During the course of my reading this last term, I came across a really great article. You know, the kind of article that makes you say, Dang, I wish I had written that. The title of the article is "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety." I didn't even know Hans (my main theologian for doctoral studies) was into anxiety! Well, I thought I would share a few of the thoughts that the author of the article, Anthony Cirelli, brings to the topic. I wish I had said these things, but I didn't. All credit to Hans and Tony.
To summarize, Balthasar suggests that anxiety happens because of the void between infinite divine freedom and finite human freedom. Anxiety in the Old Testament occurs in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it occurs when one turns away from God, only to be greeted by the torturous and searing loneliness and meaninglessness of life apart from God. On the other hand, anxiety is experienced when one is approached by God, as he is overwhelmed, blinded one might say, by a presence too powerful for words.
In other words, we are afraid of the infinite, of mystery and the unfamiliar, so we avoid it, turn away from it, and this produces anxiety. Or we have an encounter with the infinite, the mysterious, the unexplainable and it freaks us out. This produces anxiety because we cannot abide in a place of such unequal intimacy. In both cases, it is a turning toward the self, trying to avoid the void by an egocentric response that results in anxiety.
Using the example of Christ on the cross, Balthasar concludes that God did not come to abolish existential anxiety, but to enter into it himself and therefore to be in solidarity with humanity. By doing this, he revalues anxiety and overcomes it.
Cirelli says: "The moment when a person is aware of Being, he or she enters the dimension of encounter with the infinite God. But the sheer strangement and unfamiliarity of this 'presence' calls to mind an even greater awareness of absence. Metaphorically speaking, one undergoes a vertiginous experience as one stands atop a cliff in which the drop is incalculable and yet into which one is called to leap." We all know that feeling, right? Anxiety central! But wait, there's more...
"Anxiety characterizes that moment of encounter and decision: one either surrenders to God, who has sent his Christ to bridge heaven and earth by conveying him to the void, or one retreats into oneself by looking past God and gazing at the void itself." So there we are, teetering on top of the cliff above the void, faced with encounter and decision. And really anxious about it all. What now?
In imitation of Christ, one must make the leap by "surrendering all of one's hope and trust to God." The courage of a Christian, for Balthasar, though certainly not without anxiety, is nothing other than "an act of faith in which one dares to place oneself and the whole world in the hand of the One who can dispose of a person for death and for life." In other words, leaping into the void. But how?
"It is in prayer, that is, the basic opening of self to God in an act of surrendering love and devotion, indeed, in a consent to be silent, to wait for God in the void, that one has an example of what the decision or at least the occasion for trust looks like. Prayer is the way to enter into and emerge out of the void; not that prayer does away with the void, but rather is the experience of not being alone in the void." Yes. Even though the void is unavoidable, we don't have to be alone.
All quotes and paraphrases taken from Anthony Cirelli, "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety." New Blackfriars, 2011.
the photo: overlooking the St. Lawrence River from the train bridge. Frozen void below.