Invitation to talk
Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was proclaimed co-patron of Europe in 1999.
She was born in 1891 into a Jewish family in Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau, a German city). She studied philosophy in various German cities. After her studies she was baptized into the Catholic Church. She became a well-known lecturer. When the Nazis came to power she entered the Carmelite order of nuns. In 1942 she was murdered by the German state in Auschwitz because of her Jewish origins.
Two key themes will accompany us: the image of man and belonging to a nation. Throughout her life Edith Stein wanted to understand the human person. One cannot understand the human person without his relationship with others, without his relationship to God. In the period of rising Nazi nationalism and racism in which she lived, these became topics of life and death. At the end she herself became a victim of this insane ideology. The human person and national identity – these are also current issues today.
[Proposition for group sharing: 1. Short introductory round. 2. Time to read. 3. Sharing: Which thought has touched me the most? Give a sentence and explain why this thought appeals to you. The others listen, do not discuss. Do not talk too long, because (we have to translate and) everyone should get a chance.]
Texts of Edith Stein
I hope the wall will never be so high so high that we will not be able to keep in touch.
(Letters to Roman Ingarden, Freiburg, 31.5.1917, letter 18: The Collected Works of Edith Stein Washington Prov. Discalced Carmelites 2014).
The enclosed brochure project may be of interest to you. It reminds me somewhat of my old idea that nations should have institutions for “cultural exchange” in order to promote mutual understanding among themselves. Actually, it looks like economic issues are at the top of the list. However, those who work together on the project should determine the priorities. Now, of course, in my opinion they should not just be well-educated Germans who may have visited a country but who lack the ability to communicate sufficient knowledge about the country. Rather, they should be representatives of the countries that will meet. For Polish history and literature, for example, throughout, I would like to have a Pole. The professors should certainly be able to take care of the lack of “objectivity.” And, indeed, what matters in this case is not just how things have been but even more how they look to the other side. Look around and see if there are suitable people you would recommend. So much could be done with a movement like this.
(Letters to Roman Ingarden, Freiburg, 02.06.1918, letter 35: The Collected Works of Edith Stein Washington Prov. Discalced Carmelites 2014).
It has always been far from me to think that God’s mercy allows itself to be circumscribed by the visible church’s boundaries. God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.
(Self-Portrait in Letters, 1916-1942, letter 259 to Sister Adelgundis 23.03.1938: The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol.5. ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1993).
We stopped in at the cathedral (Frankfurt) for a few minutes; and, while we looked around in respectful silence, a woman carrying a market basket came in and knelt down in one of the pews to pray briefly. This was something entirely new to me. To the synagogues or to the Protestant churches which I had visited, one went only for services. But here was someone interrupting her everyday shopping to come into this church, although no other person was in it, as though she were here for an intimate conversation. I could never forget that.
(Life in a Jewish Family, ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1986, p. 401)
The Creation account contains the succinct words: God created man in his own image. Hence the Lord’s demand: be perfect, as your Father is perfect in heaven. “To be the image of God – to be perfect” – there is expressed in the shortest possible form, what man should be. But what is the image of God, what does perfection consist of? […] The image of the perfect man is given to us in the example and teaching of Christ. […] To the young man’s question, “What should I do to gain eternal life?” The Lord replies, “If you want eternal life, keep the commandments!” And when the Pharisees ask him what is the greatest commandment, the answer is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your spirit … all the law and the prophets depend on this.” […] All this together yields: a true Christian is the man who keeps the commandments, but in such a way that the observance of all commandments results from the perfect fulfillment of the greatest, that is, resulting from the perfect love of God. […] Because we can only love God, because he first loved us.
(German in: Bildung, ESGA 16 (2004), p. 77n.)
So I will go to the altar of God. Here it is not a question of my minute, petty affairs, but of the great offering of Reconciliation. I may participate in that, purify myself and be made happy, and lay myself with all my doings and troubles along with the sacrifice of the altar. And when the Lord comes to me then in Holy Communion, then I may ask Him, “Lord, what do you want of me?” And after quiet dialogue, I will go to that which I see as my next duty.
