Losing to Win
Circular from the Priors General
Dear brothers and sisters in Carmel,
1. Our sister, Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), will be canonized at St Peter's Basilica in Rome on 11th October 1998. Her canonization marks the end of a long journey in search of the truth, accompanied by suffering and evangelical unselfishness that led her into the twofold dimension of the paschal mystery: death and resurrection; losing her life for Christ in order to find it (cf. Mt 10.39). The words she uttered on leaving Echt Carmel in Holland, as she took her sister Rosa by the hand, illustrate the commitment of her life: "Come, let us go for our people." When the bishops in Holland protested in a pastoral letter against the deportations of Jews by the National Socialists, the latter, who had at first left baptised Jews alone, took vengeance by exterminating all the Catholic Jews, too. Edith Stein died a follower of Jesus Christ, offering her martyrdom for her fellow Jews.
The canonization of Edith Stein is a new plea that God makes to the Church, to Carmelites in particular, on the eve of the Third Millennium. The life of this great Jewish women, who sought the truth and followed Jesus, offers a timely message for relations between faith and science, for ecumenical dialogue, for consecrated life and for spirituality, speaking, as it does, to the members of the Church and those outside it.
Open to the voice of the Spirit that reaches us through the life and martyrdom of our sister, let us try to delve into her experience and teachings to renew our own lives and make our vocation and mission more dynamic and committed.
2. A woman of our time, Edith Stein offers, through her life and writings, valuable guidance to help eliminate certain unilateral visions that do not tally with full recognition of the dignity of women and their specific contribution to society and the Church. In this day and age, "It is therefore urgently necessary to take certain concrete steps, beginning by providing room for women to participate in different fields and at all levels, including decision-making processes, above all in matters which concern women themselves."
Her search for the truth
3. Edith Stein devoted part of her life to the truth she sought and found. First of all, she abandoned the Jewish faith and immersed herself in philosophy in an attempt to understand the meaning of human existence. She later moved from atheism to the Catholic faith and, in following Jesus, she gradually acquired through experience the "science of the cross". This enabled her to enter Carmel and, later on, to die for her faith and her people.
Upon reconsidering her search for the truth, she concluded that "God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not"; and also that "One who seeks truth lives principally at the heart of an actively searching intellect. If he is really concerned about the truth (not merely collecting single bits of knowledge), then he is perhaps nearer to God who is Truth, and therefore to his own inmost region, than he himself knows."
4. She found the last, definitive impetus in her long search for the truth and authenticity in her encounter with Teresa of Jesus. In August 1921, when Edith was visiting friends, she came across the autobiography of the saint from Avila in their library: "I picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title The Life of St Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated, and did not stop till I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, 'That is the truth'" After reflecting later on the book of the Life of Teresa of Jesus she explained the reason why it had caused such a great impression on her, thus revealing her ardent thirst for truth: "Save for the Confessions of Saint Augustine, there is no other book anywhere in the world that bears the seal of truth like this one, lighting up the darkest corners of the soul and giving a heart-rending testimony of the 'mercy of God'"
Teresa of Jesus played a decisive role in the conversion of Edith and, therefore, she felt very early on a call to devote her life to the service of the Lord in Carmel, for the good of mankind. One of the witnesses at her beatification told us what the saint had said to him: AThe Servant of God told me that she appreciated Carmel because she had more time for personal meditation there. Ever since her baptism she had felt an inclination towards this Order. She didn't even consider a Benedictine closed monastery because she wouldn't have had all the time she needed for meditation.
Conversion as a discovery and a loss
5. She overcame the last hurdle of her atheism after her encounter with the cross and the strength that it gave out in the life of a protestant friend, Anne Reinach, widow of the philosopher Adolf Reinach. She was to say this clearly later on: "It was then that I first encountered the Cross and the divine strength which it inspires in those who bear it. For the first time I saw before my very eyes the Church, born of Christ's redemptive suffering, victorious over the sting of death. It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered, Judaism paled, and Christ streamed out upon me: Christ in the mystery of the Cross." Later, in Echt, she wrote to the Prioress of Echt, "A scientia crucis [knowledge of the Cross] can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically. I have been convinced of that from the first moment and have said, from my heart: Ave, Crux, spes unica! [Hail, Cross, our only hope].
