Saturday, August 09, 2014

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Today is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein. She was born into a German Jewish family and attended the University of Grottingen, where she studied philosophy. She did her dissertation under Edmund Husserl, and continued as his research assistant when she took a position at the University of Freiburg. She was not able to get her habilitation thesis; it's usually thought that the reason was a reluctance to allow a woman to a level that would allow her to compete for academic chairs. About this time she converted to Catholicism and took a position teaching at a girls' school in Speyer run by the Dominicans. She was there for about eight years and then in 1932 took a position as lecturer at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy. However, the Nazis came into power and by law she was forced to resign in 1933. All her career paths were blocked, it seemed, despite being one of the most talented German philosophers of her generation. (She forms an interesting contrast with Martin Heidegger, who was Husserl's research assistant after her, and who, of course, was a Nazi. We know they met several times, and Stein began working out a critique of Being and Time toward the end of writing Eternal and Finite Being.)

She had become interested in the Discalced Carmelites, though, and joined them along with her sister Rosa, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, after both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. As Nazi antisemitism increased, the order moved members of Jewish background out of Germany into the Netherlands. But the Nazis, of course, took over the Netherlands. On July 20, 1942, the Dutch Bishops' Conference had a statement read in all Catholic churches condemning Nazism; the result was that the Nazis began to round up Catholics of Jewish background. Edith and Rosa, along with almost a thousand others, were deported on August 7, sent to Auschwitz. We don't know the exact day, but Edith and Rosa were probably killed in the gas chambers on August 9, 1942. Edith was beatified in 1987 as a martyr, and canonized in 1998.

As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have been struck by the divine ray. Hidden from the whole world, it illuminated and irradiated them, let the hard, encrusted, misshapen matter of these hearts soften, and then with the tender hand of an artist formed them anew into the image of God. Seen by no human eye, this is how living building blocks were and are formed and brought together into a Church first of all invisible. However, the visible Church grows out of this invisible one in ever new, divine deeds and revelations which shed their light ever new epiphanies. The silent working of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul made the patriarchs into friends of God. However, when they came to the point of allowing themselves to be used as his pliant instruments, he established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development, and awakened from among them his chosen people.

[Edith Stein, "The Hidden Life and Epiphany", The Hidden Life, Collected Works of Edith Stein (Volume IV), ed. Dr. L. Gelber and Michael Linssen, O.C.D, ICS, 1992.]

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