Today we are moving into the Third Week of the Exercises – where we contemplate Christ in his Passion. It is a ‘test’ of discipleship and any elections made in the Second Week. Often a dry and difficult period in prayer – as the mystery of the cross is so difficult to penetrate. Luckily we have a great saint today – Edith Stein. I am privileged to be celebrating mass today too, so this is my reflection on this great woman.
On the eve of the third millennium, John Paul II named three women as new patrons of Europe, one of them was St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. She was a saint of the second millennium, who would accompany us into the third millennium, the Pope said.
Why was Edith Stein so close to the Popes heart? Why did he feel she was such a powerful patron for us as we entered the new millennium?
It may be helpful to think of three stages to Edith’s Life 1) The towering intellect and public genius 2) Conversion and an irresistible call to a hidden contemplative life 3) Her embrace of the cross and Confronting evil in Auschwitz…. And in this incredible journey she synthesised the dramatic history of the twentieth century in her own heart.
The first part of her life was a journey from Judaism to atheism, of outstanding intellectual achievements, as a pupil and then teaching assistant of the famous phenomenologist Husserl who supported her ambition to be the first female professor – she was fascinated with truth and with empathy, the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She had built a great intellectual tower – but she did not stay on top of it looking down at the rest of us – like so many of the so called ‘new atheists’
World War One intervened – she worked as a nurse – but the moment when her unbelief collapsed was when one of her colleagues was killed in Flanders. She visited his widow and encountered a women with deep faith – This was in her own words: My first encounter with the cross and the divine power that it imparts to those who bear it . ….…… This was a generation whose experience of War had penetrated their hearts, and the search for truth was not a merely intellectual exercise
So the second phase of her life began – resuming lecturing after the War – she read the New testament, and Kierkegaard and interestingly the Spiritual Exercises – all of which made a deep impression on her (notice she only read the Exercises – she didn’t make them) However the breakthrough was when visiting a friend she picked up the biography of St Teresa of Avila and read it all night – at the end she simply said ‘this is the truth’ – she was to be baptised a Catholic and her work became a combination of Scholarship and Faith ….. ten years later she entered the contemplative Carmelite life – and took up the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Like our own Hopkins – she was to stop writing as she enthusiastically immersed herself into religious life. This self-imposed silence was to finish as she published a book called ‘The Science of the Cross’ to mark the 400th anniversary of St John of the Cross birth….. This immersion into the mystery of the Cross was to be prophetic as she was to imitate her beloved Jesus …..
He turned his face to Jerusalem and his passion – she was to be taken to Auschwitz with her sister who had followed her into ‘Carmel’ . The rounding up of Jewish converts was in retaliation to the Dutch Bishops letter condemning Nazism and its ethnic cleansing. Her last words to her sister were Come we are going with our people’ as they were rounded up with 987 Jewish Christians and sent today to the gas chambers.
So three steps – from an intellectual tower, to a silent life of adoration and then this profound welcoming of the cross.
One of my fellow Jesuits said yesterday – so many of us want Christianity without the cross – let us pray with Teresa Benedicta that we learn to serve our crucified Lord.