6. Edith Stein became a Catholic in 1922, at the age of 31. The underlying reason for her conversion lies precisely in her discovering in the cross the road to resurrection, transforming the evangelical paradox of losing to win into a profound experience. Her conversion to Catholicism brought family problems to her. Her family did not understand why she had made this decision. In her book The Science of the Cross, she explains this connection between glory and suffering. The passion and death of Christ consume our sins in fire. Therefore, as long as we accept this truth, through our faith, and try to follow Jesus, He will lead us through his passion and cross to the glory of resurrection. Edith was to combine this belief with the experience of contemplation that, passing through purification, would reach union of love with God: "This explains its twofold character. It is death and resurrection. After the Dark Night, the Living Flame shines forth. 'This is how the 'science of the cross' is possessed."
Edith's conversion was by no means easy. Years of searching came finally to an end when she discovered the autobiography of Teresa of Jesus. As in St Teresa's life, Christ gradually became the essence of Edith's existence. In Him she found the Truth, with a capital T, and the close friend she could talk to always. Her conversion was of a radical nature. At first, she thought that she had to give up everything worldly to live concentrated solely on divine things. Only gradually did she begin to realise that "the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must 'go out of oneself'; that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it"
7. The human and spiritual journey of Edith Stein is the journey of a woman of our times. From her personal experience as a woman and her philosophical-anthropological reflection on the existence and mission of the human person, she showed herself concerned about the role of women in society and the Church. Her intellectual capacity, university and professional training, her dedication to teaching, made her a woman who, from a conscious female identity, experienced the challenges of a mission. Edith met the challenges presented by the prevailing social and ecclesiastical circumstances with a clear, balanced mind.
When teaching in Speyer from 1923 to 1931, she was able to tackle the problems of training women and helped her disciples to develop their qualities as women created, just as men were, in the image of God. She also stressed the supernatural vocation of women and the ethics of female professions. Her reflections were based on a detailed analysis of the particular characteristics of female psychology.
She was thus able to demonstrate the richness of a female Christian life devoted to fulfilling a mission forming part of the real world. This explains why she was so dedicated to the apostolate of teaching, despite the fact that following her conversion she no longer made the effort, as she had done earlier, to get a university chair in her capacity as a woman. In her work as teacher, she knew how to combine professional competence with a direct, personal relationship with her pupils. They always remember her as an open-minded, understanding woman, ahead of her times in recognising the true value of women and in her generous commitment to promoting women in all aspects. She joined the Bavarian Catholic Union of Women Teachers and the Union of Young Women Teachers. This widened the horizon of her influence and teaching to guide the women of her time and ours.
Special characteristics of women's vocation
8. The philosophical-anthropological reflections of Edith Stein were based on her own experience enlightened by Holy Scripture, especially the first pages, where, speaking about the creation of the human race, man and woman are presented as God's image in their equality and diversity: "Originally, man and woman were both made responsible to preserve their own likeness to God, their lordship over the earth, and the reproduction of the human race."
From this philosophical-anthropological, (rather than sociological) analysis, Edith stressed two characteristics belonging to female psychology: personal commitment in her collaboration with man, as well as maternity. Her vocation as man's companion leads her to share in everything that affects man, whether great or small. She accompanies man, at his side, takes part in his life with love. Therefore, "the capacity for empathy with others and their needs and the capacity and docility for adaptation are more developed in the nature of woman." She has a profound need to share her life with another and, consequently, a capacity for unselfish love, for commitment, a capacity to forget about self. Furthermore, her inclination towards maternity draws her to all living and personal things and to a type of more specific, contemplative knowledge. Her nature as mother and companion guides her to all that "relationship with a person" means. Her mission is to have children and, as the continuation of Eve called "mother of all living", she is also responsible for preparing for "the restoration of life." This led her to highlight the meaning and greatness of spiritual maternity in religious life which fulfils the desire women have for totality, since it fits in with the characteristics of femininity: "The motive, principle, and end of the religious life is to make an absolute gift of self to God in a self-forgetting love, to end one's own life in order to make room for God's life."
