The Christian State of Life
by Father Hans Urs von Balthasar
May I please begin this review by saying that The Christian State of Life should be required reading for every vocation director, director of seminarians, and spiritual director involved in helping others to discern God's call. I say this not because it offers practical advice on making the choice (there are plenty of perspectives on this already) but because of the grand, sweeping vision of the whole of Christian life that it presents. It might be called a work of "vocational theology," if such a term existed, one which is deeply immersed in the Scriptures (especially the Gospels) and the unique re-presentation of the longstanding mystical tradition presented by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. If the subject is of interest to you in the least, I would get ahold of a copy from the library (they're hard to find right now, as Ignatius Press is apparently between printings) and read the first sixty and the last forty pages. If they whet your appetite, start again from the beginning and take notes as you go—it's helpful for keeping track of where he is in the overall structure of the work.
Balthasar begins with a treatment of "love in the abstract," a long catalogue of the qualities of love as it is in itself and not as human persons are capable of it. The author reveals himself here as a disciple of the mystics, most especially Bernard. The pages read like a gloss on Bernard's sermon on love, in which he writes,
Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love.Balthasar is infused with the same intoxicating fervor of the immensity of love, and he takes utterly seriously the commandment to love the Lord with all one's mind, heart, and strength. One has the sense here of being in touch with the Love that is the source of all things, and it's hard not to be drawn into such contemplative intensity. This passage constitutes a real examination of conscience for the reader, and certain phrases ring out with clarity many weeks later: "Love does not ask what must be done, but what can be done; the first is not a question that love asks."
The states in life are rooted in God's original call for humanity to be in relationship with him through loving obedience, generous poverty, and fecund purity. This is the state of our first parents. Balthasar treats the "original state" with the sort of naivete (if one can call it that) of a practiced exegete who has come full circle to the text once again by way of the many insights of scholarship; he approaches Scripture with a refreshing straightforwardness that unlocks the secrets of Scripture not as a critical examiner but a disciple. With this method, he dives into the Scriptural accounts of the creation and fall in order to shed light on the redemption and the Church as the continuation of Christ's mission.
Balthasar then examines minutely Christ's own "state of life" and that of his mother in order to demonstrate how the present possibilities for the Christian life are rooted in their one "stand" in the Father's will. These sections draw on Balthasar's Trinitarian and Christological theology, subjects few of us have the knowledge to master, but they nonetheless place the life of discipleship firmly within the context of the Trinitarian life and the whole economy of salvation. (This subject was the material for my term paper, one of the most difficult and rewarding papers I've written so far, and I would be glad to share it with anyone who's interested in looking more closely at the subject.)
After a lengthy examination of the states of election and the secular state (i.e. the state of the vows and the ordinary "lay" state) and their relationship to one another, Balthasar takes a close look at the ministerial priesthood and where it fits within this whole economy. I can say very little about this, as my research forced me to put my time in elsewhere, but suffice to say I will be returning to it in the very near future to explore his insights. What is most intriguing is what he does with the concept of priestly service as one of representation and sacrifice; it reaches its perfection, of course, in Christ, but for the reason that here priest and victim are one. Balthasar concludes from this that the most perfect sacrifice (and therefore the sacrifice Jesus himself offered) is the one in which one surrenders even the consciousness of love in the performance of it; everything one does, then, becomes the impartial performance of a purely formal, external act. Some of his most stirring words are to be found in this section (though I may be partial to the subject). Particularly notable is the justification for the Church's authority, which Balthasar perceives to be constituted by the very unworthiness of those who exercise it:
No human way of life is ever totally adequate to the greatness of the divine mission conferred with the priestly office. For how can any human person be worthy to impart the word 0f God? How can he be permitted to dispense the grace of God, to say in the name of God's Son: 'This is my body' or 'Your sins are forgiven you', to bind and loose in such a manner that his action is ratified in heaven? Only the consciousness of an incurable unworthiness that reaches to the very depths of his being can be the halting response to the call to such a ministry. This is true even if the one so called strives in duty and in gratitude to let his whole being be re-formed in accordance with the ministry bestowed on him by God himself. This mark of absolute imparity between person and office is the beginning and end of the Church's authority. It helps him who is charged with the office to bear it and him who must obey it to look beyond the person and even the weakness of the minister to the divine character of what he administers.The final section of the book is a treatment of the nature of the "call" itself, its recognition, and the possibility to reject or accept it in freedom. Other commentators, based on a more precise reading of Balthasar than my own, would quality some of his harsh language regarding the need to follow one's vocation; I defer to that judgment as a whole, with the qualification that such incentives (exaggerated as they may be) are necessary for a generation of Catholics largely ambivalent to the question of radical discipleship. The lack of commitment to forms of religious life and the ministerial priesthood—and even to the married state—would suggest that among the many other factors that undermine readiness to "follow the Lamb wherever he goes", the lack of insistence by our pastors that vocational discernment is a necessity for every single Christian is one of the most disheartening. The last fifteen pages of Christian State of Life will certainly make you take a serious look at your own discernment!