The Jesuit Karl Rahner was the most prolific, and probably the most brilliant, Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. Born in 1904, he was part of a generation who lectured in Latin, took papally-mandated oaths against “modernism,” and did the intellectual grunt work of Vatican II. Catholic students often pick up one of Rahner’s volumes—usually Foundations of Christian Faith, which looks like an introductory textbook—only to find him dry and dense. So they put him back down and move to another theologian, perhaps one with catchier titles. This is a huge mistake.
The trick to getting into Rahner is to start with his prayers rather than his theology proper. (And the trick to learning to pray, by the way, is eavesdropping on the prayers of others and trying to think their thoughts after them.) Luckily, Rahner’s prayers have been published in several collections, the best of which is Encounters With Silence (1960; 87 pages). These seven short monologues addressed to God provide an intimate glimpse into the inner, sometimes tortured, life of this theological genius. Consider his prayer to the “God of My Daily Routine”:
“My soul has become a huge warehouse where day after day the trucks unload their crates without any plan or discrimination, to be piled helter-skelter in every available corner and cranny, until it is crammed full from top to bottom with the trite, the commonplace, the insignificant, the routine. What will happen to me when all the crates are suddenly swept out of the warehouse? How will I feel at the hour of my death? Then there will be no more ‘daily routine’; then I shall suddenly be abandoned by all the things that now fill up my days here on earth.”
“Prayer can be like a slow interior bleeding,” Rahner observes, and this is a book that should be read slowly, meditatively. You could read it in one sitting, but you might find yourself emotionally exhausted, lost in an ecstatic trance, or ordering every book of his you can find online.
Sonja Anderson is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale. She studies early Christianity and blogs occasionally at womenintheology.org.