A message for women today
9. The reflections of Edith Stein through experience and philosophy on the nature and role of women are very topical in today's world and Church, as they become increasingly aware of the importance of promoting women and the need to make room for them in social, economic, political and religious life. Authentic feminism finds in Edith's life and writings valuable guidance to live and promote the dignity and role of women through her identity and mission, springing from the very depths of her being. We can say the same for the meaning of consecrated life which, considered as a gift of self to God and others, is a full realisation of women's aspirations: commitment, maternity, service.
For Edith Stein, the ideal model of these feminine values was the Virgin Mary. In her, "The feminine sex is ennobled by virtue of the Savior's being born of a human mother; a woman was the gateway through which God found entrance to humankind." With the gift of herself she committed herself to this mission, which she accepted with silent trust, putting her whole being at the service of the Lord for the foundation of the Kingdom of God. This commitment of Mary makes her a model for women in all areas of human life: family, social and ecclesiastical, since she shows interest in the social and political problems in the middle verse of the Magnificat, dethroning the mighty. Therefore, neither men nor women can remain cut off from real situations or reply with indifference to the challenges that arise.
10. In the lose-to-win process that characterises the life of Edith Stein, she lost her Jewish faith at the age of 14 when she set off on the road of atheism, and finally, 17 years later, she won the Christian faith.
Her Jewish roots and her way to conversion
Born within a family of strict Jewish observance, she was the youngest of eleven children. When she was barely two years old, her father died. Her mother, a woman of character and energy, took on the education of her children and the management of the business set up by her husband. From the time she started studying, Edith revealed great intellectual capacity. In 1911, she enrolled in the Faculty of Germanic Studies, History and Psychology at the University of Breslau. In 1913, she transferred to the University of Göttingen to attend the courses of the famous philosopher Edmund Husserl, the principal exponent of phenomenology. In 1916 she moved as his assistant to Freiburg where, the following year, she was awarded the title of Doctor in Philosophy with the highest distinction.
Before she arrived at Göttingen, Edith already considered herself an atheist. Her religious education based mainly on externals, lacking deeper understanding, along with her school education modelled on post-Kantian idealism, led to the loss of her Jewish faith. In effect, philosophical idealism highlighted a certain impossibility concerning the things and facts forming the object of faith. Edith did not accept anything that could not be proved, including her parent's faith. She concentrated all her efforts on philosophical reflection until, through such reflection and particularly through the witness other people gave, she found Christ. The breakdown of her atheism did not immediately mean conversion to Christianity, and even less did it imply recovery of the Jewish faith of her childhood. It was a slow maturing that guaranteed the depth of her personal encounter with Christ.
Her encounter with Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl was decisive in her search for the meaning of human life and the reason for mankind=s existence. They helped open her eyes to the field of "phenomena", to which, as she said, she could never again close them. "With good reason we were repeatedly enjoined to observe all things without prejudice, to discard all possible 'blinders'." The phenomenological method could be said to have led her by the hand to the world of values and faith, passing through the experience of the finiteness of the human being. This opened her eyes to the eternal Being.
Identified with her people
11. Her conversion to Christianity led Edith Stein to rediscover her Jewish roots and belonging to the people of Israel. In addition to her family ties, which grew stronger, there began to grow in her life of Christian faith the conviction that she had also been called to offer her suffering and life for her people.
It was not an easy road. She had to accept the pain that the news of her conversion was going to cause her mother, who was strongly identified with the Jewish faith. She even feared rejection by her family. Her mother expressed her astonishment at this change, as did her brothers and sisters, but they had to respect a decision matured through a slow, conscious search for the truth. Edith tried to be close to her mother by stopping in Breslau for several months. During that time she went with her mother to the synagogue and even, on the Day of Atonement, fasted with her. Her mother, on the other hand, was greatly impressed by the way her daughter prayed.
