How The Stars Aligned For A German Astrophysicist-Turned-Nun

Silent night, holy night
Silent night, holy night
Rainer Stadler

REGENSBURG — A day in the life of Sister Lydia: 4:45 a.m.: get up. 5:40 a.m.: prayer, 30 minutes. 6:15 a.m.: Divine Office, 30 minutes. 7 a.m.: Holy Mass. 7:45 a.m.: breakfast. 8 to 11 a.m.: work. 11 a.m.: Divine Office, 30 minutes. 11:30 a.m.: Lunch followed by kitchen work and rest. In the afternoon: Silent prayer, 30 minutes, Lectio Divina, 30 minutes, work. 4:30 p.m.: Rosary. 5 to 6 p.m.: Divine Office. 7 p.m.: dinner, followed by communal time and Divine Office. From 9 p.m.: Silence.

Sister Lydia (pictured here) has been living this life for 11 years at the Holy Cross convent in Regensburg, Bavaria. During that time she has seldom left the building, the oldest part of which was erected nearly 800 years ago. Exceptions have been visits to the doctor or to her aged mother. Sister Lydia seeks seclusion "because here I live in direct contact with God: I can pray whenever I feel the need, and only need 30 seconds to get to mass in the chapel." This is the life to which she feels she was called.

Not many Germans today feel they have a religious calling. Only about half believe in God, and fewer than one in 20 goes to church. Which is not to say that people in the enlightened West no longer feel called to anything, or that they are unwilling to accept a certain number of constraints to follow their calling. About a year ago, volunteers willing to settle on Mars were being sought. They were offered a flight out but none back, so participants knew that they would be leaving their entire earthly life behind — their friends, acquaintances, family. Yet 200,000 people were attracted to the venture and the prospect of making history.

Sister Lydia went about it the other way around — from adventure back to daily routine. In the "world out there," as she puts it, she had a career that many would consider exciting and fulfilling. She worked as an astrophysicist and made a name for herself in the international research community, spending three years at Cambridge University and, among other places, at NASA in Washington and finally at its European counterpart ESA in Madrid.

She researched how binary stars influence each other, used state-of-the-art measuring equipment and computers, traveled internationally. But Constanze la Dous — her name before she entered the convent — gave up all that to become Sister Lydia and to pray all day. What's surprising is not only the way she follows her calling but what she believes life behind cloister walls will give her — more freedom and deeper insight into science. This freedom led her to share certain avenues of thought with British philosopher Antony Flew, who for a long time was one of the world's leading atheists but who underwent dramatic transformation a few years before his death in 2010. But first things first.

A secular family

Religion was not something Sister Lydia, who was born in 1956 in Braunschweig, got from her family. Her father was an actor, her mother a costume designer, and neither was religious. But they did send their daughter to an evangelical school intermittently, which served only to distance her further from the church. She didn't take her teachers seriously. They spoke about loving thy neighbor, justice, Christian values, but a spirit of whateverism marked the daily doings at the school. Only her physics teacher was different, "always objective and fair to everybody." After the first class, she knew that physics was where her future lay.

After graduation, Constanze la Dous left the church and studied physics. This was during the Cold War, and while she wasn't very political, she knew she didn't want to work in defense. So she specialized in the relatively innocuous astrophysics. While completing her doctorate, she traveled abroad several times, and a very promising career slowly took shape.

As an astrophysicist, Constanze la Dous was less interested in the beauty of the galaxies and stardust or the unending reaches of space. She wanted to understand, to know, what stars were made of, why they twinkled, how they came about, and how they disappear. "Like every person with a few smarts," she says, looking back, she was seeking a deeper meaning to life. She turned to psychology, natural religions, Buddhism, and found it all "interesting but not satisfactory."

Intellectual Catholicism

The search ended unexpectedly at Cambridge, where she reconnected with an old friend from university days. He had become an excellent scientist and had for a long time been a practicing Catholic — a combination that "didn't fit into my picture of things." She spent a lot of time talking to him, and he had the wisdom not to be provoked by such questions as "just what exactly are heaven and hell?" she says. "He answered me on an intellectual level I could do something with."

