Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Living as a Saint: A Tribute to Dr. Susan A. Keefe

Psalm 116:14  "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."

I'll never forget that amazing morning.  It was August 29, 2000, and I had settled into my seat in the middle of a small and crowded classroom, waiting for one of my first classes at Duke Divinity School to begin.  That course was Church History 13: Early and Medieval Christianity, a staple of the curriculum.  A hush fell on the room as the professor walked through the door.  She was a small, wisp of a woman, emaciated, her hair clean but limp, her face sunken, her frame fragile.  She was wearing what looked to be a homemade dress and carrying a stack of books and papers that appeared to outweigh her.  She settled into place, and breathlessly began...

"The history of the church...is a love story."

She went on to describe the story of Jesus' sacrifice for the Church -- for us -- as told in the Gospels and expounded in Acts, in such a way that any of us could have believed she had been there, witnessing it all, from the foot of the cross to Pentecost.

That woman was Susan Keefe, and after that day, I would never view the church, or my role in it, quite the same again.

In all I would take three classes with Dr. Keefe, Associate Professor of Church History at Duke, and I would spend countless hours over five years in conversation with her.  Since my leaving Duke in 2006, we kept in touch through letters, cards, and emails.  News of her death at age 58, which reached me on August 8th, left me chilled to the bone, and yet then almost immediately comforted, as I realized, in some special way, she would always be near me now.  She was, after all, a living saint.

It is hard to describe this exceptional woman, in part because she was not exceptional in ways we are used to describing.  She eschewed professional attention. She was also very private. This is not to say she kept to herself -- quite the contrary, she was gregarious and caring at all times.  However, she did not make herself a topic of conversation.  I knew almost nothing about her.  I knew she was Catholic and came from a close-knit family in Connecticut. She was rumored to have once been a nun, yet to this day I don't know if that was indeed the case.  She was, doubtless, an ascetic.  No one I knew had ever witnessed her eat or drink anything.  It was rumored she lived on the Eucharist alone (though I didn't believe that).  Reactions to her appearance were wide-ranging.  Those who did not know her at all could be forgiven for wide-eyed shock. Among her students, there was reverence for her self-denial, fear for her health, and assumptions that she suffered from an eating disorder disguised as a spiritual discipline.  Some were drawn to her, some repelled by her.  But I believe that in virtually every case, Susan Keefe didn't even notice. She was too focused on her love of God.

Dr. Keefe's office was a small, top floor space crammed full of well-worn books and pictures.  She had travelled throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East to study ancient baptismal sites and find primary sources still extant in places like monastery libraries. Postcards and snapshots of these amazing places were everywhere in her office, as well as pictures of saints.  She adored the saints.  She had a true love of those holy men and women who had gone before and reminders of them were everywhere.  In December 2007 we visited St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana, founded by the newly canonized St. Mother Theodore Guerin.  Shortly thereafter I mailed a package to Dr. Keefe containing a small framed picture of the Saint, as well as a few other items.  Her reply speaks volumes:
I am utterly flabbergasted, and profoundly moved by St. Mother Guerin in my lap at this moment, and SS. Bill and Brooke, to have understood my love for the saints and endowed me so richly with a new one. This is indeed the communion of all saints! Indeed, indeed, your package DID arrive, to my great delight as I went to my mailbox this morning. When you sent me photos by email of Mother Guerin, I had secretly said in my heart, Oh, how I wish I could save the pictures of her, and her reliquary with the bones, and the church…but I had no way to download colored pictures. So your package was an answer to prayer, as well as a total surprise. You are both sweet beyond measure to have thought of me when you visited her shrine, and then to have collected and sent me the framed picture, the photographs, the medal, and the holy card. I am doubly touched at your letter, Bill, in which you took the time to explain your own emotions about the visit and about touching her reliquary, and then laying the holy card you sent me on it. I pray she becomes a special patron for both of you in Indiana. Her recent canonization makes her especially fascinating to me. She will hang beside me in my office, so that every time I see her, I also think of you both, and recommend you to her care.

Dr. Keefe lived out her faith in the subtlest of ways. She was always doing little things for people, almost unnoticed, in order to share her love through Jesus.  When we shared the news that my wife, Brooke, was pregnant, she proceeded to pray daily for the baby. When he was born she came to me with a little box, wrapped in paper, that weighed far more than I would have expected.  Inside were six rolls of quarters, each one slipped into a baby sock.  Those 240 quarters paid for our loads of laundry for weeks and weeks. In fact, they took so long to run out that they almost seemed to have miraculously multiplied.

