Thursday, August 09, 2012

Unpretentious and Transparently Clear

Today is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, OCD, but she is most often known by her secular name: Edith Stein. St. Edith was born to a Jewish family; she became an atheist as a teenager. She went into philosophy, and became one of the most talented students of one of the most important philosophers of the day, Edmund Husserl. Stein edited some of Husserl's works. She tried to get an academic position, but could not because she was a woman. In 1921, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and converted to Catholicism. She did a lot of work in education of girls, and in 1932 took a position at the Institute of Pedagogy in Münster, but unfortunately the next year she was forced to give it up because she was Jewish. She became a Discalced Carmelite, hence her religious name, and as things began to get dangerous, the order sent her and her sister, who also converted, to the Netherlands, where it was safer. For a while. The Nazis of course invaded the Low Countries. A bunch of different church groups joined in on a plan to denounce the Nazi regime publicly, the idea being that if everyone were united the Nazis could not do much about it. (And they were probably right, if they had been successful; documents later recovered showed that the Germans were very worried about Protestant-Catholic cooperation on the matter.) The Catholic Church in the Netherlands, for instance, had denunciations of Nazi anti-semitic laws read throughout the land one Sunday. However, the result didn't quite work as planned, and the Nazis simply started coming down harder on the Dutch. And, of course, the Nazis with ruthless efficiency after a while started rounding up all the Jewish Catholics who had originally been sent to the Netherlands for safety and had not been able to get out. Edith Stein and her sister Rosa were sent to Auschwitz, and are thought to have been put in the gas chamber on August 9, 1942.

From one of her letters, to fellow philosopher Walter Warnach, who had sent her some poems:

Your verses require no apology for being either too harsh or too gloomy. It is probably a sign of your great sensibility that you yourself consider them that way. Of course, theya re not easily accessible. I can't say taht even I can understand every word. But I believe I can understand something of the spiritual wanderer's frame of mind out of which they were composed. And I believe the closer he comes to the summit the better able he will be to make himself understood. In places, he is already managing it. Perfect poetry is--I believe--like perfect wisdom and sanctity, unpretentious and transparently clear.

[Letter #267, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, Koeppel, tr. ICS Publications (Washington DC: 1993) p. 279.]

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