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​Of love and suffering

The human and the saint seen by Ida Görres

Today there are few who remember but when Ida Görresdied in May 1971 it was Joseph Ratzinger, then a professor at Tubingen, who gave the eulogy at her funeral. She had become famous above all for her splendid protrayals of important figures – from Francis of Assisi to Joan of Arc, from Florence Nightingale to Teilhard de Chardin – which had profoundly renewed the hagiography of the 20th century – and also for equally intense and revolutionary texts, starting with her great work on Thérèse of Lisieux.

Ida Görres in a photograph of 1948

Ida Görres, born Elisabeth Friederike von Coudenhove-Kalergi, a Countess of the Empire, lived a life marked by an inner solitude as deep as it was stimulating, an ambiguous legacy of her origins: she was born in the very midst of a Bohemian forest, the daughter of an Austrian diplomat and a Japanese woman who bequeathed to her, in her appearance too, unmistakeably Eurasian features. However, her dual origins were to be found above all in her soul. She herself perceived with sorrow the inner tension between two so different cultures: “Would my deep sadness, my pitiless gaze on the world be my Asian heritage? What I share in is something very old, of ancient wisdom, but old and wise in a way that is unredeemed. And concerning her mother she wrote: “Only a great novelist of the following generation could write about her profoundly tragic destiny – just as Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind. Did she think that someone had asked her whether she wanted to marry a European when all she knew about Europeans was ‘They are white devils with red hair and fishy eyes’? Her later, bitter comment was: ‘It was worse than death. But Japanese girls knew how to obey’… Of her seven children my mother loved only the eldest two, who had been born in Japan, and made this quite clear…. When I hear complaints of the ‘lack of family warmth’ here, I almost feel like laughing”.

Ida spent her childhood in Austrian convent schools, where for the first time she came across the Church in her most rigid, yet also in certain aspects, protective form. It was only after 1918, in the Bund Neuland Youth Movement, to whose will for religious renewal she made a noteworthy contribution, that she managed to perceive an unexpected vitality in the Church.

From 1923 to 1925 the young Ida (an endearing nickname for Friederike) stayed temporarily as a novice with the Mary Ward Sisters in her beloved St Pölten, not far from Vienna. From 1925 to 1927 she studied political science in Vienna, then from 1927 to 1929 social science in Fribourg, and lastly history (ecclesiastical), theology and philosophy, first at the University of Fribourg from 1929 to 1931 and then in Vienna from 1931 to 1932. From May 1932 until Easter 1935 she worked “in social assistance for female youth” in the Diocese of Dresden-Meissen, or rather, as an intellectual pioneer for Catholic youth. It was in Dresden that her lively, even ardent, manner of developing and communicating her thinking was already very pronounced; her leadership evoked enthusiasm.

However the loneliness that derived from the “cruel burden of childhood” and an upbringing singularly lacking in love continued to weigh on this success. Before she succeeded in assuaging it, not without inner conflict, she was courted by Carl-Joseph Görres from Berlin (1905-1973). They married in 1935. Some Catholic circles were almost disappointed by their marriage, which seemed to put paid to the ideal of a new “Pucelle d’Orléans” [Maid of Orléans]. Nevertheless her husband proved to be a worthy companion of Ida’s intellectual passion; she was able to devote herself entirely to her work as a writer. Works were born in rapid succession, as well as numerous lectures, all of which focused on the Church and the saints. “Since I have no family” – for to her deep disappointment she was unable to bear children – “all my strength has been concentrated on the Church”.

From 1950 she began to suffer from spastic paralysis which slowed down her work but did not completely put an end to her creativity. Among the causes triggering her illness were probably also the attacks she had to bear for her Brief über die Kirche, 1948 (English edition, A Letter on the Church, 1949), a work of social criticism for which she was harshly criticized.

Denise Lynch “St Thérèse the Little Flower”

She experienced the Second Vatican Council at first with joyful attention, but subsequently rather with worry about its consequences whose dangers and ambiguities she foresaw. This is borne out by her letters to Paulus Gordan, a Benedictine, published with the interrogative title Wirklich die neue Phönixgestalt?, 2015 [Really, a new form of phoenix?]. Görres also saw instinctively things that were indispensable to her begin to totter. A symptomatic title is Abbruchkommandos in der Kirche (Commando per lo smantellamento nella Chiesa)[Order to dismantle the Church]. In 1969 she was summoned to the Synod of Würzburg, which was intending to implement the Council’s directives as soon as possible. On 14 May 1971 Ida Görres gave an intervention on “Mass and sacrament” and immediately afterwards she collapsed due to a cerebral haemorrhage which led to her death the following day in the Marienkrankenhaus, Frankfurt.

