Karl Rahner's Secret 22-Year Romance: Spiritual History in Letters, Author Says

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NEW YORK -- It is an image out of sync with the persona of a German academic: Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner on his knees before a woman, overwhelmed with gratitude for his love, for a passionate relationship with a 51-year-old widow and two-time divorcee that would produce some 4,000 letters between 1962 and Rahner's death in 1984.

Rahner, considered by many to be the 20th century's most creative Catholic theologian, was 58 when German novelist Luise Rinser played the image back to him in a letter dated Aug. 10, 1962. "My Fish, truly beloved, I cannot express how shaken I was as you knelt before me," she wrote. "You were kneeling before the Love that you are experiencing and before which I also kneel in amazement, in reverence, with trembling and with an exultation that I hardly dare to allow myself to feel. We are both touched in the innermost part of our being by something that is much stronger than we anticipated."

The passage is from letters that Rinser wrote to Rahner over the 22 years of their relationship. Published in German, the letters hold a particular fascination for Pamela Kirk, a theologian who teaches at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y. While there has been virtually no public discussion of the letters in the United States, she has delivered two papers on the Rinser-Rahner relationship at the Catholic Theological Society of America.

As the relationship progressed, Rahner was petulant, reproachful, wanting greater loyalty from Rinser, who warned him that another man, a Benedictine abbot and her spiritual director, took priority over Rahner in her affections. All three parties to this apparently celibate love triangle -- Rinser, Rahner and "M.A.," as she refers to the abbot, connected at Rinser's second home near Rome during the Second Vatican Council. The abbot was a council participant, Rahner a theological adviser, Rinser correspondent for a German Catholic newspaper.

At times during their 22-year relationship, Rahner wrote Rinser three or four letters a day. The couple called each other by nicknames: hers "Wuhschel," the German rendering for the Woozle character in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (a nickname first given to Rinser by her two sons); his "Fish" for its double meaning: symbol of Christianity and Pisces, the sign Rahner was born under on March 5, 1904.

Kirk said she regards the letters as a trove of spiritual history destined to become better known. In an interview in her Manhattan apartment, she said she hopes a scholar will come forth with time to translate the letters into English

During the past few years, Kirk's academic interests in the lives of two literary women have spanned continents and cultures. Even as she marveled at the treasure Rinser's letters (the Jesuits will not allow Rahner's letters to Rinser to be published), most of her intellectual energy has been directed southward, to the work of a 17th-century Mexican nun and poet known as Sor Juana.

Kirk's interest in Latin American liberation theology drew her to Sor Juana. Kirk is also concerned that history has buried the reputations of significant Catholic women. Her theological analysis of Sor Juana's work is expected to be published in January by Continuum under the title Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Religion, Art and Feminism.

Scandalized

The Rinser-to-Rahner letters were published in German three years ago under the title Gratwanderung (roughly translated "Journey on the Edge," Kirk said), provoking "savage criticism" from people who accused Rinser of exploiting her friendship with Rahner. "She became the focus of ridicule," Kirk said, because people were scandalized by the relationship.

Kirk is a Rahner specialist. She wrote a dissertation on Rahner's eschatology to complete requirements for her doctoral degree at the University of Munich. (Her bachelor's, in languages and literature, is from Rosary College in River Forest, Ill. …