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Hilda Graef

AT THE TENDER AGE OF SIX I MADE TWO DECISIONS THAT affected my whole future career: I resolved to test my literary capacities by composing a poem of my own, having just learned to write, and I told my father I wanted to learn Greek. This strange idea had entered my head when he had taught me for fun the first three or four letters of the Greek alphabet. He was a teacher at a Berlin girls' school, though his ambition, like that of his small daughter, had always been to be a writer; but the plays he had composed had never found their way on to the stage or into print.

I was seven when the fir st world war broke out; my Lather died three years later and, in 1918, when the German revolution brought havoc to the country much of my small world, too, was destroyed. I had been brought up a Protestant in name, though both my parents were unbelievers. Nevertheless, I had been really pious as a child. But nowa cousin of mine, who vvas much older than I and was considered the genius of the family, told me that all the New Testament stories I had learned were no more true than fairN tales. It ~~~s ~ grPat shock tr, me that there ~h`:,ul`} he n`' k'ather in heaven and n`' 1,`'r~l Jesu~ to pray tt-~; but if Werner said sr' it surely must be true. So m.s childish faith collal~sed within a few moments. lt left no conscious gap, for the next years were far too exciti~~g for me to feel any lack: there was the aftermath of the revolution, political orators on soap boxes, general strikes when I had to do my homework by candle light, and the like. Later in the early twenties, came the inflation, the nightmarish time when a loaf of bread would cost a million and even a milliard marks. At this time I first took up private coaching to help mother, who was teaching at a school; for our small capital had dissolved into thin air.

When I was seventeen I had a strange experience. By way of broadening my horizon, I went into a Catholic church one evening, where they were having May devotions. Then something extraordinary happened. I, who had hardly ever gone into a Protestant church because I found the services intolerably boring, was completely carried off my feet. I could not imagine why. So strong was the inexplicable attraction I felt that I went again two days later, and after that to Mass on Sunday. That finished me.

felt sure that if I went once more into a Catholic church [ should want to become a Catholic-without even believing in God. This was absurd, and I decided then and there never again to enter one.

A year later I finished school and began to study (;erman, English and Scripture at Berlin University, having developed an unaccountable interest in religion despite my complete unbelief. My student years were filled with work, dancing, theatre going, and also with my first journalistic efforts. My mother wanted me to take a degree enabling me to teach so as to have a secure background, whereas I
wanted to be a fashion journalist and very near got on to the staff of Vogue. That plan, however, miscarried, and I resigned myself to my mother's wish and, after taking my state's examination at Berlin, went in for a two years educational training from which I emerged as a fullfledged teacher. For eighteen months I taught at a Berlin church school, mostly English and Scripture. Then came Hitler-and I had even more than one Jewish grandmother!

During my university years I had done a fair amount of writing for some provincial and also some Berlin papers, mostly on fashions and small sketches in the manner of the popular Erich Kaestner. This too would now have to stop. I therefore decided to take a course in cooking, as I was quite good at that and it would give me an opening anywhere. After a short spell as lady housekeeper, I emigrated. I first went to Holland, where I stayed for a few months, and in May of 1936 I landed in England. I had quite a difficult time during my first years there. I started o~ doing domestic work and then got a job as German 'Fraeulein' at an incredible little private school near Eton, whose principal was addicted to the brandy bottle. During my first winter there I had every conceivable variety of a cold; but I would nevertheless sit undeterred on my bed (my chair in the icy room I shared with the gym mistress was too dilapidated to sit on), wrapped in my dressing gown, and wrote articles for Swiss newspapers. My great worry was: would I ever be able to write English sufficiently well for publication?

After four terms at this somewhat purgatorial school, I was o~ered a bursary if I would study Church of England theology and take the Archbishop of Canterbury's Diploma. I accepted with alacrity, and soon found myself writing theological essays at top speed at King's College, London, which invariably received high marks from my professors. It seemed that I might, after all, be able to write articles in English.

Though I had in the meantime been confirmed in the Church of England, I was still not much of a Christian during the first year of my theological studies. Then, in my second year, when I was introduced to the doctrinal teaching of the Church in the first five centuries, the incredible happened: for the first time in my life I saw that the Christian religion is not, as my German Lutheran teachers had presented it, something totally unreasonable which one had just to 'experience'; I realized that it was a perfectly logical whole, hanging together in all its parts, and by no means 'absurd.' I duly took my examination, in January of 1940, a few months after the outbreak of World War II. Though I received a First class degree, conferred on me in Lambeth Chapel by the Archbishop of Canterbury in person, I could not find a post, owing to my German nationality, but just managed to keep alive in a London attic frequently shaken by bombs, on a small allowance from a charitable organization. So I had plenty of time to read, and immersed myself in St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, with an admixture of G. K. Chesterton and Monsignor Benson's novels by way of 1ighter relief. Besides, I started making a regular morning and evening meditation according to the Ignatian method. It is hardly surprising that, with such a spiritual diet, I should soon have turned my eyes to the Catholic Church. In fact, on one cold morning in January of 194l, I made my way to the famous Jesuit church in Farm Street and asked to see a priest, to the accompaniment of the noise of roaring planes and anti-aircraft guns. Within two months I was received into the Church.

