Romano Guardini on sacred integration
Romano Guardini on sacred integration

Romano Guardini on sacred integration

The Catholic priest who illuminated faith with doubt, humanity with eternity, and culture with truth.

September 1 st 2008
Appears in Fall 2008

St. Ludwig Kirche in Munich stands amid Ludwig Maximilian University on the city's majestic Ludwigstrasse. It is a place of worship, prayer, and meditation for the university's students, faculty, and staff, as well as for nearby residents. This church is noteworthy not only because it unites Byzantine and Italian-Gothic elements in its neoromanesque architecture, but also because it preserves the remembrance of Romano Guardini, its remarkable preacher from 1948 to 1961.

Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and a theology professor, is honoured there today in two ways. First, affixed to the church's pulpit is a bronze plaque with an image of Guardini, his name, and his words: "The truth has a bright and calm power. In my pastoral work, I have one aim: to help by means of the truth."

Second, the church contains a meditation chapel in which Guardini is buried. After walking through a dark, low passageway, visitors enter a high-vaulted room aglow with natural light. As they stand, sit or kneel in uncluttered stillness and face an altar, they can find their souls pulled upward by the chapel's elongated windows so that they gaze toward the heights in and beyond the church's arches. In this movement, they can engage in the contemplation that Guardini himself practiced and taught.

Who was Romano Guardini (February 17, 1885 - October 1, 1968), and what were some of his insights?

Born in Verona, Italy, Guardini grew up in Mainz, Germany. At an early age, he matured into a "man of letters," a Renaissance thinker, in pursuit of life's meaning and truth. Working in theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and cultural analysis, he held professorships in Berlin (1923-1939), Tübingen (1945-1947), and Munich (1948-1963). With his approximately 70 books and 100 articles and countless lectures, he touched the hearts and minds of thousands of people, including Hannah Arendt, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Martin Buber, Dorothy Day, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Olivier Messiaen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Flannery O'Connor, and Karl Rahner, S.J. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI (formerly, Josef Ratzinger) still frequently quotes Guardini.

Romano Guardini belonged to the generation of German-speaking religious thinkers who—born from the mid-1870s to the early 1890s—came of age during the First World War. These contemporaries of Adolf Hitler generated many of the ground-breaking ideas and approaches that still shape theology and philosophy. Among Protestants were Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Rudolf Otto, Albert Schweitzer, and Paul Tillich. The Jewish thinkers included Martin Buber, Jules Isaac, Abraham Heschel, and Edith Stein (who became a Catholic in 1922 and died at Auschwitz in 1942). Among the Catholics were Karl Adam, Odo Casel, O.S.B., Romano Guardini, Josef Jungmann, S.J., and Erich Przywara, S.J.

Similar to Karl Barth, Guardini proclaimed the objective, transcendent character of divine revelation. Yet, like Paul Tillich, Guardini brought about a mutually constructive dialogue between Christian belief and modernity. Employing Martin Buber's thought on the interpersonal character of human life—on the "I - Thou"—Guardini used the language of person as he reflected on God, human life, and the relationship between God and us.

Karl Rahner (d. 1984), who was arguably the most influential Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, stood on Guardini's shoulders. In 1924, at the age of twenty, Rahner participated in a retreat that Guardini directed. Afterwards, Rahner read everything that his mentor wrote, and incorporated Guardini's ideas into his own thought. In 1963, Rahner was awarded—with his mentor's blessing—Guardini's academic chair in Munich. Two years later, on Guardini's eightieth birthday, Rahner observed that Guardini had dedicated his life to illuminating two realities, the "unspeakable mystery which we call God" and "the eternal in human beings."

Rahner's words imply six themes in Guardini's thought. The quotations below are extracted from Romano Guardini: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), which I edited with an introduction.

On the mystery of being human

Guardini challenged the reductionism in contemporary discussions of human life by insisting that a human being is constituted by much more than biological, psychological, sociological, economic, and cultural forces. For example, he held that although Freud and Jung shed light on the human unconscious, they did not fully measure the human spirit. They studied parts of the human psyche. Yet, the human person is a whole that is greater than the sum of his or her parts.

