Monday, August 09, 2010

Notes on the Feast of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

Today the Roman Catholic liturgy includes the commemoration of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a German Discalced Carmelite more widely known by her birth name, Edith Stein. Born into an observant Jewish family, as a teenager Stein lost her faith and became an atheist. Under the direction of pioneering phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Stein completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Göttingen at the age of 24 and spent the next several years writing and teaching alongside Husserl and fellow phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. A chance reading of the Life of St. Teresa of Avila helped spark Stein's rediscovery of religious faith and subsequent decision to convert to Catholicism; baptized at the age of 30, she chose to leave university life and spent ten years teaching at a Catholic girls' school in Speyer before entering the Karmel Maria vom Frieden in Köln in 1933. As Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, Stein continued to produce philosophical and theological works in the cloister. In 1938, as Nazi violence against German Jews grew more and more severe, Stein was transferred by her order to a Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands. This refuge lasted only four years, as Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo in August 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. Sixty-eight years ago on this date, she was gassed to death.

Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998, St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross is honored as one of the co-patrons of Europe. Her feast was accordingly celebrated with appropriate solemnity at the Jesuitenkirche and in the Jesuitenkolleg, where two of my fellow language students observed significant religious anniversaries today (one celebrated the first anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood as well as the anniversary of his baptism, while the other marked the eighteenth anniversary of his entry into the novitiate). Various encounters over the past month have confirmed my impression is that many people in Europe (including many non-Catholics) view Edith Stein as a significant intellectual figure of the last century. She has given her name to various schools and other academic institutions, including a teachers' college here in Tyrol (Innsbruck also has a street called the Edith-Stein-Weg, though I have yet to see it). As you can see above, she has also been featured on a German postage stamp - a distinction that I respect a great deal as an erstwhile philatelist.

Though she spent a decade as a Discalced Carmelite, Edith Stein tends to be remembered more for her philosophical writings and for the manner of her death than for anything specific to her life in the cloister. Of the works that Stein produced in the Carmel, the best-known deal with philosophical problems that had interested her for decades (Finite and Eternal Being) or with her pre-conversion youth (Life in a Jewish Family). Nevertheless, Stein's spiritual writings have also been published and translated into English. Some of these are available in a volume entitled The Hidden Life, which brings together a number of essays and meditations written specifically for Stein's fellow Carmelites. To round out this post, I would like to share some paragraphs from an address that Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross wrote for another sister's profession in 1940. I hope that all readers can find something of value in what follows:

When the gentle light of the advent candles begins to shine in the dark days of December a mysterious light in a mysterious darkness it awakens in us the consoling thought that the divine light, the Holy Spirit, has never ceased to illumine the darkness of the fallen world. He has remained faithful to his creation, regardless of all the infidelity of creatures. And if the darkness would not allow itself to be penetrated by the heavenly light, there were nevertheless some places always predisposed for it to blaze.

A ray from this light fell into the hearts of our original parents even during the judgment to which they were subjected. This was an illuminating ray that awakened in them the knowledge of their guilt, an enkindling ray that made them burn with fiery remorse, purifying and cleansing, and made them sensitive to the gentle light of the star of hope, which shone for them in the words of promise of the "protoevangelium," the original gospel.

As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have been struck by the divine ray. Hidden from the whole world, it illuminated and irradiated them, let the hard, encrusted, misshapen matter of these hearts soften, and then with the tender hand of an artist formed them anew into the image of God. Seen by no human eye, this is how living building blocks were and are formed and brought together into a Church first of all invisible.

However, the visible Church grows out of this invisible one in ever new, divine deeds and revelations which shed their light ever new epiphanies. The silent working of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul made the patriarchs into friends of God. However, when they came to the point of allowing themselves to be used as his pliant instruments, he established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development, and awakened from among them his chosen people. Therefore, Moses, too, was educated quietly and then sent as the leader and lawgiver.

Not everyone whom God uses as an instrument must be prepared in this way. People may also be instruments of God without their knowledge and even against their will, possibly even people who neither externally nor interiorly belong to the church. They would then be used like the hammer or chisel of the artist, or like a knife with which the vine-dresser prunes the vines. For those who belong to the church, outer membership can also temporally precede interior, in fact can be materially significant for it (as when someone without faith is baptized and then comes to faith through the public life in the church). But it finally comes down to the interior life; formation moves from the inner to the outer.

The deeper a soul is bound to God, the more completely surrendered to grace, the stronger will be its influence on the form of the church. Conversely, the more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God the more it needs souls united to God. And God does not permit a deficiency. The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible.

Certainly the decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.

On this Feast of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, I pray that the writings of Edith Stein may continue to serve as a source of wisdom to those who seek truth. May this philosopher and mystic provide a worthy intercessor for all who engage in philosophy, including the present writer and his past and future students. AMDG.


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