Her love for her people and awareness of the mission that the Lord had given her grew even stronger when the persecution against Jews started to get more severe. She felt that her belonging to the chosen people united her to Christ not only spiritually but also by blood. She was convinced that the fate of her persecuted people was also her fate. She did what she could to help them and even wrote to the Pope asking him to issue a document on the question of anti-Semitism. She had known since 1933 that the cross of Christ would be put on the shoulders of the Jewish people even though they did not understand it. She then indicated to the Lord her wish to accept it on behalf of all those who did not see it as such. She was convinced of her mission to take the sufferings of her people into her heart to offer them to God in atonement: "And (I also trust) in the Lord's having accepted my life for all of them. I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from among her people precisely that she might represent them before the king. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful."
A bridge for Jewish-Christian dialogue
12. Through her life and death, our sister Edith Stein had the mission, of acting as a bridge for Jewish-Christian dialogue. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the vast spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews and, accordingly, recommended to both sides Athat mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.
The cross of Christ, Asign of God's all-embracing love and ... the fountain from which every grace flows, was the spiritual experience that sealed the Christian and religious life of Edith Stein. It gave sense to her existence and for this reason she included it in her religious name: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. John Paul II, in his homily on the day of her beatification, presented her as a Adramatic synthesis of our century in her rich life. Hers was a synthesis of a history full of deep wounds, wounds that still hurt, and for the healing of which responsible men and women have continued to work up to the present day ... (she was) a woman of the spirit and of the mind, who saw in the science of the Cross the acme of all wisdom, as a great daughter of the Jewish people and as a believing Christian in the midst of millions of innocent fellow people made martyrs.
Precisely this way of living and accepting the cross made Edith Stein a spokesperson for her fellow Jews, showing them that in love and hope suffering is meaningful in the light of the mystery of faith in the resurrection of Christ, who died for all.
13. The conversion of Edith Stein was closely linked to the experience of the cross, her encounter with Christ occurring precisely out of that experience. At the same time, she was focussed on his entire mystery, to the extent that she could say "Christ is the centre point of my life." Her Christological thought is expressed in several writings. It should be remembered that behind those theological reflections is a spiritual experience that gives them meaning.
The discovery of the person of Jesus presupposes a personal experience that entirely changed her view of things, people and events. He is the Truth and this concept drew Edith close to Christ. From this contact she discovered that Jesus is the Way and the Life, and she abandoned herself into his hands to follow him, bearing the burden of the cross in everyday life as she gave herself up to the will of the Father.
Following Jesus, to continue his work
14. The essence of Christian life is to follow Jesus. This means reliving in our own lives the relationship Jesus had with God, others and the world as it really is. Therefore, it implies an attitude of giving ourselves up trustingly to God, a fraternal communion with others and a capacity for encountering God and our brothers and sisters in the transformation of creation and in sharing it. This, therefore, commits us to working for what Jesus worked for and to be willing to go through what He went through: incomprehension, persecution, death and resurrection. Edith Stein lived all those aspects of following Jesus and puts across to us in her writings what her own deep experience taught her.
Edith's life was principally one of confident surrender to the Father. Following Jesus in her relation with the "Abba", even surrounded by the humiliation, suffering and abandonment of the cross, she experienced his presence and love, which supported her in the darkness of the night of trial: "I have been supported and that support makes me feel calm and secure. It is not the secure confidence of a man who stands on firm ground with his own strength, but the gentle, happy security of a child resting on a strong arm, in other words, a security which, when considered objectively, is no less reasonable. Indeed, would it be reasonable for a child to be constantly anxious lest his mother drop him?" This sureness of the love of God the Father also led her to imitate Jesus in giving herself up to the fulfilment of his will with confidence: "To be a child of God means to go hand-in-hand, to do his will not one's own; to place all our hopes and cares in his hands and no longer be concerned about one's self or future. Thereupon rest the freedom and the good cheer of the child of God."
