Nodding to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Sunday morning, Low Sunday or Divine Mercy Sunday.

I had an uncle of French Mauritian extraction, now dead, who lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and  had great devotion to St Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun born in 1905 who entered the religious order of Our Lady of the Sisters of  Mercy in Cracow, Poland, in the 1930s. She claimed to have visions of and  conversations with Jesus, kept notebooks in which she recorded messages about God’s Divine Mercy and  died in 1938.  Sr Faustina was  the first saint to be proclaimed in the 21st century.  My uncle would send me cuttings, prayers and stacks of  lurid  prayer cards about her. He was not a mystic and probably not a saint, combining a  bossy and controlling nature with a childlike fondness for miracles, holy water, prophecies of doom. I wasn’t sure what to make of St Faustina and my ambivalence annoyed him but he didn’t expect much of me as a convert and coming from the family into which he had married. He  was married for more than 60 years to one of my mother’s sisters, whose first names curiously  all began with E.  Like all of my mother’s family, she was immune or impervious to religion and my uncle’s zeal. I suspect she found the  little paintings of  saints scattered around the house quite horrible.

So. Complexity and  the psychology of saintliness, the stretching of the mind and  spirit beyond miraculous  paintings and  doom-laden secrets. Which have their place.

Along with finding out more about St Faustina albeit with reluctance, I am thinking today about the  persisting influence on so many of us of the great Swiss Catholic  theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. I have a copy of his essay on St Therese of Lisieux in which he explores the nature of her ‘littleness’ as true sanctity and her understanding of the mercy of God:

Therefore at the end of her life she desires to appear empty-handed before God, and rejoices at the thought. When Pauline says, “Oh, when I die I shall have nothing to show to the good God, I shall arrive empty-handed, and that makes me very sad”, Therese answers: “You are not like me, then, though we are both in the same position. Even if I had performed all the deeds of St. Paul I would still consider myself an unprofitable servant; I would notice that my hands were empty. But that is precisely the cause of my joy; since I have nothing, I shall expect everything from the good God.”


It is easily seen that Therese does not sit in judgment on anyone’s works or labors, but the one thing she cannot abide is that human beings should boast of their works in the face of God. To do so would be to insult grace, since “Jesus wants to grant us the same graces, wants to give us His Heaven as a free gift”. The fact that there is no relation between earthly labor and heavenly reward was already her greatest incentive for throwing all her energies into the love and service of God when she was no more than fourteen: “I already had a presentiment of what God has prepared for those who love Him; and realizing the lack of proportion between these eternal rewards and the petty sacrifices of this life, I desired to love, to love Jesus passionately, to offer Him countless tokens of my affection whilst I could still do so.”


This lack of proportion cannot be identified with the empty dialectic between sin and grace characteristic of Protestantism; it is the Catholic truth that the relation between grace received and grace to be received is infinitely increasing. It is this which touches Therese so deeply in Our Lord’s words to St. Mechtild: “I am telling you the truth, that it gives me great joy when men expect mighty things of me. However great their faith and boldness may be, I shall bestow on them far more than their merits.” And so Therese entrusts herself to this “far-more ” promised by God’s grace. “I know well that I shall never be worthy of what I am hoping for; but I put my hand out like a begging child, and I know that You will grant me so much more than I ask, because You are so good.”


One comment

  1. How odd that you should write about these two saints. I have “The Story of a Soul” and the “Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska” both on my bedside table. I have recently come to believe that they absolutely cannot be reconciled as being written about the same Jesus. Where Faustina sees her sisters going to hell, Therese is rejoicing about Jesus’ love. I think you have to pick one or the other. I will go with St. Therese.

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