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On the Feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Neque fortitude poterit nos separare a caritate Dei.[1]

No power whatever will be able to separate us from the love of God.

Edith Stein, born in Breslau, Silesia in 1891 was the youngest of eleven children in an observant Jewish family, keeping Sabbath at the synagogue assiduously. The city had been annexed by the Prussians in 1741 and remained Prussian, then German until, in 1945, the province of Silesia was returned to Poland and the name of its capital no longer Breslau but Wroclaw. It is about 260kms northwest of Wadowice near the Slovakian border, the birthplace of Karol Woytila, now St John Paul II. Edith’s father died while she was an infant, yet the family persevered largely because of the industry and energy of her mother and siblings. Edith herself admitted to being precocious but as she grew older, became more introverted and highly sensitive. By the time she reached twenty-five, she had matriculated, advanced to Breslau university for undergraduate study in psychology, had transferred first to Gottingen to study phenomenology under the pre-eminent philosopher Edmund Husserl[2], then awarded her doctorate in 1916 at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau.[3] It was during this period that her Jewish faith dissipated and then was put aside.

Intending to enter the teaching profession and especially, to advance the intellectual development of young women, Edith was poached by the great Husserl to be his assistant. With him, she was able to broach those deepest philosophical and psychological challenges that most don’t have the intellectual acumen or energy to contend with them. For she intuited that the soul, the basic bearer of all experiences, is contingent on the body and that soul and body together form the psycho-physical individual. In fact, this is fundamental Thomism and one can see how it would be possible to be drawn through such reasoning to the One who is Truth and Life. Working with Husserl, it became increasingly clear that her future was elsewhere. She began reading the New Testament, being already familiar with the Old through her former faith. Slowly a realisation that she could not continue to work with Husserl developed as she retrieved her faith albeit reluctantly:

“A convinced atheist learns through personal experience that there actually is a God. Now faith can no longer be eluded. Yet he can still refuse to ground himself in it or let it become effective in him, choosing instead to hold on to the ‘scientific world view’ that he knows an unmitigated faith would be the end of … or again, someone can offer me affection. There is no way I can stop him from doing it, but I don’t have to respond to it. I can always pull myself away.”[4]

It was at the home of close friends, the Conrad-Martiuses, that she located the Life of St Teresa of Avila while browsing through their library. She found it impossible to put down and read through the night to finish it. There she found the truth and discerned the way to possess it completely, summed up in the adage, God is not a God of knowledge, God is love. Again, the Thomistic triad of memory, intellect and will, the essence of the soul, all became undeniable objects of her experience.

She found in the writings of St Teresa the answer to all her longings, even those subliminally, for Teresa would teach her, as she would with all her daughters, that interior prayer is the place of surrender. This means letting go of everything that consumes one or is considered a priority. For the scholar it is especially difficult, as much as having to abandon sensuality or any other dependency such as attachment to family. It means the release of all qualities and accomplishments, even reputation, in order to live by taking up the Cross and carrying it as far as Calvary.

There was only one place where Edith was destined. It could be no other than Carmel, not least because the order has its roots in the prophet Elijah, but especially because the contemplative charism is absolutely essential for the vitality of the Church. A contemplative appears in the world as a paradox or as an anachronism yet she incarnates all that is changeless and saves us from the idolatry of the age through transcendence. It is an escape that is no less honourable than escape from a bushfire or an avalanche, for one flees the distractions or temptations of a paganized world.

In the Carmel of Cologne, Edith Stein became Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and in that hidden existence, surrendered to the Love that she had first recognised in the home of her friends at Berzabern. In her words, paraphrasing the words of Elijah, the vocation is “to stand before the face God”.[5] We see it in her extant letters and writings, and ultimately in the experience of her arrest, deportation and the “crucifixion” of Auschwitz. Her spirit lives on. She speaks to us across the years. It is metaphysically impossible to give oneself to God without giving oneself to mankind. Such a sacrificial gift to us has value of incalculable radiance:

“Who are You, sweet light, that fills me and illuminates the gloom of my heart? You lead me with maternal hand and, should you release me, I would not know how to continue. You are the space that embraces my being and buries it in Yourself. Away from you it sinks into the abyss of nothingness, from which You raised it to the Light. You, nearer to me, than I to myself and more interior than my most interior and still intangible and inconceivable and eclipsing every name:
Holy Spirit – Eternal Love.”[6] PW

[1] Rm 8: 39
[2] The founder of the philosophy based on the structures of experience and consciousness (intentionality) known as phenomenology. He died in 1938 thereby escaping the holocaust.
[3] Her doctoral dissertation was “The Empathy Problem as it developed Historically and considered Phenomenologically” (Das Einführungsproblem in seiner historischen Entwicklung und in phänomenologisher Betrachtung.) She graduated Summa cum Laude. (with Highest Honour)
[4] Stein, E. (1922) Psychische Kausalität. Halle: Niemeyer, pp 43-4
[5] I Kgs 17 et seq.
[6] Sr Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, Aus Einer Pfingstnovene. “Wer bist du süßes Licht, das mich erfüllt und meines Herzens Dunkelheit erleuchtet? Du leitest mich gleich einer Mutter Hand, und ließest du mich los, so wüßte keinen Schritt ich mehr zu gehen. Du bist der Raum, der rund mein Sein umschließt und in sich birgt. Aus dir entlassen entsämk’ es in den Abgrund des Nichts, aus dem du es zum Licht erhobst. Du näher mir als ich mir selbst und innerlicher als mein Innerstes und doch untastbar und unfaßbar und jeden Namen sprengend: Heiliger Geist – ewige Liebe!