According to Guardini, human life unfolds through "the dynamic interaction of opposites." To be human is to strive to integrate numerous paradoxes into one's life: although we are inherently interpersonal, we need time alone. Also, we order our lives by means of routines and laws, and yet we must occasionally allow the unexpected to interrupt these forms and even change them. Moreover, on the one hand, we express ourselves through action. But, on the other hand, true action springs from meditation, and leads back to further contemplation.

The interplay of opposites even occurs in Christian belief. For instance, Christians surrender themselves into God's hands, and yet they can mature in their faith as they undergo doubt. Writing in 1961, Guardini noted that:

today's faith should arise out of an informed, reflective, self-critical assessment. A 'doubting faith' must let go of many beautiful religious and liturgical expressions of faith in order to remain anchored in its essential elements. A faith that does not run from doubt—hence, a faith that remains authentic—does not distance itself from questions, but includes them. As Cardinal Newman has said, 'faith is able to bear doubt.'

On the sacred dignity of every human being

Confronting today's functionalism, Guardini held that the value of human life depends not upon what people produce but upon their holy dignity in God's eyes. The Creator deliberately gives life to each human being, and bestows infinite worth upon this life. God sees each human being as a divine gift—even when this individual denies God or engages in self-destructive behavior.

In 1953, Guardini observed:

Who I am I can grasp only in relation to what is beyond me. No; it is better to say that I can understand myself only in relation to the One who has given me me. I cannot understand myself only in relation to myself. Questions about human life which use the word 'why' and the word 'I' cannot be answered by an individual alone. These questions include: Why am I as I am? Why can I have only what I have? Why do I exist? These questions can be answered only in relation to God.

Guardini repeatedly pointed to biblical testimonies concerning God's relationship to human beings. The Old Testament attests that God enters into covenants with men and women regardless of their talents and qualities, and calls people to new life in relation to God. For example, God singled out Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Hannah and her son Samuel, and Elijah. The New Testament recounts how Jesus entered into transforming relationships with Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, and "the sinful woman" who washed Jesus' feet with her tears (see Luke 7:36-50).

On human solidarity

Although individualism dominates Western society, it misrepresents the true character of personal existence. According to Guardini, to be a person is to live in relation to other persons as persons. In his literary analysis of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Guardini praised the poet's witness to the dynamics of the human self. But at the same time, he criticized Rilke's skepticism concerning our ability to remain committed to each other.

The Bible holds that God has created each of us in God's "image" (Genesis 1:26-27). But how should we understand these words? They mean, Guardini said, that each human being is interpersonal because God is triune—that is, interpersonal. They also mean that God is intent on establishing an "I-Thou" relationship with human beings individually and as a family.

Reflecting in 1925 on the communal character of human life in relation to the triune God, Guardini wrote:

A human person is not solely an individual entity, not solely a private reality. Along with having autonomy, each human being exists in relation to other people. For the Christian, the social aspect of human life springs from the fact that the true or proper 'person,' God—of whom a human being is an image—is both individual and social. God has revealed to us that His personal being exists in a communal reality.

On God's presence in human life

While accepting the secularization of Western society, Guardini sought to show that the sacred is present and active in the secular. Guardini directly challenged secularism and atheism by promoting worship, prayer, and contemplation. Furthermore, he explained that a church should delineate a sacred space. That is, it should disrupt our preoccupations, and open us to the wholly Other, the living God.

According to Guardini, the human conscience is itself a sacred space in which God meets a person. Developing this theme in 1928, Guardini argued:

God speaks to us both from within ourselves through the voice of our conscience and also from outside ourselves in the seeming coincidence of people and events. The divine word from within us clarifies the divine word from outside us, and vice versa. A person's ethical life arises out of the continually new challenges coming from the interplay of the inner word and the outer world . . . The interplay of the word within us and the word outside us simultaneously engages the deepest elements of our human existence and the riches of divine revelation.

On the Lordship of Jesus Christ

Guardini saw that human beings orient their personal freedom in one of three ways. We can subordinate ourselves to a human authority such as a parent, a spouse, a boss, a pastor, a political figure, or an organization. In its extreme, this handling of freedom can bring about the idolatry that "the Führer" demanded in Nazi Germany. Secondly, we can assert ourselves against all authorities. In its extreme, this is the radical self-assertion of the rebellious teenager. Or, finally, we can entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ who does not enslave His followers but liberates them to live for truth and life.

