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Starting Point

And soup, better than words


She was a student of mine. She was in her 70s and sat in the front seat every class. She was a Romanian Jew. She was a very attractive woman. I became very fond of her. She would take notes each class and had about her a sense of real education that is rare: a love of learning, a love for beauty, loves that had matured with her years. She was almost childlike in the joy she took in being able to relate philosophical themes to her own previous reading and experience.

As I grew to know her, she made my heart dwell on all that is good and beautiful in life. I found myself wanting to know how to cherish as did she. What was her secret?

I noticed the numbers on her arm one evening and immediately knew what the faded blue ink meant, though I did not say anything.

She asked me to dinner at her home one night. The evening started with the usual introductory light conversation. She had cautioned me about my habit of smoking, yet gave me a beautiful ashtray to use in the refectory. It was made of marble.

She saw me looking at her arm.

She said, “I know you know.”

And I said, “Yes.”

She was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Already married, she lost her husband and her entire family. They were all gassed. All that she loved, all that she knew, all that was hers were taken from her. Somehow, she said, she survived. After the war, she gathered the fragments of her life and moved on.

She cared not about the existence of a God, she said, and did not say this with a trace of anger or bitterness. It was more like, “Well, if he somehow is, that is well and good, but history has made me dwell on other things.” I felt a strange but disconcerting peace with her as she said that. Something deep, very deep, shifted in me.

We shared wine. She filled my glass as she spoke. And I listened deeply. She told me of her life since the horror: how she eventually remarried, resettled, remembered.

She was a living reminder of unspeakable cruelty and horror. Yet, remarkably, she impressed me as living a very kind and loving life, a day-to-day existence, not worrying about what might happen the next day or the next hour. Something about her was so keenly attuned to the present that she drew you into the singular and passing moment that was to be shared and savored. I think she learned through her suffering that whatever is of goodness in life is rare, is to be shared and is not to be questioned. Or wasted. The sense I had from her was that goodness must be shared, poured like the wine before us. There was an imperative quality to her goodness. It just “is” and is good -- but you must have some!

I felt a holiness to her. But it had no name.

Consider, he said, the lilies of the field and how they neither toil nor spin, and yet they have more beauty than all the treasures of Solomon. Consider, he said, the birds of the air, who are cared for by God, and who do not want.

Who considered her, and all that she cherished and lost? The birds of those camps had better lives.

She lived from a deep reverence for so many things. Yet I had and have a sense of violating her very being should I try to find something of God in her. I think she deserved to accuse God of abandoning her. God abandoned her.

Yet, I must be honest with myself, in knowing that she imparted to me something of God’s mystery. I hope that she would grant me that and not be offended.

She gave me a bowl of soup that night, to take with me and have before going to bed because, she said, the night was cold. But I left her home with such a feeling of warmth, I cannot remember the cold at all.

I just remember a woman who endured suffering and gave up on God.

Do I debase her memory by a prayer? May I risk that? I think she would forgive me.

If you, God, decide to show something of yourself to her, that will be fine with her. You will be welcome at her table. Meanwhile, she is busy about her life, imparting to others no message other than her goodness and warmth. I like to think that you entered her life long ago, though I could never have told her that. She was too busy with the present moment, sharing her wine, her wisdom, her soup, her very life.

Perhaps many things we call religious are in truth a sacrilege, and many things that we discard as profane are in fact on fire with grace. Perhaps grace is, as Georges Bernanos said, everywhere and we have no language for that.

Soup can grow cold as words try to fathom such things. A night can lose its enchantment if the source of it all is probed too deeply.

I hope that your language, God, has something to do with dinners, with compassion, with warm soups and people who in their anger reject you and yet become you.

I do not think it really matters what she may or may not know about you. You have already come to her and given her your best. I think that I ate my soup in silence that night, after I got home, knowing that she touched my heart so deeply.

Did you speak through her? And you never use words? Just soup, given to me by a woman who survived fire and hatred. A woman who so long ago abandoned any hope for you, and yet who fed me, wanted me to be warm. And who is still kind. She had and has every right to hate. She had and has every right to curse you. She had every right to curse me and to curse all who profess to know you. Yet -- what else can I say? -- she was and is a grace and a power, a woman brimming with life and goodness. She was crucified and yet loves.

I can only pray to be like her and to learn from her, and to hope that if you are still a stranger to us who profess your name, I took some soup from you on a cold winter’s night, and I drank it and it warmed me.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His new book is Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA, 1998).

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998