August Book O’ the Month - "Prayer" by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Immediately following my last semester at Princeton Theological Seminary, I read Eugene H. Peterson’s The Pastor with a local PC(USA) pastor. Reflecting on his pastoral development, Peterson writes “I still had a great deal to learn about the vocation of pastor, but I knew one thing for sure: the work of prayer was at the heart of everything” (150). I underlined and starred the sentence, knowing that this is true—at least in theory. Having been schooled in the theology of Karl Barth, I could support Peterson’s recognition with theological depth. (For, as Barth states in Evangelical Theology,*** “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer” [160].) Theoretical assent notwithstanding, I knew that the work of prayer was not exactly the heart or the basic act of my daily life. During my attempt to make Peterson and Barth’s propositions truer in practice, I stumbled upon Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer.

In the course of a month, I spent a small amount of time reading Balthasar’s book at the beginning of the day. Over the course of that month, my wife and I said goodbye to our closest friends and settled in a completely new place. Prayer became my constant in that month. Each morning, I listened to Balthasar pleading me to listen to God speaking. He writes, “Harassed by life, exhausted, we look about us for somewhere to be quiet, to be genuine, a place of refreshment. We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to simply let go in him and gain new strength to go on living. But we fail to look for him where he is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in his Son, who is his Word” (16). I must confess: when I picked up Balthasar’s book, I was looking for practical tips—a manual for contemplation of sorts. However, Balthasar is well aware of this desire and he resists it on every page. For Balthasar, prayer is a fresh and daily encounter with the God who has spoken and continues to speak. This encounter cannot be prescribed, outlined, or anticipated because it is an encounter with the Living God who reigns in freedom. Balthasar, of course, says it better:

The vital thing is the living encounter with the God who speaks to us in his Word, whose eyes pierce and purify us ‘like a flame of fire’ (Rev 1:14), whose command summons us to new obedience, who each day instructs us as if until now we had learned nothing, whose power sends us out anew into the world upon our mission. (22)
Over this month, Prayer helped me to be the beggar that I am. As such a beggar, listening is the primary activity of every new day.

Prayer is my introduction to Balthasar’s theology. In the book, one gets a good taste of Balthasar’s theological contribution. There is much theological reflection on Mary, divine kenosis, Ignatian spirituality, Holy Saturday, and the mysterious drama of cross and resurrection. This theological reflection is centered on a robust doctrine of the incarnation. According to Balthasar, the Christian contemplates the indivisible work and person of Christ as the “translation of the nature of God in human terms” (164). Or in dramatic terms: “. . . Christ’s suffering, his God-forsakenness, his death and descent into hell is the revelation of a divine mystery, the language which God has chosen in order to render himself and his love intelligible to us” (ibid.). It is Balthasar’s reflection on the humanity of Christ that emboldens Prayer with theological weight and spiritual insight. Due to Balthasar’s thoroughly christological spirituality and theology, I will no doubt return to his work.

I commend Prayer to you not only because it is written beautifully or because it is theologically rich, but because it is a powerful resource for enriching the work of prayer. With the help of Balthasar, I have become a better listener—a better hearer—of God’s Living Word. Prayer helped me to understand why prayer must be the heart of everyday living and the first and most basic work of the Christian life.

[***]Ed. note - Attend, gentle readers, to this very pertinent and meaningful quotation from the book that Darren Sumner so maliciously maligns.



Darren said…
Thanks, Jon, for the reflection. I'll be sure to look for Balthasar's book on prayer.

OK, ed. - the tongue planted firmly in your cheek is not evident to the rest of the world. Evangelical Theology is a fantastic work. Let's have your rebuttal to my comments about using it as an introduction to Barth's thought ... and not a smear campaign. ;)
I at least put in the link so people could go see what I was (mis?)representing.

Besides, the smear campaign is much more entertaining.

That aside, many thanks to Jon for taking charge of this month's Book O' the Month selection!
Scott Rice said…

Thanks so much for your review of Balthasar's book. I'm only sorry to be getting around to your review of it this late. Two of your reflections stand out to me. 1. The comment on God being found in prayer where God waits to be known, i.e., the Son, and 2. the cross event as the mystery where God is translated to us in human nature. I'm not sure what to do with Balthasar on the cross event sometimes (and I think your comments get at some of the most interesting points here, e.g., God-abandonment). I'm both impressed and puzzled at the same time. Either way, that this is where God is known and tells about the nature of the God we pray to is a message to hear again and again. Many thanks Jon! I hope your semester is beginning well.

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