During my last year as a student, Dr. Keefe's two-volume book was finally published -- Water and the Word, a beautifully bound collection of ancient texts on baptism, along with Dr. Keefe's commentaries on them.  I was working in the mail room the day the shipment arrived, and had the joy of carrying the box to her office for her.  I opened the box and laid my eyes on her book -- her life's work -- at the very first time that she did.  For my graduation, Brooke purchased a copy of the book from the school bookstore as a gift to me, and she went to Dr. Keefe asking for her to sign it.  She literally cried when she learned that Brooke had bought her "expensive book" for me.  Not only did she inscribe it with a sentiment that deeply touched me, she also exchanged it.  She gave Brooke her own copy, her only copy, which she felt was in slightly better shape, and kept the store copy that had a ding on the cover.

Me with Dr. Keefe, May 2003
That book is among my prized possessions, along with the many Christmas cards -- drawn and inscribed individually, by her hand -- postcards and letters Dr. Keefe mailed us over the years. But above these objects is her memory, and the lessons she had to teach.  The Bible mentions "saints" many times, always as the holy family of people set aside by God to advance His church.  We are all "called to be saints" as Paul says in Romans 1:7 -- we are called to be holy.  And indeed, perhaps we rightly reserve the term, in our culture, if not our theology, for those who display a special holiness, who truly light the way.  And so I thank God for my opportunity to have known such a Saint.  She has now gone home, after her sojourn in this foreign place.  Surely, "precious in the sight of the lord" was the death of Susan Keefe.


  1. And your beautiful writing about this lovely person has now served to bless the reader. Thank you for sharing, Bill. How wonderful to know such an amazing angel.

  2. I just learned of Dr. Keefe's passing tonight, Bill. I don't know you, but we shared her as a teacher and I was touched to read the account of your friendship with her. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful tribute. May she rest in peace and rise in glory! Demery Bader-Saye D'97

  3. I just received my Duke alumni magazine, and was saddened to learn of the passing of Susan Keefe. You have certainly captured her spirit in this blog. My husband and I, both students of Dr. Keefe in the 90's, considered ourselves blessed to have learned from someone with such a deep love for the Church.

  4. Bill, your memories of Susan Keefe are wonderful and brought tears to my eyes! I grew up with her in our Connecticut neighborhood and we went to the same High School. I lost touch with her over the years, and I never knew the woman she became. Your tribute to Susie, as I knew her, is not only moving, but provides a glimpse into her life as an adult. I was so saddened by her death, and that of her mother several days later. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  5. Dear Bill,
    Thank you so much for your eloquent and moving words. Susan was a friend when I was at Chapel Hill in the 1990's, and an inspiration. Her final books on Carolingian explanations of the Creed are pure gold.

  6. Dear William Pike:

    As an older student, I did a MTS at Duke Divinity School, finishing in 1997. I did not have courses with Professor Keefe, but frequently saw her in the chapel and around the place.

    I very much appreciate your excellent reflection. It allowed me to see her in a fuller way and to begin to understand the nature of her presence at the seminary.

    I once heard that at finals time, while the exams were being given, she prayed for each of her many students. The degree of compassion revealed in that story--which I presume to be true-- was enough to make Susan Keefe a figure that has haunted me all these years.

    Carolyn Oxford, a current student and fellow member of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, was the first person to mention the "fact" that Susan lived only on the Host.

    Knowing through your comments that she was indeed approachable, I'm sad that I did not take the time to get to know her. I fear that her extreme gauntness made me think that something was terribly wrong--that, indeed, she might soon die.

    So, thanks for this narrative and portrait. I'll visit the blog again, in case there's more.

    Yours, Bud Gerber

    PS: Could you comment on the oddity evident in the obituary contained in:

    1. Mr. Gerber,

      Thanks so much for your comment -- I certainly enjoyed reading it. I've read the obituary you referenced here and I imagine the oddity you referred to is the fact that it is an obituary for both Susan and her mother. That is because her mother died within just a couple of days of Susan, by coincidence. Another testament to an other-worldly life, I think :-)


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  8. Susan Keefe was on my dissertation committee. When I was writing my dissertation she spent about a year helping me translate Reformation-era, Catholic treatises vs. Luther that had never been translated beyond Latin and 16th-century German. She was a marvel and a lovely person. And, by the way, she did eat on occasion. She came over to my apartment and had a bite with my daughters and me a couple of times. I admit that my 3-year-old daughter ate quite a bit more than Susan did. I'm dismayed to learn of her death and alarmed that I didn't find out until today. Requiescat in pace.