, one should not persist in saying no to an honor offered by the Vicar of Christ.

But why all those references to Hans Urs von Balthasar in the first place? Couldn’t I have written the thing without him? What made him so appealing?

Well, in point of fact, I couldn’t possibly have done it without him and, more to the point, would not have wished to do so having found myself completely smitten by one whom another and equally admired theologian, Henri de Lubac, had rightly called “the most cultivated man of his time. If there is a Christian culture,” he exclaimed, “then here it is!” If Augustine is to be esteemed for his ardent pursuit of the Good, and Aquinas for his profound grasp of the True, then to Balthasar belongs the realm of the Beautiful. It was his first word, he promised, “since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.” Because, he argued, in a world bereft of beauty, neither the true nor the good have much to commend. “And if this is how the transcendentals fare because one of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself?” Its testimony will “become untrustworthy for those who can no longer read the language of beauty.”

Such then was the witness of the greatest living Catholic theologian on the planet. Whose work proved so wonderfully formative in shaping the contours of my own mind and sensibility that for many years now I have tried to infect whole generations of students with my enthusiasm. Why not the very best? Who better than Balthasar for finding the perfect formulation for the beauty and profundity of theology? “Not for a single moment,” he declared, “can theology forget its roots, from which all its nourishment is drawn: adoration, in which we see, in faith, the heavens opened; and obedience in living, which frees us to understand the truth.” If it was the glory of God that drew me to theology in the first instance—“that fierce fire,” he called it, “burning in the dark night of adoration and obedience, whose abysses it illuminates”—then Balthasar was the place to begin.

Even amid the controversies that from time to time drew unfriendly fire upon his work, most particularly the allegation of Apocatastasis, which is the notion that at the end of time all the inhabitants of hell will have gone to heaven, Balthasar remained steadfast, an unswerving proponent of the Church’s faith. Not a single page, for instance, of Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved’? departs from the constant teaching that we all stand in peril of losing God forever. Nevertheless, he argued, it is not only possible to hope that all humanity may be saved, it is an obligation in charity that we do so. And while the Church will canonize those whom she knows are in heaven, she will never canonize those whom she may suspect have taken themselves to hell. She does not name the damned, but rather hopes that there will not be any. We should do the same.

Finally, of course, there was an added inducement to reading Balthasar, which was that so many of his books, written in a style of high mandarin German, had suddenly become available in translation thanks to Ignatius Press, whose elegant and inexpensive editions placed his work, along with that of other seminal figures like de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger, in the hands of growing numbers of educated and orthodox Catholic readers who, like me, found themselves unequal to the challenge of learning new languages. It seemed to me quite daunting enough having to learn the few Italian phrases I managed to speak in order to make change at the nearby bar for a cup of cappuccino. Total fluency in any language other than my own, for which I take no credit whatsoever, was simply beyond me. Why should I forego the enrichment of an encounter with Hans Urs von Balthasar just because I couldn’t read German? Or Henri de Lubac, for that matter, whose writings (in excellent French) I would, with equal eagerness, devour in translation? Whole libraries, after all, consisting of translations of the great master works of the Christian and Secular West—from Homer to Heidegger, Dante to Dostoevsky—exist for dolts like me.

For real scholars, total immersion in a writer’s world absolutely requires mastery of the language in which they lived and wrote. Professor Michael Waldstein, for example, who, when we first met in Rome (he was finishing up a degree at the Biblicum), was working his way through Coptic, having pretty much mastered most every other language on earth. I mention him not only as a polyglot, who could easily navigate his way through any text, but as a guide and friend, who found us our first apartment, and without whose kindness (along with that of his gentle and resourceful wife) we’d have been quite lost during those first weeks in a strange city. We owe them a great deal. In fact, it was he who encouraged my passion for Balthasar, giving me a copy of a book he’d recently had a hand in editing the translation of (Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery, Ignatius Press, 1983) that became a watershed event in my life. It was precisely there, in that lapidary little book, that I found the point of origin, the place where all theology begins, which Balthasar called, “the ineffable poverty of the divine, incarnate, crucified love.” Once you have got that, he insisted, everything else is easy.

For only the simple eye sees a radiance that comes from the infinite simplicity.

How vastly different the world of Catholic theology would be today, not to mention the life of the Church herself, had there been more aspiring theologians steeped in his writings, enamored of the example of what he liked to call a “kneeling theology.” Instead of the sedentary variety that has produced so many cheap and shabby substitutes, their proliferation laying waste to so much of the post-conciliar landscape with learned and noisy dissent. Balthasar certainly had their number, calling them “dilettantes and apostates,” who affect an erudition that, uprooted from the springs of piety, remains entirely unearned. “Often these are poor wretches,” he added, “who must shout so loud in order to justify to themselves their inner predicament of no longer being able to pray.”

Meanwhile, the Christian people, he announced in that wonderful little book, are looking for signs, “searching with a lamp for persons who radiate something of the light, something of nearness to the source.” Having wearied of all the modernities that parade their tired slogans before the Church, they are looking for God; they long the Mystery, whose bedrock recognition will enable them to see the one thing necessary. Neither faith, nor a theology animated by its discoveries, will deny them that right. Hans Urs von Balthasar was surely among that select company of theologians, a man whose life and work drew others to the light. And I thank God for all that he has given to the Church, and to me.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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