Literally the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened
Beauty Among the Ruins

Romano Guardini: The Lord

I did manage to read this book over Lent, as I had intended. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment; in fact it's not that much of an accomplishment. But it's a long book, 600-plus pages, and a fairly dense one. And aside from my disorderly and distracted temperament and habits, decades of giving priority to almost everything else over reading have left me with a deep sense that reading is at best just barely above Doing Nothing, which is to say Wasting Time, which means that I feel uneasy about it, and guilty if I do it for very long.

But enough about my hangups. This is a great book, and I might even be justified in saying that it's a Great Book. I'd been wanting to read it for years, and now that I have I'm thinking of making it a Lenten thing every year. Whether or not I actually do that, there's no doubt that it is worth re-reading. 


It's essentially a commentary on the New Testament, primarily the Gospels and the Apocalypse. I must say that the word "commentary" applied to scripture is not a word that awakens eager anticipation in me. Perhaps that prejudice arises from a few old and as far as I know never-read volumes in the ancestral bookcase in the house where I grew up. Its shelves were filled with volumes going back to the early nineteenth century, and they mostly looked dull, or even forbidding, to me. Some should have interested me: Scott's novels, for instance. Some of the religious titles seemed to capture in a physical way the dullness of a species of Christianity that, after the Enlightenment, was stranded between emotional evangelicalism and liberalism.

So I'll dump the word "commentary" and say that this book is a very close and impassioned reading of the text. The best way for me to communicate that is to give some examples. If you've been reading this blog during Lent you've seen some: this, this, this, this, and this.

I left roughly two dozen book darts attached to the pages (book darts?) , sometimes pointing to a paragraph or two and sometimes to an entire chapter. There would have been more but sometimes I didn't have the darts handy. Here is one such passage. It appears late in the book, in a chapter called "The Great Sign in Heaven," in the section on the Apocalypse. That section was for me one of the most enlightening: it produces from the text a kind of order which is intelligible--to a degree--without attempting to reduce it to simple allegory or to pin the content of the visions to specific earthly things. 

But aren't we distancing ourselves from the simple meaning of the Gospels and the pure reality of Jesus? Isn't this after all more like mysticism and metaphysics? We must not be intimidated. The simple meaning of the Gospels--what is it? The pure reality of Jesus--which? The Gospels are anything but simple in the sense meant in the objection. Jesus is not at all the pure figure which criticism suggests. Behind these tenets stands a dogma--a shadowy, modern, man-made dogma--according to which Christian essence means pious humanism. The Gospels, however, know nothing of the sort, and before they can be made to read so, piece after piece must be eliminated on the excuse that it had crept in under foreign influence or was the product of collective elaboration. What then would be the significance of Revelation, or of faith? Then we human beings would be taking it upon ourselves to decide what is or is not divine. Then redemption would lose its power, for this self-doctored Christ would no longer redeem, but would only confirm our will. No, only one attitude towards Revelation is valid: readiness to hear and to learn. 

That last sentence serves very well as a description of Guardini's approach throughout. Here are a couple of fairly brief intro-to-Guardini pieces, one in the National Catholic Register and one in Crisis. I note this observation in the latter: "the textbook Thomism devised as a bulwark against the errors of Modernism left him cold." I can certainly sympathize with that. The primacy given to dogma among many of Thomas's disciples is not necessarily wrong, but it does sometimes give an impression that correct doctrine is the only thing that really matters, whereas it is a necessary-but-not-sufficient thing. Doctrine and devotion may be different things, but they are not in opposition, any more than flesh and bone are in opposition. Either without the other is...well, the images summoned by that idea convey the magnitude of the error pretty well, with no need for more words.