Following Jesus she was able to experience no less than the demands of fraternity: "If God is in us and if he is love, then it cannot be otherwise but to love one another. Therefore our love for our brothers and sisters is the measure of our love for God."
At first, following her conversion, she thought that she had to abandon everything to devote herself entirely to God, leaving aside all other activities. With the help of her spiritual directors she soon changed this idea and realised that in following Jesus she was bound to collaborate with Him in the advent of his Kingdom. In a letter written in 1928, she tells us about this process of change that led her to accept apostolic commitment as part of what the Gospel demands: "Immediately before, and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must 'go out of oneself'; that is, one must go out to the world in order to carry the divine life into it. "
Accompanying Christ along the way of the cross
15. One characteristic of following Jesus, strongly marked in the Christological experience of Edith Stein, was undoubtedly the presence of the cross and suffering as a fact resulting from that following. Right from the start she considered "Christ... the poor, humiliated, crucified one who is abandoned on the cross even by his heavenly Father." It had to be like that since Christ had offered his life to open the doors of eternal life to mankind. It is, therefore, necessary to die with Christ and rise from the dead with Him; "The lifelong death of suffering and daily self-denial, and even, if necessary, the bloody death of a martyr for the Gospel of Christ."
Through this living out the cross in everyday life, she slowly acquired the "science of the cross" and began to write her last theological work under that title; a work that she did not physically finish writing. She concluded it by taking up, not in theory, but as a living, effective truth, the cross of martyrdom. This was prepared for through the crosses that the poor, limited existence of human beings imposes with its ups and downs, sacrifice and acceptance of sickness, dryness, monotony, existential vacuum, living together, trials and temptations. "The cross is the symbol of all that is difficult and oppressive and so against nature that taking it upon oneself is like a journey to death. And the disciple of Jesus is to take up this burden daily."
Edith found the meaning of the cross in love and atonement united with that of Christ. He died on the cross out of love and, therefore, this reality, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks (cf. 1 Cor 1:23) became the sign of God's love for mankind. This is where the strength comes from to live the commandment of love thy neighbour to its fullest. What gives our crosses and sufferings value is taking them up in communion with Christ crucified, who leads us through his passion and his cross to the glory of resurrection.
16. The cross of Christ, lived in solidarity with all those who suffer, is also a way to participate in the hopes and joy, sadness and anguish of mankind with the certainty of life and resurrection. To suffer with Christ is to enter into communion with all those who suffer along the tough, arduous road of life to alleviate their sufferings and give them the certain hope of the final victory of good and love: "Everyone who, in the course of time, has borne an onerous destiny in remembrance of the suffering Savior or who has freely taken up works of expiation has by doing so cancelled some of the mighty load of human sin and has helped the Lord carry his burden."
We have in Edith Stein a model of commitment to following Jesus, by accepting the crosses of life: the cross of our human limitation, the cross of fighting against suffering, the cross of solidarity with those who suffer, the cross of working for a world of peace and justice. Edith's life sums up for us the Pauline experience of losing everything to win Jesus and of considering everything rubbish in comparison with Him, and by proclaiming the cross of Christ as the only road to salvation: for "the message of the cross is folly for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18), and "what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ ."(Phil 3:7-8).
17. From her conversion to Christ, Edith Stein considered the possibility of devoting herself to Christ in Carmel. However, she put off joining a Teresian monastery out of obedience to her confessors, who pointed out the apostolic importance of her teaching work. Only after more than eleven years did she see clearly, in prayerful discernment, that the long-awaited time had come to consecrate herself to God in the contemplative life of Carmel. She was absolutely convinced that her entire life, down to the smallest details, formed part of a plan of God and that only He knew the full significance, and now part of that plan was being revealed through human mediation: "The umsturz (dismissal from teaching) was for me a sign from heaven that I might now go the way that I had long considered as mine.... I entered the monastery of the (Discalced) Carmelite Nuns here last Saturday and thus became a daughter of St Teresa, who earlier inspired me to conversion." On 14th October 1933, she joined the Cologne Carmelite convent which at that time had 21 nuns.