With regard to religion, she wasn't interested in rituals and ceremonies, and felt alienated from any form of pop piety. She approached the core issue — is there a God? — rationally and reached the conclusion that God exists and takes care of us. "I've had enough proof of that in my life," she says. She doesn't say what proof, as that is "a personal matter between God and me." She became a member of the Catholic Church when she was working in the United States in 1989.

Her newfound faith brought a practical question with it: How do I bring it into my daily life? She got rid of some books, let some friendships drop. She doesn't care to go into details. The issue of clothing was a lot easier, she says. There was no room for bikinis in her new life, for example.

Most of her friends didn't notice the change, much less her colleagues on the job, which she continued to pursue with full commitment. Family had never been an option for her. She was married to science. But on her way up the career ladder, Constanze la Dous had more or less frequently been given to understand by the men with whom she was competing for top positions that women were not welcome in this world. There was also growing annoyance by the realization that career ascension was in many ways keeping her from science, that many days were spent dealing with bureaucracy.

Studying the skies

In late 1995, she became head of the observatory in Sonneberg, Germany. Expo 2000, the World's Fair in Hannover, was coming up, and she and some other researchers conceived a unique project: observe the skies systematically for heavenly bodies that risked crashing into earth. "There have been crashes in the earth's history, and there will be again," she says. "They could lead to man's extinction." The project found favor among experts, but the wrangling for the its financing went on for years. In 1999, Constanze la Dous realized that the project would never come to be, and she left the institute.

She worked for three more years but realized something was changing. At 47, she finally decided to follow her calling and accept all the consequences of her decision. She quit her job, canceled insurance policies, and gifted practically everything she possessed — "which was actually quite reckless, the whole thing could so easily have gone pear shaped," she says.

She kept half her books, though, bringing with her 80 cartons to the convent to the astonishment of the 13 other nuns there. Her father, who has since died, wasn't enthusiastic about the move. But he came to terms with it over the years "because he saw I was happy there." The decision didn't particularly surprise her mother, but to this day she can't understand what her daughter finds so attractive about faith.

Happy cloister

Sister Lydia chose her convent with great care: It is a Dominican convent, the Dominicans being probably the most intellectual order available to women. What's expected of women who want to join is that they possess a certain maturity and that they received professional training and worked in their profession. No problem if they've had boyfriends or enjoyed the odd trip to Mallorca, explains Sister Lydia. "They have to know what they're giving up when they join an order."

But she stresses that she and fellow nuns still keep up with what's going on in the world. "We want to know what we're praying for." What's more, Sister Lydia says that new vistas have opened up for her in the convent that would have been unthinkable for a scientist to contemplate. Miracles, for example. They don't enter into a scientific mindset. Dogma has it that all of the world's phenomena can be rationally explained. From the Catholic point of view, however, it is indispensable to believe in miracles, Sister Lydia says. She is not talking about people being healed or similar phenomena, but the greater coherence of nature.

She's basically saying something similar to what British philosopher Antony Flew did. For most of his life, Flew fought the existence of God. But shortly before his death, scientific discoveries convinced him that — such was the enormous complexity of nature — a higher intelligence had to exist and that the randomness of evolution couldn't explain why a single cell contained more information than the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sister Lydia too espouses the idea that the world follows an intelligent design. Why do the laws of nature exist, why are we in a position to recognize them? For Sister Lydia, they are proof of the existence of God. "The complexity of the wing of a butterfly, its little proboscis — that all that's just random is, intellectually to me, a highly unsatisfactory assumption." If that were the basis for present-day science, there would be no way to decipher the world. Which is why, in her free time during the evening, Sister Lydia spends time working out ways she could reopen people's eyes to the many miracles that surround us. It seems she may have found a further calling.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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