I've long felt that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Bendedict XVI was at least very high among the wisest of churchmen in our time, perhaps the wisest. And he was greatly influenced by Guardini. Maybe that means I'm now a Guardinian. Pope Francis also is said to follow Guardini in much of his thinking. So does that make me also a Bergoglian? Well, I wouldn't have said so, but it's okay. My reservations about Pope Francis have to do with his governance of the Church, not with his theology. At least not necessarily--it isn't always clear exactly where he stands. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Guardini's The Lord had a profound influence on me when was in my twenty's, and I've been meaning to get it out and reread it for years (I'm now in my mid seventy's). His connection to Ratzinger is crucial (the next profound influence was Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity). And also with von Balthazar who so sorely lamented the divorce of mystical and fundamental theology at some point in the late middle ages. All the great early saints and founders of orders were profound theologians who never for a minute stepped outside the mystery. For them it was always "faith seeking understanding" as St. Anselm put it. He (von Balthasar)is famous for his dictum that theology is only done correctly "on one's knees." It's hard for me to imagine a serious theologian who doesn't go to Mass every day.

I think what Pope Francis values in Guardini are some of Guardini's ideas about the social realm. At least that's what I pick up in some of what's in the book The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio's Intellectual Journey. You can see some of its pages at Google Books; here's a bit:

There is no question that the thought of Romano Guardini and his concept of concrete-living serves as an essential reference point. Bergoglio found in Guardini a "synthetic," "integral" model, a "catholic" paradigm similar to his own, capable of explaining and embracing the principal personal/social/political contrasts that tend to crystallize into dialectical contradictions that fuel dangerous conflicts.
You can see this emphasis in an address that Francis gave to a meeting of the Romano Guardini Foundation in 2015:
I am certain that Guardini is a thinker who has much to say to the people of our time, and not only to Christians. You are carrying out this project with your foundation, bringing Guardini’s thought into a polyphonic dialogue in the spheres of today’s politics, culture and science. I earnestly hope for the success of this endeavour. ...

Guardini says that, by “humbly accepting existence from the hand of God, personal will transforms into divine will and in this way, without the creature ceasing to be only a creature and God truly God, their living unity is brought about”.... This is Guardini’s profound vision.

For Guardini this “living unity” with God consists in the concrete relationships of individuals with the world and with those around them. The individual feels interwoven within a people, namely, in an “original union of men that by species, country and historical evolution in life and in their destinies are a unique whole”.

Well, that rather dampens my enthusiasm. I mean, there's nothing actually wrong with it, I guess, but...[yawn].

Cyrus, I'm pretty sure I'd like von B a lot, too. And on the basis of the little I've read I do. But he wrote so much that I've sort of abandoned the idea of getting very far into his work.

I plan to read Ratzinger's Intro, though. I think I bought it a few years ago...or did I?...yes, I see it on the shelf now.

And by the way:

Guardini says that, by “humbly accepting existence from the hand of God, personal will transforms into divine will....

Presumably that's a translation from Guardini's German. I really doubt that he wrote "transforms into" rather than "is transformed into." I see this all the time now and it really bugs me.

My favorite of Balthasar's is his small book "Heart of the World." I often think of it as more of a poem that a theological treatise.

Ha! That happens to be one of the two of his books that I've read. It was many years ago and I liked it a lot, and have always intended to re-read it.

The other one btw was Dare We Hope.

Yes, Dare We Hope. I never understood all the controversy over that book. The same people who complain that he is a universalist say that Fatima prayer between every decade of their Rosary ("lead ALL souls to heaven..."). All he really said was that we have a duty to HOPE for all, and can never say we KNOW that there is a single soul in hell.

Right. I never have understood why anyone who says the Fatima prayer can object to the book. I suspect some have not actually read it but have just heard from someone else that vB is a universalist.

Since he is described as a universalist I can see why Catholics would dislike von B. If he’s not a universalist, we should probably be informed.

He's not--"described as", not "is". At least on the basis of that book, he is not. It's as Cyrus says above. But apparently some people (who as I said I suspect haven't read the book) started calling him a universalist (everyone *will* be saved).

One can reasonably argue that he goes too far in even holding out the possibility that everyone will be saved, but in that case the Fatima prayer is also heterodox, which would certainly call the whole Fatima thing into question.

