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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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