how to read the book of all saints
Last year, the publication of the Book of All Saints in English caused quite a lot of excitement. I received many emails from people asking for more information about this fascinating, bewildering book. Here is a collection of advice that I have given over the past year on how to read Adrienne von Speyr’s Book of All Saints.
- Resist the tendency to read this as a reference book on your favorite saints. Often you will look them up to confirm or deny Adrienne’s views of your favorite saints’ spirituality. This book, however, is about prayer. Or better it teaches you how to pray like all the saints. When (not if) you read the whole book, you will discover you have learned a lot about deep, contemplative prayer. Rather than learning a lot about a lot of saints, you will find that above all you have learned to pray deeply and intimately. In many ways, I think we are incapable of proving or disproving Adrienne’s judgments of a particular saint’s prayer. What we read are her teachings about the communion of saints as a deep, multi-layered communion of prayer.
- The Book of All Saints is the first book of Adrienne’s posthumous works. When Adrienne dictated these prayer portraits, it was not meant to be a collected volume. These are spiritual sketches of saints composed over a long period of time. Von Balthasar only chose to collect and publish them after Adrienne’s death at least as far as I can tell. Because of this, the vignettes on a saint’s prayer are sometimes loosely related to each other and therefore are somewhat episodic.
- While Adrienne strives for objectivity in her mysticism so as to disappear in God’s will, she is nonetheless still a subjective interpreter. These are not definitive portraits of a saint’s prayer life. By God’s grace she was invited in as a guest to observe the saint in prayer. She participates imperfectly in God’s vision of the saint in prayer. She articulates imperfectly the status and character of the saint in prayer. I am amazed, stunned, enthralled, repelled, and always drawn in deeper by these prayer portraits. Above all, because of this book, I have learned much about prayer.
- My last advise: once you’ve read it, read it again. New and substantial insights will emerge. I think this could be a classic of twentieth-century Catholic spirituality.
As always, I am humbled by the good conversations we have. I look forward to more. Please leave a comment or find my email on my about page. Keep reading Adrienne and let others know what you think. I’ve been struck, how about you?