Guardini acknowledged that Jesus Christ is the transcendent, living person who can encounter us in ways not unlike the way that the Lord spoke to Saul (St. Paul) on the road to Damascus. Christian belief's "essence," Guardini taught, is not a set of teachings but the risen Lord. Indeed, the living Christ is truth, reality itself who meets us as we pursue the meaning and truth of our lives. Using the phrases "the living Christ" and "truth" interchangeably, Guardini sought to bring truth to light.

Writing his memoirs in the mid-1940s, Guardini recalled his days in the Third Reich. In particular, he observed that "truth" had quietly stood with people during the Nazi terror. For example, in January 1939, Guardini was summoned before the Reich's Minister of Education, and told that he could no longer lecture at Berlin's Humboldt University. Hitler's agent declared that the Reich was stripping Guardini of his professorship because he taught the Christian "worldview" when he should be teaching the Nazi "worldview." As Guardini listened to the Nazi's hollow statements, he sensed that Christ, Truth itself, was silently supporting him in this absurd situation.

Reflecting on this moment and others similar to it, Guardini wrote:

Truth is a power especially when we require of it no immediate effect, but have patience and figure on a long wait. Still better, truth is a power when we do not think in general about its effects but seek to present it for its own sake, for its holy, divine greatness . . . Sometimes, especially in recent years, I had the sense that truth was standing as a reality in the room.

On accounting for Christian hope

According to 1 Peter 3:15, Christians must be prepared to explain their faith to anyone who requests "an accounting for the hope that is in you." In doing this, we can proceed in one of three ways. We can simply repeat the words of the New Testament and the church's creeds and catechisms. This approach cherishes truth, but it risks the eclipse of meaning. Or, we can radically re-express these teachings in a discourse that is primarily reliant on today's philosophical or psychological categories. This method seeks relevance but at the possible cost of faithfulness to the Gospel. Or, we can fashion a discourse that tries to integrate the wisdom of the Bible and the Christian tradition, on the one hand, and the ideas and values of our society, on the other. This theological approach is the path that Guardini followed.

Throughout his adult life, Guardini encouraged a constructive, though critical, dialogue between Christian faith and secular culture. For example, in 1961, he wrote that Christians must discern the complexities, merits, and errors of modernity, and address them on the basis of divine revelation, as expressed in the Bible and the church's life and teachings. In this regard, he wrote:

The dangers of today's daunting scientific-technological culture challenge human beings in ways that are now evoking fresh elements of the Christian life, elements that were previously dormant. How this challenge will unfold and how Christians will interact with the anonymous impulses of the will to power, the drive for wealth, and the effort to do everything is a question that Christians have yet to answer.

John's Gospel inspired and guided Romano Guardini's Christian belief and his efforts to elucidate this belief. In particular, the Johannine account of Jesus' final prayer (John 17:15-19) influenced Guardini, for although he did not withdraw "out of the world," he did not "belong to the world." Wanting "to be sanctified in the truth," he acknowledged that God's "word is truth." As a disciple of Christ, Guardini believed that the Lord had sent His followers "into the world" to witness to the truth. Hence, he unceasingly sought "to be sanctified in the truth."

In light of Guardini's life and thought, it is not surprising that St. Ludwig Kirche upholds the memory of the preacher who, each Sunday, gathered approximately 1000 people to hear the divine word and sing God's praises. After his death, Guardini was buried—as he requested—in a small, inconspicuous cemetery at St. Laurentius Kirche in a Munich suburb. In 1982, the people of St. Ludwig Kirche dedicated the bronze plaque in remembrance of Guardini's preaching. In subsequent years, as interest in Guardini's writings remained strong, sentiment grew to have Guardini's coffin moved to St. Ludwig Kirche. This desire was realized in 1997. Now people can readily pray at the tomb of a man who devoted himself to truth, the living Christ. The tomb's memorial plaque gives Guardini's words about himself—that he lived and died "believing in Jesus Christ, in his church, trusting in his gracious judgment."

Topics: Religion
Robert A. Krieg
Robert A. Krieg

Robert A. Krieg is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. He has written Romano Guardini: A Precursor of Vatican II (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) and Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany (New York: Continuum Books, 2004). Along with his research on modern German theology, he enjoys teaching an introductory course on the Bible and the Christian faith to undergraduate students. In light of this course, he is currently writing a book on salvation in Jesus Christ.


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