Pursuing the Heart of Theology: St. Bernard's Fall Conference

Feb 8, 2022

Lisa Lickona, STL

In the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I hustled everyday back-and-forth between two waitressing gigs—serving Eggs Benedict and Cobb salads to executives at a high-class golfclub by day and schlepping pizzas and pitchers of soda to teens in a local pub by night. Yet somehow, each week, my mother managed to pinpoint the few hours that weren’t spoken for: and in these she assigned me chores around the house.

I was not thrilled. An overwhelming childhood memory is me blissfully ignoring my mother’s plaintive cry from the kitchen—“Please get back to work!”—as I lay curled up on top of my bunkbed with my head in a book. Pretty much any book or magazine could distract me from the chores—and I encountered and absorbed an eclectic mix of reading material as I dusted my way around the house: Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, and the Wall Street Journal. I read the Farmers’ Almanac and the Guinness Book of World Records. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica was more absorbing than cleaning the bathroom.

This one sunny August afternoon was no different. I had been sent to my dad’s study with the mission to dust, and as I dutifully wiped down the desk lamp, I spied on the far corner of the desk a pile of new books from Ignatius Press. This was not a surprise. I knew my dad was a huge fan of Ignatius Press and frequently ordered titles from the catalog. From reading the catalog myself (probably while I was supposed to be unloading the dishwasher) I knew that Ignatius Press had been founded by Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., to further the translation of the works of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar—an author I had recently encountered in my theology class at Notre Dame.

The book I saw on the top of that pile that day was World of Prayer by Adrienne von Speyr. Michael Waldstein, my theology professor, had told me that Balthasar had acted as spiritual director to von Speyr, an unassuming Swiss woman and practicing physician who had experienced extraordinary prayer. He had said that Balthasar had judged her work to be critical to understanding his own. Intrigued, I picked up the book, sank down onto the floor next to the desk, and opened it straight to a section called “Action and Contemplation.”

Immediately, I knew this book was like no book on prayer I had ever encountered. The discussion started in the Trinity—a meditation on the unity of action and contemplation of the Father and the Son in the process of the Son’s “being begotten.” Adrienne’s prose was direct and straightforward (I later learned that she dictated the books in German, not her native tongue). And she wrote in a no-nonsense way, as though she were right there herself, “in” the Trinity. From this point, she moved on to a description of human love, confidently but discretely describing the ebb and flow of love between a man and a woman.

I went back a few pages and re-read. But it was clear I had gotten it right the first time. Adrienne was drawing a comparison between the life of the Trinity and the give and take of marital love. I read on, entranced by what seemed to me to be a highly unusual, yet beautiful, way to describe the life of prayer.

As I look back on it now, I realize that Adrienne’s approach was exactly what one might expect from a laywoman doctor who is favored with a mystical friendship with the saints. Later, I would come to understand “how” one can make that jump from the Trinity to embodied love through the use of “analogical” language, which admits a similarity between God and man even as it acknowledges the infinite difference between the Creator and His creature. Yet in this moment, I was just in awe of an account that was at once otherworldly and yet fully grounded in the real world.

In a flash, I felt that I had encountered in this connection between human and divine love the answer to deep questions that I had always had, but until that moment could not have given voice to: What did God have to do with me? Where could I begin to see, in my own life, the stirrings of Redemption? How could I begin, here and now, to touch eternal Love?

I was converted to theology in this very moment. I just had to know more, to push further into this mystery of the relation between God’s world and my world. And, as if to underline the point, in this middle of this weird, pseudo-mystical experience, God handed me something utterly mundane: the topic for the senior thesis I would have to begin writing the next month.

Through that encounter that Saturday afternoon in my dad’s study, I was drawn on what to me is still a most exhilarating path: contemplating the supernatural in the ordinary—a work that is possible only because, in Jesus Christ, Divine Love has spoken in time, history, and fleshly reality. I was being led into the heart of theology.

And this is why I am thrilled to be part of the work at St. Bernard’s to host a conference this October celebrating the journal Communio—a publication that has sought to express this very heart. The founding of Communio was not merely the advent of a new print journal for theologians. Rather, it flowed from the desire of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Henri de Lubac to provide an opportunity for a renewal of the Church’s life—and specifically the life of those who are drawn into the work of theological and philosophical reflection—from the center of the faith, that sacred center that is the revelation of Triune love in the very Person of Jesus Christ.

For fifty years and across fourteen different language editions, Communio has hosted a truly catholic conversation, a conversation I was privileged to enter while studying at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute under David L. Schindler, Communio’s editor emeritus; I am deeply grateful for the way the theological trajectory traced by the journal has formed and continues to form me as a Catholic theologian.

What an amazing opportunity our October conference will be to come together to celebrate and deepen this work!

Lisa Lickona comes to St. Bernard’s after serving for eight years as Editor for Saints at Magnificat, where she researched and wrote daily on the lives of the saints. She has written and spoken widely on issues in theological anthropology and culture from the perspective afforded by Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and his “new feminism.” Her most recent work includes co-editing The Relevance of the Stars: Christ, Culture, Destiny by Lorenzo Albacete and a chapter for Clerical Sexual Misconduct II: A Foundational Conversation. She has published essays in Humanum, Catholic Social Science Review, and Ave Maria Law Review. Lisa earned her B.A. at the University of Notre Dame and holds the Masters in Theological Studies and Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. She has lived with her family in upstate New York for fifteen years, where for several years she operated a micro-organic farm and organized a local farmers’ market.