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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Commemoration of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11, as her family were celebrating Yom Kippur, although she stopped practicing Judaism at age 14.  She was a brilliant student, with an interest in philosophy and in women's issues. (She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women's Franchise.)

In 1913, she transferred to Göttingen University, where she studied under Edmund Husserl.

During WW1 she volunteered as a nurse.  She looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theater, and saw young people die. Afterward, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg, where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude, after writing a thesis on "The Problem of Empathy."


She left Husserl to work on her own, and wrote articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. She also read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read a book like that, but had to put it into practice.
Later, at a friend's estate, she read in a single night the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. "When I had finished the book," she later wrote,  "I said to myself: This is the truth."


Edith Stein was baptized on 1 January 1922, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  A curious parallel.  

She wanted to join a Carmelite convent, but Vicar-General Schwind of Speyer and Erich Przywara SJ, advised against it.  Instead, she taught German and history at the Dominican teacher training college of St. Magdalen's Convent in Speyer.  Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey encouraged her to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women's issues.

"During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion," she wrote, "I ... thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one's mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world..."
She translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman as well as Thomas Aquinas' Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. Fr. Przywara also encouraged her to write her own philosophical works.
She left the convent school in Speyer in 1931 to work for a professorship again, this time in Breslau and Freiburg.  But women were still barred. 

At this time, she wrote a study of Thomas Aquinas' central concepts: Potency and Act, she would later rewrite as Finite and Eternal Being -- her main philosophical and theological work.  By then, it was no longer possible to print the book. 

In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology.  (Apparently they had no objection to Jewish women as professors.) 

In 1933 the Aryan Law made it impossible for Edith Stein to continue teaching.  Arch-Abbot Walzer of Beuron now allowed her to enter the Carmelite Convent of Cologne on 14 October, and was invested on 15 April, 1934, taking the name of Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce - Teresa, Blessed of the Cross.
She made her eternal profession on 21 April 1938.

On 9 November 1938 the Nazis burned synagogues and smashed Jewish-owned shops across Germany.  The Carmelites in Cologne smuggled Sister Teresia across the border into the Netherlands, to the Carmelite Convent in Echt, Limburg.  But in 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands.  She completed "The Church's Teacher of Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross" in 1942.  


In 1942, the Dutch bishops spoke out against the Nazis and the pogroms and deportations of Jews.  The Nazis, as they had threatened, then rounded up all Catholics of Jewish descent.  St. Teresa was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 1942, while she was in the chapel with the other sisters. (Her sister Rosa had also converted and was serving at the Echt Convent.)  Her last words to be heard in Echt were addressed to Rosa: "Come, we are going for our people."


Along with other Jewish Christians, she and her sister were taken to a transit camp in Amersfoort and then to Westerbork.  Early in the morning of 7 August, 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, her sister and many others of her people were gassed.

She was beatified in Cologne on 1 May 1987 by John Paul II. 
(Biographical data from: Vatican.) 

It was because of the aftermath of the Dutch bishops' letter that the other bishops prevailed upon Pius XII to make no similar public statements.  It is a conceit of the morally smug that there is no cost to "doing the right thing," as James Chastek points out: 
The life of Edith Stein and many others, in other words, was the price paid for the Bishops to speak out in condemnation. One can only imagine the sort of indignant condemnations that could have been leveled against the Bishops at the time: hadn’t they simply murdered their flock to congratulate themselves for their own righteousness? Every Catholic in Europe knew about this, of course, and Bishops begged Pius XII not to repeat what the Dutch Bishops did. He didn’t completely follow their advice, and he played with matches by publicly saying in 1943 that people were being marched to death for no other reason than their race. But we all know how the story plays out now: Pius is condemned for failing to speak out. Setting aside the fact that the charge is false, to make it is an all but infallible sign of lacking the sort of radical wisdom that is required for politics – in fact, making the charge manifests a mindset that is fundamentally destructive of political association, namely there is no cost to attaining political goods. Pius, say his critics, should just “speak out”. It never crosses their mind to ask if this good came at a price that they themselves would not be willing to pay – or even if it came at a cost that would make them argue that it would be foolish to speak out at all. The reality of Pius’s situation is a marvelous and perfect example of political reality – that there are competing and incompatible goods, and it takes tremendous wisdom to decide between them and tremendous courage to make the decision and keep with it.

1 comment:

  1. The protests by the Dutch bishops might have saved Jews elsewhere in Europe. If the Gestapo concentrated their resources in the Netherlands, they might have had fewer agents elsewhere.

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