Bishop Robert Barron wrote the foreword in the 2014 Ignatius Press edition of Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?; here's some of it:

The most striking and original contribution that Balthasar makes to this discussion, I believe, is his critique of Thomas Aquinas’s view—shared widely in the classical tradition—that part of the joy of heaven is to witness the sufferings of the damned. To this he contrasts the approach of a surprising number of saints and mystics, who declared a willingness to suffer on behalf of a denizen of Hell or even, at the limit, to take his or her place as a gesture of love. The prototype here is St. Paul himself, who says in the ninth chapter of Romans: “I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3). The possibility that his fellow Jews might be separated from Christ does not awaken in Paul anything even vaguely resembling gloating self-satisfaction, or even delight in the divine justice, but rather a mercy that conduces to utter self-sacrifice.

Balthasar draws our attention to a number of female mystics who share this Pauline attitude: Mechtild of Hackeborn, Angela Foligno, Therese of Lisieux, and Catherine of Siena. A conversation between Christ and Catherine is especially illuminating. Fired by the hope that all people might be saved, Catherine said to Jesus, “How could I ever reconcile myself, Lord, to the prospect that a single one of those whom you have created in your image and likeness should become lost and slip from your hands?” The answer that the Lord gives her, confided to her spiritual director Raymond of Capua, is breathtaking: “Love cannot be contained in Hell; it would totally annihilate Hell.” In other words, the love that Catherine is exhibiting, precisely through her hope that all be saved, functions as an antidote to the poison, or according to her own metaphor, an obstacle to the entrance of Hell. She tells her Lord, “If I could remain united with you in love while, at the same time, placing myself before the entrance of Hell and blocking it off in such a way that no one could enter, that would be the greatest of joys for me.”

Well, you know, vB did call the whole Fatima thing into question. I don't, though.


I didn't know that. But presumably it wasn't because of that prayer, since it fits with his views.

Thanks for posting that, Marianne. It's very illuminating. That teaching of St. Thomas has always bothered me. I can sort of almost see it as an acknowledgement of God's perfect justice, but still...I'm glad to have some support for the other view from other saints and theologians.

In his book, von Balthasar clearly distinguishes between universalism and a hope for all. At one point he clearly indicates the reality of hell, but he restricts the fear of hell to oneself. He uses the metaphor of "knowing others are there" as a looking over God's shoulder to see the cards in his hand. Something forbidden to us. I've always thought that the mystery of the perfect unity of justice and mercy in God is just as deep as the mystery of the perfect unity of humanity and divinity in Christ. As Gabriel Marcel would put it: "It's not a problem, it's a mystery."

D.B. Hart has a book coming out this fall in which he argues for some sort of universalism. Will be interesting to say the least.

Yeah, I've heard some rumblings about that. I think he published an excerpt or something. I didn't read it. Given the way he comes across in his writings, it's not too surprising to me that he would be undeterred by charges of heterodoxy.

"[vB] clearly indicates the reality of hell, but he restricts the fear of hell to oneself. " Which seems a healthy way to look at it.

"I've always thought that the mystery of the perfect unity of justice and mercy in God is just as deep as the mystery of the perfect unity of humanity and divinity in Christ. " Yes. I always figured that if Aquinas *is* right, then we would come to see it in just that way. It's the horror of the possibility that God would be unjust that bothers us, and I think we can set aside that possibility and trust him.

"It's the horror of the possibility that God would be unjust that bothers us, and I think we can set aside that possibility and trust him."

Ironically enough it's Hart's little book on the tsunami that really nailed that for me.

A close friend whose opinion I value highly recommended that book *very* strongly to me not long after it came out. But I haven't read it.

It's a great little book. Hart draws a lot on Dostoevsky, and his take on Ivan's argument against God in Bros. K. really helped my understandings of both theology and Dost'y. I haven't read the latter the same way since.

A condensed version of argument of Hart's book is contained in an article he wrote for First things here:

Thanks, I'll read that. And probably the book. Hart is always an enjoyable as well as interesting read.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)