Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"The mystery of the Cross gradually enveloped her whole life" - St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

Today the Church honours a remarkable woman, Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who was killed seventy-five years ago today at Auschwitz. The following is from an article by John Coleman SJ in America Magazine

Edith Stein was born in Breslau on October 12, 1891, the youngest of eleven, as her Jewish family was celebrating Yom Kippur. Edith's mother (widowed when Edith was only two) was a strongly devout Jew. Edith always deeply loved her mother, although as a young woman Edith abandoned any explicit practice of Judaism. "I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying", Edith later said. 

I have always hoped that the Catholic Church would declare Edith Stein a Doctor of the Church. She studied, first, at the University of Breslau where she was an active member of the Prussian Society for the Woman's Franchise. It would not hurt the church to have a feminist scholar among its doctors! In 1913, Edith transferred to Gottingen University where she became a teaching assistant to the renowned philosopher, Edmund Husserl. In Gottingen, Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. 

During World War I, Edith cut short her studies to serve as a field nurse in an Austrian field hospital, where she treated the sick in a typhus ward and worked in an operating theatre. In 1916, she followed Husserl to the University of Freiburg where she wrote her doctoral thesis on "The Problem of Empathy". During this period of study, she went to the Frankfurt Cathedral where she saw a woman with a shopping basket going to kneel for prayer. " This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant Churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot." In her doctoral dissertation she had written:" There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God's grace." 

Stein had wanted to obtain a professorship but that was not possible in 1918 for a woman. Husserl, however, wrote for her the following reference:" Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship." 

In 1921, while visiting a friend, Stein read the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. She spent the whole night reading it and said later :"When I finished the book, I said to myself, This is the truth." Later she said of her life; "My longing for truth was a single prayer." In 1922, Stein was baptized on the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus himself had entered God's covenant with Abraham. She reflected: "I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14 year old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God." After her conversion, she taught at a teacher training college in Speyer and was encouraged by a Benedictine Abbot to accept extensive speaking engagements on women's issues. She translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman and translated Thomas Aquinas' Questiones Disputate de Veritate (On Truth). 

In 1931, Stein left the convent school and devoted herself to getting a professorship. She wrote her main philosophical-theological work, Finite and Eternal Being. She was offered a position at the Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster in 1932. But in 1933, Hitler's Aryan law made it impossible for Stein to continue teaching. She noted: "I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on his people and that the destiny of those people would also be mine." Stein, finally, entered the convent of the Carmelites in 1933. She went home, first, to visit her mother and went with her to the synagogue on The Feast of Tabernacles. Her mother died in 1936. 

Stein saw continuities between her new Christian faith and Judaism. She once said: "I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is a great comfort."

Because of the growing anti-Jewish strictures in Germany, Stein was smuggled across the border to the Netherlands to the Carmelite Convent in Echt. She made there her last will on June 9, 1939: "Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so that the Lord will be accepted by his people and his kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world." While in Echt, Stein finished her study of John of the Cross' mysticism, entitled: Kreuzeswissenschaft - The Science of the Cross. 

In retaliation to the Dutch Bishops' letter, the Gestapo came on August 2, 1942 to arrest Edith and her sister, Rosa, like Edith a convert to Catholicism. Edith's final words to Rosa before being deported were: "Come, we are going for our people." A professor friend of Stein's said of her: "She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent." When he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne in 1987, John Paul II said the church was honoring "a daughter of Israel who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness." Surely, in honoring her, the church points to her clear bonds to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. 

Edith Stein had a prayer which is apt:

"Who are you, kindly light, 
who fill me now 
and brighten all the darkness of my heart? 
You guide me forward like a mother's hand 
and, if you let me go, 
I could not take a single step alone. 
You are the space, 
embracing all my being, 
hidden in it 
and what name can contain you? 
You, Holy Spirit, you, eternal love!"

Canterbury Cathedral: 
The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time 
Photo by Bob Culshaw (go HERE for info) 

When he visited Canterbury Cathedral on the eve of Pentecost 1982, one of the things Pope John Paul II did was to pray with Archbishop Robert Runcie in a small semi-circular chapel lit with high stained-glass windows, not far from where St Thomas Becket was martyred, right at the easternmost end of Canterbury Cathedral. For a long time this was known as the Corona Chapel, having been the place where part of Becket’s skull was housed as a relic. By 1977 the Corona Chapel had been given a new name: “The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time.” It honours those who have more recently given their lives in martyrdom. 

