In my younger years as an undergraduate student I became fixated with a Swiss theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar. His writings induced condemnation in me due to their sheer density and complexity, yet they had a beguiling and awe-inspiring effect on this rather naïve reader. His language was deeply embedded within a philosophical and theological framework that reeked of intellectual superiority, but somehow I grasped to his musings like a drowning man, and four years later I am now returning to him. But why? A large majority of the texts we have studied thus far in the MA have touched upon a strange concept known as love (as both beneficial and destructive). Gatsby loves the illusory Daisy, Linda Loman loves her husband Willy, and David Schearl has an all encompassing love for his mother. As I studied these new notions of love in their various contexts, I was struck again, but with a new perspective, by the poignancy of von Balthasers teachings. Love for von Balthasar is to give someone something you haven’t got. It entails a self-giving and self-emptying that von Balthasar compares to the inner-trinitarian event of God giving his only Son to the world. Crucially, von Balthasar does not view this as a single historical event; rather it has been occurring since time immemorial. The Father in divine recklessness is giving all that he is to the Son and thus becoming godlessness. It is only by becoming destitute can God truly become God. Von Balthasar explains the self-giving (or “super-Kenosis”) of God’s Being as follows: “The God (as Father) can so give away his divinity that God (as Son) does not merely receive it as something borrowed, but possesses it in the equality of essence, expresses such an unimaginable and unsurpassable “separation” of God from Godself that every other separation (made possible by it!), even the most dark and bitter, can only occur within this first separation” (Balthasar 302).
In my opinion, von Balthasar’s thesis on the nature of love finds its nearest comparison in Roth’s Call it Sleep and the relationship between David and his mother Genya. For von Balthasar the love shared between a mother and a child serves as the very foundation of religion. The mother smiles and in the child’s infinite freedom he/she responds by smiling back. Henceforth, a mutual connection rooted in love is established. Von Balthasar sees the analogy of the child in front of its mother as the original I-Thou experience. Furthermore, for von Balthasar childhood is a time when the child cannot distinguish between the love of a parent and the love of God. God is unknowingly being revealed through the smile of a mother and thus the way to God goes through and beyond the mother. It is in the “Prologue” section of Call It Sleep that we first see the deeply interconnected relationship between David and his mother. Fleeing their past in hope of a better future, the mother holds the young David close to her chest as they stand on-board the steamer deck. Roth illustrates the closeness and warmth that radiates between the mother and son throughout this opening scene. Moreover, Roth constructs the mother in such a way that she becomes a beacon of protection and comfort that will dramatically alter the way David experiences the world. This image of the mother as protector and comforter can be seen in the “Prologue” when David retreats to his mother’s chest when he is faced with the rage of his father (Roth 11 & 15). If we were going to read David’s relationship with his mother within a Balthasarian framework then the “Prologue” scene acts as a precursor to David’s gradual inclination towards religiosity – insofar as David is called to self-consciousness through his mother and he seeks in religion the same thing he found in his mother, protection and comfort. In Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers we again see love as a defining force. Here as in Call it Sleep the mother becomes the figure of self-giving, giving until she can’t give no more. This radiation of love that nourishes Sara stands in stark contrast to the harsh environment of the Lower East Side, a habitat that provides the anti-thesis of love. In one rather poignant scene, the mother travels hours on a freezing cold night so that she may give Sara a “feather bed” that will ensure her warmth in her new apartment (171). The mother in a complete act of kindness is giving her daughter something that she herself could use. Sara (overwhelmed by such an action) utters an interesting comment that shed’s light on the rarity of her mother’s selfless nature: “[h]ow much bigger was Mother’s goodness than my burning ambition . . . feeling small under her feet with unworthiness” (171). Perhaps owing to a sense of guilt, Sara trivialises the self-emptying that the mother displays when she herself comments that “I’d give you away my life. But I can’t take time to go ‘way out to Elizabeth” (171). Sara fails to see the significance of the small everyday gestures which (paradoxically) constitute the enormity of the mother’s self-giving. I find it interesting (with the exception of Death of a Salesman) that it is within the novels which detail the plight of immigrants that we encounter most strikingly the Balthasarian idea of love as a self-giving and self-emptying enterprise. In this ever-growing secular society we have become oblivious to the treasures that are buried deep within theology. Sadly, if this continues we will loose forever a deeply profound and intriguing subject, that above all else points to the intricacy and beauty of human love.
Balthasar, Urs Von, Hans. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, volume III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ. Trans. Graham Harrison. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. Print.
Roth, Henry. Call it Sleep. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 2003. Print