Adrienne von Speyr invited to opt for “a medicine at the school of the Beatitudes,” because she was not only a theologian and a mystic, but a “Doctor” whose medical practice and reflection shed light on the Doctor-patient relationship. She was among the first women in Switzerland to become a Doctor.
“A Woman at the Heart of the 20th Century,” was the title of a symposium dedicated to the figure of Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967), organized in Rome on November 17-18, 2017 by the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association and by L’Osservatore Romano’s monthly “Women, Church, World.” The first part took place at “Casa Balthasar,” and the second at the “Casina Pio IV” in the Vatican. The conferences gathered European and American experts, notably Father Jacques Servais, SJ, Director of the “Casa Balthasar,” Mrs. Lucetta Scaraffia, the monthly’s Directress, and Father Andre-Marie Jerumanis, Doctor of formation and Professor at Lugano’s Faculty of Theology, who recalled the figure of Doctor Adrienne von Speyr. These three interventions were published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano on November 18-19, 2017.
The Work of a Doctor as Diakonia
“She was not only a theologian and a mystic but a Doctor,” explained Father Jerumanis. “She wanted to serve God in the medical service to her neighbor. Her conversion to Catholicism certainly changed her Christian being and her way of living her openness to God, by realizing in her work as Doctor the synthesis between contemplation and action, between the medical profession and the desire to serve the Creator totally.”
The author stressed: “to avoid distortions of the reading and to render service to Adrienne’s mission in the contemporary world, it is necessary “to include her personality” as Doctor. What Adrienne von Speyr pointed out was the need “to be at the disposition” (availability) which is also understood from her conception of Doctor and of the way she “lived her profession to the end, being at the disposition of others with her person, her professionalism, her compassion, her prayer, her charity towards the poor and herself being entirely at God’s disposition,” added Father Jerumanis.
She saw her father, Theodor, himself an ophthalmologist doctor, who already had a consultation for the poor. When she was a child, she went so far as to wish to take on herself this or that suffering. Her psychiatrist Uncle Wilhelm, noted her ability to bring peace to the most troubled patients of the Waldau Clinic, whom she could even make fall sleep. He didn’t oppose in the least her “medical” vocation. <There was > also the opposition of her mother. Her father died in 1918 when she was 16. And she had to struggle to become a Doctor and pay for her studies herself. She established her study at Basel in 1931. Her days were long, in the course of which she could receive 60 to 80 patients a day, according to her biographers.
The School of Beatitudes
She indicated this direction to the medical world: “Adrienne von Speyr invited her world to opt for a medicine at the School of the Beatitudes.
Blessed <are> the humble of heart; she insisted especially on “the importance of a humble heart for a Doctor” – “humility before God, humility before science, humility in face of one’s frailty.”
It’s an always timely teaching, stressed Father Jerumanis: “the risk exists in contemporary medicine, in a delirium of almighty power over life and over death, forgetting that it doesn’t give life and will never give life. Adrienne was conscious of this, as her biography reveals and her book on the Doctor and Patient. Life is a gift of God. Adrienne helped to conceive medicine as a medical diakonia, which participates in power of God of which He makes man participant.”
Blessed also are the poor in spirit: “Adrienne helped to rediscover poverty of spirit on the part of medical learning. There is today greater attention to the inter-disciplinary dimension in the world of medicine, taking into account a holistic approach to sickness and hence to healing – inter-disciplinary dimension that opens to the spiritual and religious dimension of the human being.”
Blessed are the pure of heart. This poverty of spirit “leads the Doctor to recognize his limitations” and his place “in the right disposition to receive the grace of God and thus acquire a purer look in the encounter with the patient and his sickness.”
Blessed are the merciful. “But the spirit of the Beatitudes,” observed the author, is also rediscovered in the way of conceiving <a Doctor’s> exercise of medicine, not as a simple profession but as a vocation, called to live his life with the patient allowing himself to be led by a merciful heart sensitive to the love of neighbour.”
He specified, for instance: “let us recall that Sister Heidi helped Adrienne to understand medical practice as a service of love and not only as a technical act. This dimension of love led her to live in profound communion the encounter with the patient, in true ‘mercy,’ namely, as the Hebrew term rahamim makes it understood.“
It is a term that the <Old> Testament uses to signify the “merciful insides” of God Himself.
The Approach to the Sick
For Father Jerumanis, therefore, “one can’t understand Adrienne without her relationship to the world of the sick, not only because she herself, in different moments of her life, experienced suffering and frailty linked to sickness, but also and above all because her life was profoundly linked to human suffering.” She suffered from tuberculosis, from a heart attack, from diabetes, from severe arthrosis, from blindness. And it was sickness that made her abandon her work in 1954 to dedicate herself to writing.
“In her autobiography, a great sensibility emerged for the person of the sick and the awareness of the hospital milieu that presented so many dehumanizing aspects. This attention is found in her book Doctor and Patient,” explained the author, who highlighted “Adrienne’s great intuitions on the approach to the sick and her understanding of the Doctor’s profession.”
She recommended, for instance, “entering into a spirit of engagement, which entails the whole person” from the beginning of medical studies, without waiting for the end of formation: to enter study in a Christian way to exercise his medical praxis as a Christina Doctor. “
“Adrienne insisted on the virtue of humility in face of medical science (…) She noted that the student risks entering in a clinical world where a human atmosphere is lacking. In a certain sense, Adrienne described her own experience when she spoke of the desire to surmount this de-personalization. She invited her colleagues continually to practice a more human medicine,” continued the author.
And she described this “de-personalization” of the patient that arrives at the hospital and becomes a “number,” “A case to treat according to the specificity of a particular pathology,” with the loss also of his “corporal immunity” which entails a loss of dignity.”
She pointed out that in the Doctor-patient relationship there is a twofold attitude:”I-him” and “I-<informal> you”: Adrienne von Speyr spoke of a contemplation of the <informal> you,” where the Doctor has the experience of the person “in his sickness” and not only “with the sickness.”
“It goes from the interest in the patient himself, the Doctor not limiting himself to some symptom but seeing the patient in his totality, to be encountered as a human being. She insists on the solidarity that must be born between the Doctor and the patient. The patient who lives his sickness as a unicum will be disappointed to live his sickness in an extrinsic way. Solidarity will lead the Doctor not to leave the patient alone with the question of the meaning of suffering, of his suffering. According to Adrienne, it’s a solidarity that extends beyond death,” explained the author.
Moreover, “solidarity is part of the ethos of the responsibility of the Doctor, which a non-believing Doctor must also assume.
Adrienne died in Basel on September 17, 1967, on the feast of Saint Hildegarde of Bingen, who was also a mystic and Doctor.
Transltion by Virginia M. Forrester