A notice on the wall reads: "Throughout the centuries men and women have given their lives for Christianity. Our own century is no exception. Their deaths are in union with the life-giving death of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Saviour of mankind. In this Chapel we thank God for the sacrifice of martyrdom whereby truth is upheld and God’s providence enriched. We pray that we may be worthy of their sacrifice." 

Two remarkable nuns, Edith Stein and Maria Skobtsova, are included among those commemorated.

And here is the homily preached by Pope St John Paul II at the canonisation of Edith Stein on 11th October, 1998:

The love of Christ was the fire that inflamed the life of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Long before she realized it, she was caught by this fire. At the beginning she devoted herself to freedom. For a long time Edith Stein was a seeker. Her mind never tired of searching and her heart always yearned for hope. She traveled the arduous path of philosophy with passionate enthusiasm. Eventually she was rewarded: she seized the truth. Or better: she was seized by it. Then she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ. From that moment on, the incarnate Word was her One and All. Looking back as a Carmelite on this period of her life, she wrote to a Benedictine nun: “Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously”.

Although Edith Stein had been brought up religiously by her Jewish mother, at the age of 14 she “had consciously and deliberately stopped praying”. She wanted to rely exclusively on herself and was concerned to assert her freedom in making decisions about her life. At the end of a long journey, she came to the surprising realization: only those who commit themselves to the love of Christ become truly free.

This woman had to face the challenges of such a radically changing century as our own. Her experience is an example to us. The modern world boasts of the enticing door which says: everything is permitted. It ignores the narrow gate of discernment and renunciation. I am speaking especially to you, young Christians, particularly to the many altar servers who have come to Rome these days on pilgrimage: Pay attention! Your life is not an endless series of open doors! Listen to your heart! Do not stay on the surface, but go to the heart of things! And when the time is right, have the courage to decide! The Lord is waiting for you to put your freedom in his good hands.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was able to understand that the love of Christ and human freedom are intertwined, because love and truth have an intrinsic relationship. The quest for truth and its expression in love did not seem at odds to her; on the contrary she realized that they call for one another.

In our time, truth is often mistaken for the opinion of the majority. In addition, there is a widespread belief that one should use the truth even against love or vice versa. But truth and love need each other. St Teresa Benedicta is a witness to this. The “martyr for love”, who gave her life for her friends, let no one surpass her in love. At the same time, with her whole being she sought the truth, of which she wrote: “No spiritual work comes into the world without great suffering. It always challenges the whole person”.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.

Finally, the new saint teaches us that love for Christ undergoes suffering. Whoever truly loves does not stop at the prospect of suffering: he accepts communion in suffering with the one he loves.

Aware of what her Jewish origins implied, Edith Stein spoke eloquently about them: “Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s People.... Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord’s bride under the sign of the Cross. But since it is a mystery, it can never be understood by reason alone”.

The mystery of the Cross gradually enveloped her whole life, spurring her to the point of making the supreme sacrifice. As a bride on the Cross, Sr Teresa Benedicta did not only write profound pages about the “science of the Cross”, but was thoroughly trained in the school of the Cross. Many of our contemporaries would like to silence the Cross. But nothing is more eloquent than the Cross when silenced! The true message of suffering is a lesson of love. Love makes suffering fruitful and suffering deepens love.

Through the experience of the Cross, Edith Stein was able to open the way to a new encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith and the Cross proved inseparable to her. Having matured in the school of the Cross, she found the roots to which the tree of her own life was attached. She understood that it was very important for her “to be a daughter of the chosen people and to belong to Christ not only spiritually, but also through blood”.

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24).

Dear brothers and sisters, the divine Teacher spoke these words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. What he gave his chance but attentive listener we also find in the life of Edith Stein, in her “ascent of Mount Carmel”. The depth of the divine mystery became perceptible to her in the silence of contemplation. Gradually, throughout her life, as she grew in the knowledge of God, worshiping him in spirit and truth, she experienced ever more clearly her specific vocation to ascend the Cross with Christ, to embrace it with serenity and trust, to love it by following in the footsteps of her beloved Spouse: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is offered to us today as a model to inspire us and a protectress to call upon.

We give thanks to God for this gift. May the new saint be an example to us in our commitment to serve freedom, in our search for the truth. May her witness constantly strengthen the bridge of mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.


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