A deep change of life: losing to win
18. Suddenly, at the age of 42, the structure of Edith's life changed. She left behind her world of academic and intellectual activities, great friendships and her family and entered the tiny space of a contemplative monastery with all the limitations that this necessarily entailed. She had to adapt to a world of rites, customs and ceremonies, inherited from the past, which interwove the life of the nuns. Although the cultural level at Cologne convent was good, the level she had acquired over her long years of study and teaching was far higher. Edith had to make huge effort to adapt to this radical change in her life: from a personal organisation to a community organisation marked by regular observance; from teaching to manual work; from concentrating on the essential to the need to take details into account.
In her letters and other writings, she expressed what this new structure of life and activities meant for her. Through the effort to adapt and by accepting that she had to lose many things of worth, she gained the richness of a life centred on prayer and experience of God in the silence and solitude of a praying community at the service of the Kingdom of God: "Our daily schedule ensures us of hours for solitary dialogue with the Lord, and these are the foundation of our life... No human eye can see what God does in the soul during hours of inner prayer. It is grace upon grace. And all of life's other hours are our thanks for them."
19. The Provincial of the Discalced Carmelites of Germany, Fr. Theodor Rauch, was present on the day Edith took the habit, 15th April 1934. Immediately after that ceremony he made a pastoral visit of the monastery and decided that sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (the name she chose as a Carmelite) should return to her scientific work insofar as her duties as a Carmelite would allow. The Lord thus led her to take up her philosophical work again and she subsequently wrote many more studies and reflections, both in Cologne and later at the Echt monastery. She revised and finished a book published around that time: Act und Potenz (Act and Potency). She also finished the book Endliches und ewiges Sein (Finite and Eternal Being). Later, at Echt, she was to commence her unfinished work Kreuzeswissenschaft (The Science of the Cross).
This type of work, which was rather an exception, brought her certain problems within the community and required a double effort to remain faithful to the essence of her contemplative life right down to the small details of community organisation. She could be considered a modern woman, open to wider horizons than those of a small group of consecrated women living in the limited space of an enclosure, yet she remained faithful to the commitments she had taken on, even though this meant a great sacrifice for her. In this respect she wrote: "Carmelites can repay God's love by their everyday lives in no other way than by carrying out their daily duties faithfully in every respect - all the little sacrifices that a regimen structured day after day in all its details demands of an active spirit; all the self-control that living in close proximity with different kinds of people continually requires and that is achieved with a loving smile; letting no opportunity go by for serving others in love. Finally, crowning this is the personal sacrifice that the Lord may impose on the 'individual soul.'" Several months before her profession, she wrote to a friend: "I joyfully anticipate making my profession in April. But it is a good thing that one need not be 'finished' by that time, for I have a feeling that the actual novitiate began only recently, since I no longer expend so much energy in growing used to externals like ceremonies, customs, and so on."
Transferral to the Dutch convent at Echt on 31st December 1938, meant for Teresa Benedicta of the Cross further effort at adaptation to community life. Echt had been founded from Cologne and had at that time 14 choir nuns and 4 lay, or "white-veiled", sisters, as they were called at that time. Here too, she knew how to combine her intellectual work - largely geared towards training her sisters - with her duties as a member of an enclosed monastery. In Echt she ended up offering her life in the name of peace: "Dear Mother .... allow me to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace.... I know that I am a nothing, but Jesus desires it, and surely he will call many others to do likewise in these days." She set out from Echt on 2nd August 1942 to die seven days later on 9th August in a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Daughter and disciple of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross
20. Edith Stein found in Teresa of Jesus the same love that she considered the truth and learned from her above all the meaning of prayer as a friendly dialogue with God, its Christ-centred and apostolic dimension. For Edith, prayer times were the centre point of the life of a Carmelite. Everything she could do or accomplish had to start there: "here there is rest, clarity and peace; here all doubts and problems are resolved; here one gets to know oneself and what God expects of one; here one can make requests and raise up treasures of grace that may be generously shared with others."
