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
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
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.