Friday, August 9, 2013

Edith Stein: casting off the "existential burden"

It is important for me today to acknowledge the liturgical memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her given name was Edith Stein. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was the name she took upon entering religious life as a Carmelite. She belonged to the same religious order as Sts. Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Reading St. Teresa's autobiography, which she read without stopping, staying up all night, seems to have been the immediate cause of Edith Stein's decision to convert. Edith was a Jew, a daughter of Israel, who became Catholic as an adult. Her conversion happened well after she completed her doctorate in Philosophy under the tutelage and, at least the initial, mentorship of Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. Edith was a brilliant person, an brilliant philosopher who was not able to secure of professorship due to the fact that she was a woman.

For those who may not know, in the late 1930s (she entered religious life in 1933, while in her early 40s) she was moved from her Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany to one in the Netherlands because she was Jewish. She was moved along with her sister, Rosa, who had also converted and become a Carmelite. Nonetheless, due to the defiance of the Dutch bishops after Nazi Germany took over their country, Stein, along with every other Jew they could find, including her sister, was rounded up and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942. This is where she, along with Rosa and many, many of her fellow Jews, children of Israel, was murdered.

Edith Stein

In an a rather uneven essay that is in turn very insightful and, at least in spots, somewhat vindictively shallow and even a bit misleading, at least with regard to Stein being claimed by the Church as expressed by Pope St. John Paul II's raising her to the altar in 1998, "Edith Stein (Poland, 1942)" (from a very good book of essays, edited by Joyce Avrech Berkman, Contemplating Edith Stein), Patricia Hampl nonetheless does a good job of locating Stein in the communio sanctorum alongside Sts. Augustine and Teresa of Avila. Along with these two saints, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross forms what Hampl describes, pointing to the work of one of Stein's German biographers, Waltraud Herbstrith, as "a fascinating linked-chain of conversions, each in turn liberated from what Teresa [of Avila] calls in her autobiography 'the shadow of death,' which had left them utterly worn out with interior struggle." Hampl points to Herbstrith's unpacking of the "shadow" Edith Stein cast off, highlighting how hers was different from the other two saints (and how Augustine's differed from Teresa's), while noting that their "sense of liberation was the same":
for Augustine the snare was unbridled sensuality; for Teresa [of Avila], the surface pleasures of "society" and its tendency to skim over life lightly. For Edith Stein, it was the twentieth-century existential burden: a rationalist, materialist worldview that did not permit the freedom to offer oneself to God. From carnality, to society's distractions, to heady intellectualism: these three figures are cameos of Western civilization's history of spiritual dilemmas
Lest I come across as being too critical of Hampl, who, taking a note from Dorothy Day, the same Day who demurred that she did not want to be made a saint for fear of being dismissed too lightly, she is concerned that the depth of Stein's philosophical work be kept at the forefront and not disappear at the expense of her being hagiographically reduced to a sentimental figure. Insofar as this is Hampl's objective, I am with her, as I am sure was John Paul II, with whom she (Hampl) imagines herself to be at odds over this.

It bears noting that the subject Stein appears to have been most interested in was empathy. The English title of her doctoral dissertation is On the Problem of Empathy. Her philosophy is worthy of being taught alongside that of Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, and other leading phenomenologists.

To give you some idea of her take on empathy, here is something she wrote: "As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbor's soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love."

Another of her significant works is The Science of the Cross. There is no greater act of empathy, nor could there ever be, than our Blessed Lord on the Cross. As the sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who is a Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians, so clearly noted about Jesus: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). He can sympathize precisely because He can empathize!

Christ's Crucifixion, by Diego Velázquez, 1632

Praying Morning Prayer today (I stuck with Week II of Psalter and used the collect for St. Teresa Benedicta's memorial as the closing prayer), I was struck by something in the Old Testament canticle, which is taken from the third chapter of the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk, in particular verses 17-18: "For though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine, Though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment, Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, Yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God." I was struck because this seems to me a beautiful way to think about the witness, that is, the martyrdom of Edith Stein, whose unfinished autobiographical account of her up-bringing she entitled Life in a Jewish Family.

Here is today's Collect:

God of our Fathers,
who brought the Martyr Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
to know your crucified Son
and to imitate him even until death,
grant, through her intercession,
that the whole human race may acknowledge Christ as its Savior
and through him come to behold you for eternity.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.

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