Edith Stein developed the Christ-centred dimension of Teresian prayer. Above all, she presented the prayer life of Jesus as the key to understanding the prayer of the Church. Christ taught us prayer in praise of the Father and to make our life a prayer of commitment to his love. Christ unites us to his surrender to his Father's will for the salvation of the world, allowing us to share his cross. The apostolic strength of contemplative prayer springs from that communion with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ: "That is a fundamental premise of all religious life, above all of the life of Carmel, to stand proxy for sinners through voluntary and joyous suffering, and to cooperate in the salvation of humankind."
The life and some writings of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross show an obvious influence of Saint John of the Cross. She was impressed by the experience of the saint during the "night" of his imprisonment in Toledo. The key she used, based on that experience, to interpret the "nights" of Saint John, was that of abandonment: God allows human beings to experience the abandonment of Jesus so that they will give themselves up to Him in the darkness of faith, as the only way to reach union with the incomprehensible God.
Edith Stein also used the image of the "dark night" to interpret the historical reality of her time. What today is usually called structural sin, she called "night of sin", thus expressing the darkness of an age marked by the world war and all its aftermaths. Here, too, we have to give ourselves up to God; let God be an incomprehensible God and trust blindly in his goodness and mercy which go with us in the darkness: "the more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God the more it needs souls united to God. And God does not permit a deficiency. The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But, for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible."
Hand in the hand with the Lord
21. At the beginning of his homily at the beatification of Edith Stein in Cologne, in 1987, John Paul II referred to her as "a daughter of the Jewish people, full of wisdom and strength. After growing up in the tough school of tradition of the people of Israel, she stood out for her life of virtue and abnegation in her own Order, and demonstrated her heroic spirit on the way to the concentration camp." These words synthesize the passionate life of a woman of our times, tirelessly seeking the truth, who knew how to lose over again to win on Gospel terms: she lost her atheist convictions to win the light of the faith; she lost her family and her people to find them in following Jesus, giving up her life also for them. In her life as a contemplative Carmelite, she reached the goal of this Gospel way, concentrating on the sole absolute, guided by the Gospel logic of losing to win. And in the end, she was able to see mirrored in the words of Jesus the reality of her own martyrdom: "anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it" (Mk 8:35).
Throughout this long journey following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, she gave herself up trustingly to the Lord, placing her hand, as she used to say, in the hand of the Lord to be guided by his love along the tough, unknown, rugged paths of her life and history. In this she collaborated actively, freely and responsibly, enlightened by the science of the cross leading to communion with Him: "...self-fulfilment, union with God, and laboring for the union of others with God and for their self-fulfilment belong inseparably together. It is the cross, however, that gives access to all this. And preaching about the cross will be in vain when it is not an expression of a life united with the Crucified."
Men and women of today with a great nostalgia for God who anxiously seek the truth in a world of ideological and religious trends may find an enlightening answer in the experience and teachings of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: the answer of a woman of our time, who walked in the night of the drama of our century, restless and thirsting always for the truth, until she finally found Christ and, with Him, the meaning of life and the peace she had yearned for so long.
Rome, 9 August 1998
FOR PERSONAL AND COMMUNITY REFLECTION
1. What do you consider to be the main teaching of the life of Edith Stein?
2. Which of the aspects of Edith Stein=s life do you consider most contemporary in view of the challenges of the new evangelization? Why?
3. What does Edith Stein teach us for our religious and apostolic Carmelite life in the evangelical dynamic of losing to win?
4. What is the principal message of Edith Stein for consecrated woman today in the Church and society?
5. What can the experience and doctrine of Edith Stein contribute to the dialogue between Jews and Christians and for ecumenical dialogue in general?
6. How can we live the "science of the cross" in our personal and community life, in the light of the existential testimony of Edith Stein?
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