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|