(Essays on Woman: St Lioba, January 12, 1932, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol.5. ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1996).
Our love for people is a measure of our love for God. But it differs from the natural love for people. Natural love is for one or the other person connected to us by blood ties or by similar character or common interests. The others are “strangers” who are “not our concern”, even ugly by their nature, so that they are kept as far away as possible. For the Christians there is no “stranger”. He is the “neighbor” whom we have before us and who needs us, whether he is related or not, whether we “like” him or not, whether he is “morally worthy” of help or not. The love of Christ knows no bounds, it never stops, it is not afraid of ugliness and dirt. Christ came for sinners and not for the righteous. And when the love of Christ lives in us, we do as he does and follow the lost sheep.
(German in: Geistliche Texte. ESGA 19 (2009), p. 8.)
One of the last lectures held by Edith Stein in 1933 was about nation and belonging to a nation. Some thoughts from it:
A nation is a community of people, greater than a family, but smaller than humanity. The life of the nation transcends the life of the individual members: it was before the birth of the individual and will be there after the death of the individual. But also the nation is born and can pass away. We know nations that originated from other nations and have disappeared. A person who has come from another nation and now participates in the life of the people and the formation of it, becomes a member of the national community.
The nation lives by its members who create its history and character. All members have a responsibility for the whole nation. Even if they are unaware of it, they can contribute to the well-being of the national community, for example, through the good upbringing of their children or acting responsibly in the economic process. However, there are also those who harm the good of the community, such as criminals who thereby exclude themselves from the community.
People are needed who consciously take responsibility for the whole of the nation, who know the treasures of their nation and draw from them and at the same time look beyond the borders of the nation. In order for them to make right decisions in their conscience, they must understand that their own nation has a destiny in the plan of God, the Creator and Father of all human beings, and so will focus on the goal that is ultimately the goal of all nations.
It may be that someone in conscience is called by God to leave his people and serve another people. There is a life of prayer in seclusion that is fruitful for humanity.
(German in: Der Aufbau der menschlichen Person. ESGA 14 (2004), 144-158. Summarized by M. Deselaers)
In March 1939, a few months before the beginning of World War II, Edith Stein wrote to the Prioress at the monastery in Echt:
Dear Mother, please allow me to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for true peace: that the Antichrist’s rule may, if possible, collapse without a new world war and a new order be established. I would like to make this act today because it is the 12th hour. I know that I am nothing, but Jesus wants it, and He will surely call many others in these days.
(Self-Portrait in Letters, 1916-1942, vol.5, letter 296 to Mother Ottilia Thannisch, 26.03.1939: The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol.5. ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 1993).
The world that we perceive with the senses is, after all, naturally the firm foundation that supports us, the house in which we feel at home, that nourishes us and provides us with everything necessary, the source of all our joys and gratifications. If this world is taken from us or we are forced to withdraw ourselves from it, it is truly as though the ground were swept away from under our feet and as though it became night all around us; as though we ourselves must sink and vanish.
But this is not so. In fact, we are set upon a surer way, albeit a dark way one engulfed by night, the way of faith. It is a way, for it leads to the goal of union. But it is a nocturnal way, since in comparison to the clear insight of the natural understanding, faith is a dark knowledge: it acquaints us with something but we do not get to see it. That is why it must be said that the goal we reach on the way of faith is also night.
(The Science of the Cross: The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol.6. ICS Publications, Washington D.C. 2002, p. 46).
We know […] that a point in time comes in which the soul […] is completely taken into darkness and emptiness. Absolutely nothing else remains for it to hang on to except faith. Faith places Christ before the soul: the poor, humiliated Crucified One, on the cross even abandoned by the Heavenly Father. In the poverty and abandonment of Christ the soul finds its own poverty and abandonment.
(German in: Kreuzeswissenschaft, ESGA 18 (2007), p. 100.)
ESGA = Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe, Herder, Freiburg Basel Wien
The texts were prepared for an international meeting on the 77th anniversary of the death of Edith Stein, St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, on August 9, 2019 in Oświęcim.