The woman I met this summer
A story of how I was found
It happened rather unexpectedly. While on holiday, I was visiting a friend who suggested that together with some other Dominicans we should go to Speyer in Germany to see the famous cathedral. Before joining the Dominicans, I had been to Speyer as a seminarian on a diocesan pilgrimage in 2011. Then we only had time to celebrate a pilgrim Mass, during which Ramon Mangold took this iconic picture of me lifting the processional cross.
Lifting the Cross of Speyer in 2011: Picture by Ramon Mangold
So it was good to be back and see the cathedral in all its glory. We took our time and were able to visit the crypt and look at the graves of some of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Incidentally, I am reading a book on this topic this summer, but let’s not get too distracted from the story.
The Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen (ca. 1030)
After having visited the cathedral, my friend suggested that we should see the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary Magdalene. This congregation started in the 12th century as a community of female penitentiaries and became a Dominican community in 1304. From then until recently, the sisters ran schools. Now they lead a life of prayer, adoration, and contemplation.
So we went, and it was at this convent that I met her.
In the beginning, I was not aware of what was happening. I had heard about her before but did not know her room was in this monastery. So, the sisters suggested that we should go up there and have a look.
As I entered her room, I was immediately taken by her eyes. It is not that I had never seen her before, but somehow this was different. This was her room, the room where she had worked for ten years, slept, prepared her classes, and prayed. And as my friend and I sat down, the sisters filled us in on her story. How she had come here, and what happened when she left from here. And yet, as I was translating all this for our little group, I could not keep my eyes from her eyes as she seemed to watch me quietly, in silence.
I knew her to be an academic. She has worked with the big names in philosophy and theology and has – belatedly – been recognised in the field. But I never knew she had an interest in political theology too. She is known as stubborn and brave. We are about the same age, which helps.
Except, she is a saint, and I am not. She is a Carmelite sister, and I am a Dominican priest. And she became a martyr when she was murdered on the 9th of August 1942 in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her name is Edith Stein, but she is also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
The picture of St. Edith Stein in Speyer, see for original here
I had heard of her before but never noticed her eyes until I saw this large picture of her. I had read her story but never registered the Dominican connections until that day in Speyer. Finally, after my ordination, a good friend had given me the booklet of her canonisation. And yet, I had failed to take notice. But someone noticed me and decided to be noticed.
Sometimes, the saints do that. They enter your life without warning and throw everything upside down. They make your question your deepest beliefs about your vocation and yet confirm you at the same time in that vocation.
Of course, you may argue that it is all fantasy. But let me give you this. As we were leaving the monastery, an old sister smiled, came forward and, without saying a word, trusted something in my hand. As I opened my hand, I realised it was a tiny reliquary containing a piece of cloth from Edith’s habit.
It seemed to me that not only had I found her, but she found me.
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