God’s dramatic calling of the young man who would become one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and that man’s response to God’s call, can guide all of us as we strive to respond to God’s call in our own lives.
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) is considered by many to be one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and he was a favorite theologian of both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. When Balthasar was in his early twenties, he received a dramatic call from God while on an Ignatian retreat. Here is Balthasar’s recollection of that experience:
Even now, thirty years later, I could still go to that remote path in the Black Forest, not far from Basel, and find again the tree beneath which I was struck as by lightning. . . . And yet it was neither theology nor the priesthood which then came into my mind in a flash. It was simply this: you have nothing to choose, you have been called. You will not serve, you will be taken into service. You have no plans to make, you are just a little stone in a mosaic which has long been ready. All I needed to do was “leave everything and follow,” without making plans, without wishes or insights. All I needed to do was to stand there and wait and see what I would be needed for. . . . At that stage it was just a matter of surrendering myself. If I had known then about the Secular Institutes’ way of life, I might well have found the solution to my problem even in a secular profession, the problem, I mean, of how to put myself entirely at the disposal of God.
Although most of us do not receive a call from God that is quite as dramatic as the one Balthasar received, we are all called by God nonetheless. And Balthasar’s description of his own call, and of his response to that call, highlights some themes that can guide all of us as we strive, in an ongoing way, to respond to God’s call in our own lives:
“You are just a little stone in a mosaic which has long been ready.”
To me, this is the most striking aspect of God’s call to Balthasar. God has planned a mosaic, and he is calling Balthasar to contribute a stone (albeit “just a little” one) to that divine mosaic. What a beautiful image for God’s plan for Balthasar’s life! And it is an image that applies to God’s call to each of us as well! One of the central concepts in Balthasar’s theology was mission: he repeatedly emphasized that God calls each and every human being to fulfill a specific mission in life. That mission is a mission of love that fits within Jesus Christ’s universal mission of love to the world. The mission of love that God sends us on (the root of the word “mission” is missio, which refers to a “sending”) is unique to each of us, and no one can take our place in fulfilling the particular mission that we have been given. No one else’s life will touch the exact combination of people that your life is meant to touch, which makes you (and your mission) irreplaceable. There are many people these days who are searching desperately for a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives; here is where they will find it. Only in our unique, God-given mission of love will we find the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives. You and I and every other human being who has ever existed or ever will exist—each of us is meant to contribute a “little stone” to the beautiful mosaic of love that God has designed for the world.
Openness is another major theme in Balthasar’s theology. In order to be able to fulfill the mission of love that God has planned for us, we need to be radically open to God’s will for our lives. There are only a few select occasions in the Gospels where the original Aramaic words that Jesus would have spoken during his time on earth are retained; one of those occasions is found in the Gospel of Mark (7:34), where Jesus speaks the word “Ephphatha” to the deaf man with the speech impediment as he heals him. Mark translates the Aramaic word for his readers: “Be opened.” This command of Jesus is intended, not just for the deaf man with the speech impediment, but for all hearers of this Gospel episode down through the ages, including us. We all have spiritual “impediments” of one sort or another that close us off, in varying degrees, from God. We all need to “be opened” more fully by the healing power of Jesus Christ.
“without making plans, without wishes or insights”
In order to be radically open to God’s will, we need to cultivate the attitude that various saints, mystics, and theologians have referred to as “indifference.” We need to let go of our own plans for our lives in order to open up more fully to God’s plan for our lives. Indifference is a key focus in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and also in Balthasar’s theology, which is itself very Ignatian in character; Balthasar was a Jesuit priest before leaving the order so that he could continue to lead a secular institute he had founded with Adrienne von Speyr. “Indifference” carries several shades of meaning within Balthasar’s theology, but basically, indifference means letting God’s will take precedence over our own self-centered will in our lives.
Disponibility refers to readiness or availability. To be disponible is to be ready and willing to be utilized however God wishes. Balthasar points to Mary’s fiat (“Be it done unto me according to thy word”) as the ultimate human paradigm of disponibility. He describes Mary’s fiat as “a Yes without limits,” “the placing of one’s whole life at God’s disposal.” Mary’s total Yes to God is to be our Yes as well.
“it was just a matter of surrendering myself”
This is far more easily said than done, of course! For Balthasar, surrender lies at the heart of discipleship, because surrender lies at the heart of love. For many of us, the concept of “surrender” carries negative connotations: to surrender is to give up, to admit defeat, to admit failure. But Balthasar uses the term “surrender” (Hingabe, in the German in which Balthasar wrote) in the context of love as self-gift. Balthasar beautifully defines love as the selfless gift of self, given and received, and thus he refers to “surrender” as the essence of love, as the handing over of the gift of one’s self to the other in love. God has offered the world the gift of himself in Jesus Christ, and the only loving response to God’s self-gift is to reciprocate with our own loving self-gift, our own loving surrender of our lives into the hands of the God who loves us.
Openness, indifference, disponibility, surrender—all of these combine to enable us to respond with obedience to God’s call to us. Obedience, like the concept of surrender, tends to carry negative connotations in contemporary society. We tend to see obedience, whether to God or to anyone else, as a restriction on our freedom. But Balthasar argues that obedience to God actually perfects our freedom. Balthasar reminds us that “God’s will is always love”; therefore, obedience to God’s will is obedience to love, which helps form us more deeply in the image and likeness of the divine love. Freely choosing to obey God’s will for our lives is thus the highest use, and therefore the perfection, of our human freedom.
“All I needed to do was to stand there and wait”
Often, God reveals his will for our lives gradually, over the course of time. This was the case for Balthasar, despite the fact that his initial call from God was so striking and so memorable. Was he to become a priest? Was he to become a theologian? Yes in both cases, but those rather significant aspects of his vocation were not revealed to him at the moment of his call. We human beings tend to want to know all the details right now, but sometimes God only reveals the details of our mission piece by piece, giving us time to open up our hearts and minds to those details. As Balthasar put it, “Patience is the first virtue of the one who wants to perceive.”
Sometimes, God chooses to surprise us. Balthasar had not been considering either the priesthood or theology at the time that he received his call from God, but he would end up becoming both a priest and a theologian. Our God seems to like surprises. Balthasar even goes so far as to claim that “surprise” is a characteristic of the love that exists among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: “If human love is enlivened by the element of surprise, something analogous to it cannot be excluded from divine love.” Regardless, we need to be open to the possibility of surprises that may come our way as part of God’s call. Even the surprises that may seem, at first blush, unpleasant or unwished for are for our good in the long run, when they come from the God who is love. Some of us are called to a mission that we did not expect, and possibly one for which we feel unqualified and/or unworthy, but if it is a genuine call from God, we can rest assured that God will provide the grace we need to fulfill that mission.
What “little stone” are you being called to contribute to God’s beautiful mosaic of love?