Görres had expressed the wish to be buried in Fribourg clad in her white kimono. White, the colour of mourning for the Japanese, indicates a late “reconciliation” with her mother. On the stone slab, next to the fighting Archangel Michael, so dear to her, these words are written: Cave adsum (“Attention, I am here!”).

Görres:’ masterpiece on the Little Thérèse of Lisieux, Das verborgene Antlitz, was published in 1943 (English edition The Hidden Face, 2003). The importance and success of this work lie in the fact that – even before the integral publication of her diary, censured by the sisters – it shed light on Thérèse’s human qualities: the schmaltzy myth with which the convent had surrounded the “little one” and “the sentimentality constructed round the Story of a Soul vanished in the face of the profound knowledge of the environment shown by the author, who had also been brought up in the world of “little sacrifices”, of edifying poetry and of convent boarding schools for girls. Every petit-bourgeois ornament was thus eliminated to reveal Thérèse’s hidden face, compromised by neurotic traits, diminished by infantilization, sometimes overcome by an obsessive scrupulousness and in the end sunk in a frightful night of faith. Yet, it was precisely in the piety of the environment, individually limited and distorted, that Thérèse’s face began to reflect what was divine.

Still today this “archaeology” of the true Thérèse takes our breath away. Nothing is reduced to more or less superficial psychologizing: before the humanly limited the inexplicable seems extraordinarily illuminating. The fascination (and consolation) of this work lies in the fact that it shows in full clarity that human limitation does not constitute a barrier for the divine. Even the strangest and most unlikeable character traits become a starting point for grace. Kitsch does not truly cloud God’s beauty. With the passion of those who suffer personally because of the narrow conventionality of some of the Church’s positions, Görres shows the difference between albums of stereotyped poetry and songs of praise imbued with authentic religious devotion. The alternating play of grace and weakness is moving, it even becomes the hallmark of holiness.

The other front on which all Görres’ humanity emerges is her reflection on the fundamental questions of life. Her book Von Ehe und von Einsamkeit 1949 (Of marriage and of loneliness) gives an idea of the great author’s acute capacity for observation and passion. All the objections to matrimony defined as “an impossible permanent bond” are listed in it, but the sorrowful experiences of “unappeased” loneliness are also brought to the fore. So it is that all the positions are discussed and examined in depth with sensitivity and are clarified, until the basic indication emerges: that life should be lived, in a precarious balance but lived nevertheless: the whole of life with one other person or life with many people. Both of these kinds of life have their own burdens, which cannot be lightened with words but must be accepted without bitterness; both have their satisfactions, but also their precipices. And yet they can be lived. Even the misunderstandings of first love are examined with delicacy: a lesson on the capacity for human dedication and self-deception full of dangers. However, this lesson is not humiliating. Something more than sentiment is speaking here; it is the voice of experience.

Vincent van Gogh “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890)

We hear a language full of passion which enables us to perceive a palpitating heart but also an analytical mind, as rigorous as it is creative, as elegant as it is pugnacious. A linguistic ability full of nuances confers on her arguments not only their clarity but especially their useful power.

What makes this way of thinking valuable is the fact that she calls the power, God, into play. Not as a stopgap or a panacea for all evils, but rather as a living strength to which one may have recourse in order to rally. “He can sustain only what resists”. And it is exactly this that proves useful.

In her diary Zwischen den Zeiten, 1960 (Between the ages) Ida Görres herself illustrates her own personality: “My main problems, central, existential, are not in fact in the intellectual sphere, as my acquaintances, strangers and even friends persist in thinking. They have always been in the moral sphere, as far back as I can remember; and here too they are not in theory and principles but rather in life. I have always made one call to the intellect, as a reinforcing troop, to explore the inextricable jungle of having to live and of principles, in order to open up a path; the way was and is still the essence of my questions”.

Görres was capable of “crying from love and from pain”. She probed the depths of the human being: the depths of a confused, contradictory “unredeemed” human, where sexuality acts as a great indomitable motor. And yet, going through the analysis of the thousands of years of experience of the Church, of poetry and of literature, the answers to the most anguished questions come only from personal dialogue and from conflict with God, from being happily surprised by his guidance. 

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 20, 2020