Abacus theologica


Work forces man to use measurements. He works eight hours a day, and for this work a certain average result is expected from him. The number of a certain kind of item a worker is able to make in a day, week, or year is fixed. Also fixed is the amount he needs to support himself and his family (if a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs cost such and such…) and the amount he needs for pleasure (the cost of a ticket to the movies or to a soccer match). His entire existence is saturated with numbers, and each presents a certain measure. When something in the mechanism breaks down, he stands there helpless. For the most part, it has an unpleasant effect. When as a worker he imagines the work schedule of his superior, he sees that he has more holidays, a higher salary, and therefore different pleasures. The superior, however, does not organize his time with any less precision, since he probably also has more work to do and greater responsibility.

If a man gets completely accustomed to the idea that everything can be measured, then he loses any sense of eternity. His horizon does not reach farther than the measurable, passing time, and mortal existence. Everything he measures constantly brings him to limits: there lies the point where what he has planned comes to an end; beyond it begins something else to measure. The life of an individual passes away between such ends and new beginnings. He gets on top of what he has measured; it has been incorporated within the compass of his life. He is ruled by the law of numbers, and he in turn rules over it. The measurements are handed over to him already complete, and yet he preserves a small amount of freedom in relation to them. He can compare things (for example, the price of milk); he can also save; he can give up things that he would have a right to in order to enjoy others. He accustoms himself to this freedom in the midst of measurements as though behind bars.

This also influences his thinking. He thinks within fixed categories that have become so natural to him that he hardly ever questions them. On the contrary, he simplifies them more and more.

However, if he meets someone who lives from faith, he encounters in him God himself. Something adventurous breaks into his limited existence. He does not know whether he is thereby weighed and measured. One thing, however, is ceritain: his measurements do not suffice to determine these dimensions. His conventional categories, time schedules, and simplifications cannot cope with the phenomenon. He had arranged a plan for himself that would allow him to advance in his job in order to be able to afford certain things when he reached the age of fifty or sixty. If the Christian truth is valid, God could frustrate all his plans; he could perhaps even require him to give up his position. In any event, God could demand from him his advance calculations and small arrangements, with now appear to him as countless reservations against God. Who could place conditions on God? This belongs to the most difficult aspects of faith: to let go of the narrow boundaries and divisions we have worked hard to put in place. We must give them up when we encounter the limitless and unmeasurable. Even time can no longer be measured by years and months, but only in terms of the entirety of a life – and the length of a life is unknown. Everything that was measured according to one’s own advantage must now be held in contempt. God offers no measures that man could get used to or for which he could use his own system of calculation. The prescribed time for prayer, the commandments of the Church, and the demands of loving one’s neighbor strike him as hard, and he does not know how to cope with it. On the surface, the circumstances remain the same: time remains time. Interiorly, however, everything has completely changed: time is now something in which eternity wants to find a place; and measure is now something in which the unmeasurable must be sheltered. Thus everything becomes quite uncomfortable…

…The hardest thing required of the believer is to place himself at the disposal of something incomprehensible, something that begins to make sense only through love. Until now he was collecting, gathering, counting, and disposing; now he is meant to open himself in such a way that the hands he holds out to collect have to remain apart. He is embraced by God in such a way that he is no longer capable of embracing anything. He must keep himself as vessel, and he cannot guarantee what this vessel will contain. He no longer knows it because he must allow what he had once well protected and thought through many times over simply to flow into the infinite, according to a rhythm that God alone determines.

(Adienne von Speyr, Man Before God)

Getting out of yourself


I finally got around to reading Adrienne von Speyr, a promise I made to myself a few years ago. I’m so thankful I did. Von Speyr was a Swiss medical doctor, Christian mystic, author of several dozen works, and a well-known support to and confidant of Hans Urs Von Balthassar. She shares such wonderful and convicting insights that connect to where I am in my own faith journey. I’ll be sharing some of them from time to time. To being, here is a portion from Man Before God.

…[M]an’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 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.


In similar fashion, the one who prays can suddenly become uncertain before God, because finitude has been pulled away. But this is a healing uncertainty that brings knowledge. All that has contributed to his “I”—everything spatial, temporal, and psychological—has vanished and will not have any replacement. No other obstacles, no other spaces or times or character traits are put in its place. A genuine void has to be formed so that God’s fullness can pour into it. And yet this fullness is totally other than the void; it is not the counterpart of the contrary of the void, since God is not the contrary of the world, nor is fulfillment the contrary of the expectation. It is something “other”; it is the otherness of God, that overwhelming reality beyond all the creature hopes for and has the power to conceive. It is that absolutely unmistakable quality that upon arriving does not first have to prove that it is divine. This is the first characteristic of the divine life. When the Son of God becomes man, this is not a No coming out of a Yes, nor is No said to God so that Yes can be said to man. The Son does not disavow his divine nature by taking on his human nature. It is impossible to place either a plus or a minus sign before one or the other form of God—man, not-man. We can say only that in his humanity the fullness and his “otherness” become near and are revealed to believers. The Son is the Word of the Father and expresses this otherness of God in all that he is and does.



Man’s whole helplessness, indeed, his whole lack of future, yawns open – that is, unless he resolves to jump over his own abyss to God. God’s “thou” is so surpassingly powerful that man, no matter which way he moves, always remains in his clasp. A truce with God is out of the question. You have to stick it out right where you are until you have heard everything. God does not just go his way; he wants to be listened to now, and man has to be all ears. (Adrienne von Speyr)