Friday, August 9, 2019

Memorial St. Edith Stein (Sr. Teresia Benedicta à Cruce, OCD)

She disembarked from the train on August 6, 1942.  It had been a long, hot, dusty trip from Holland. Brushing the dust from the brown habit identifying her as a Carmelite nun she straightened her veil as best she could. Unlike some of the passengers, she knew it wasn't going to matter for long.  The woman was Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. Born Edith Stein in Breslau, Poland on October 12, 1891 she was now back in the country of her birth.  The station was Auschwitz. 

Stein was the youngest of eleven children born into an observant Jewish family.  Her academic brilliance was obvious at a young age. At 14 she became a teenage atheist.  Reflecting back on that period she wrote, "I consciously and deliberately stopped praying so as to rely exclusively on myself; so as to make all decisions about my life in freedom."  It would take almost seventeen years for her to discover the true meaning of freedom. 

She received a PhD in philosophy from the University of Frieburg, studying under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology.  Two episodes during her studies moved her from the illusory freedom of atheistic self-dependence to the radical freedom possible only for those who live under the Cross of Christ. The first episode occurred when she visited the young widow of a colleague and friend killed in WW I. Though bereaved, the young widow's faith was such that she was consoling those who came to console her. This left a deep mark on Stein.  She wrote: "It was my first encounter with the cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time I was seeing with my own eyes the Church born from its redeemer's sufferings triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth---in the mystery of the Cross."

Shortly afterwards she was visiting friends who had a social obligation in which she could not be included.  While browsing through their library she stumbled upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She read it that night in one sitting.  Upon closing it she said, "This is the truth." She was baptized at age 31 on New Year's Day 1922.

She had difficulty gaining admission to the Carmelites.  However, as the rumbling of the Nazi menace became louder, she was allowed to enter in Cologne in 1933, at age 42.  As the persecution of Jews continued to increase she was secretly moved to the Carmel in Echt, Holland in 1938 where she wrote her last work. Fittingly it was titled "The Science of the Cross. 

She dismissed plans to evacuate her to England explaining, "Do not do it.  Why should I be spared?   Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters; my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed."  She, and her sister Rosa, who had become a Catholic though not a Carmelite, were taken from Echt.  She ascended Calvary in the chambers of Auschwitz 77 years ago today.

She left behind an enormous amount of writing of which her letters are the most accessible. Released from the self-imposed shackles of atheistic pseudo-freedom she found radical freedom in the science and shadow of the cross. 

St. John Paul, II, pope, quoted her in his homily at her canonization: 

"Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. 
And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth!"

St. Edith Stein, pray for us. 

My devotion to Stein is too deep, and too personal to describe in detail here.  I'm not sure I can always understand it.  However, I have celebrated Mass every August 9 since I was ordained in 2007.  She is a saint for our time.  The healing miracle ascribed to her intervention formed the basis of my master's thesis.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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