As I had built my career on an Anglican theological diploma, all prospects for a job seem to have collapsed. While I was still an Anglican I had written a series of articles on "Prayer in the Bible" for a religious teachers' periodical. I now began to interest myself in mystical theology and published articles on German mystics in the Oxford Dominican monthly Blackiriars, besides writing on German questions in the London Tablet and other journals. In autumn of the same year (1941), I was appointed senior assistant to the editor of the Lexicon of Patristic Greek that was being compiled in Oxford.

I had never thought of writing books but contented myself with articles, when, as the war was nearing its end, in July of 1945, I received a letter from an Irish publisher (Mercier Press, Dublin) asking whether I had a manuscript that I would care to submit to him; he had seen my spiritual a~rticles in Blackfriars and was interested in publishing something I had written. I was dumbfounded-I-write a book? It seemed an impossible proposition. But gradually the idea grew on me, and after consultation with the editor of Blackiriars I enlarged some of the material I had published in that periodical, added some other studies, and finally sent in the manuscript of my first book, The Way of the Mystics. It was still on the press when the publisher asked me to do a second book for him, on Therese Neumann, whose name was just then much in the news. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for when I gladly accepted this offer. I had no doubt that Therese was a genuine mystic and, as my remuneration for the Lexico~ work was scarcely sufficient to keep body and soul together, I was hoping to quickly write a 'potboiler.'

I had never studied Therese Neumann's case before; but as I was now reading the various previous publications, doubts arose in my mind that all was not so clearly supernatural as it seemed, and, though I should have liked to write a popular hagiographical account, I felt I could not do so without first investigating the case. I wrote in this sense to the publishers, fully expecting them to draw back; but to my surprise they replied that I should examine thecase as fully as I could and then preSent it as it seemed to me.

In order to gain some firsthand im~reSsions, I decided to go to Konnersreuth myself-not ab easy undertaking, for the,year was 1948 and the American occupation authorities refused me a visa until I produced a forrnal permission from Therese's own diocesan, Monsignor Buchberger, to see her. The journey-from Switzerlar~d where I had spent a holiday-was also difficult; the elet tricity broke down and the train stood for three hours b~tween two stations in the middle of the night; besides, it was invaded by American soldiers who had, understan~lably enough, drunk far too much of the excellent Bavariin beer and had to remind each other from time to tinle that "there was a lady in the compartment." Nevertheiess, I eventually arrived at Konnersreuth and had a sho~t conversation with Therese; I did not, however, see her in one of her ecstasies, since the Friday I was there was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. When I expressed my regret to her director, Father Naber, that I had not be6n there on the previous Friday, he informed me that the phenomena had not appeared on that day either. In fact, as I was assured on very good authority, they had lately become very infrequent.

Back in Oxford I completed my b~ok, having come to the conclusion that a supernatural explanation of the strange case was no more probable than a natural one. I thought I had given the evidence for m) view with sufficient fairness, and two prominent Jesuits, Archbishop T. D. Roberts and Father C. C. Martindale, gave the book very favorable reviews in English papers, so that there it was hardly attacked at all. Hence the violent c~ntroversy the book aroused in the United States came as a s~urprise to me. It brought me, by the way, very litt]e 'fan mail,' though I remember a letter from one of Th~resets American admirers expressing the conviction that I must be either the willing or the unwilling instrument of the devil. When the book appeared in a German translation in Switzerland the controversy flared up even more violently; immediately before publication the publishers received, among other threatening mail, a post-card calling the work "the vile book of the vile witch of Albion," though it appeared with two Imprimaturs.

It was a relief after all these attacks, to which I replied in an article published in the Commonweal, to immerse myself in the works of the Greek Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, whose sermons on The Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes (Newman, 1954) I translated, with introduction and notes, for the Ancient Christian Writers series. While I was still engaged on that, I received a letter from a German Dominican nun friend who asked me whether I knew Edith Stein. I replied that she did not interest me; I thought her too much of a blue stocking. About three months later I received a letter from an American Capuchin in Italy who also asked me if I knew her. I replied in the same strain. By way of answer he sent me the first biography of her, written by her Prioress. I approached with the greatest misgivings-only to be so completely bowled over by it as to want to write a life of her myself, more suited to English-speaking readers and stressing also her intellectual and spiritual development. To collect more first-hand information on her, I made a lightening tour through Belgium, Holland and Germany, during which I stayed at her own convent at Cologne for two nights, having to climb over the bomb-damaged roofs of the surrounding houses to get to my bedroom The Scholar and the Cross (Newman) was published in the spring of 1955.

At the same time my work on the Greek Patristic Lexicon came to an end. After more than thirteen years of it, this seemed a suitable moment for some stocktaking. My mother, who had joined me in England in 1939, had suggested several times that I should write my autobiography.I now settled down to it, and the outcome of my delvings into my past was published by Newman in the spring of 1957.

At the moment, I am busy carrying out a long cherished plan~to write a larger and, I hope, more mature book on the mystic life than my first one had been, which is probably to be called The Light and the Rainbow. While col lecting material for its first chapter on Jesuit spirituality, I had the privilege of being admitted-the first woman ever!-with the permission of the provincial and many smiles and rattling of backdoor keys, to the enclosure of the Jesuit house at Enghien (Belgium) to choose my books from their magnifi'cent spiritual library. For the spiritual life has remained my chief concern. It was the purpose of God in Our Daily Life (Newman, 1952) to adapt it to the normal routine of contemporary men and women, and I have tried to present it in an even simpler form in a series of twelve articles that began to appear in June of 1956 in the Dominican publication The Torch.

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