Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28c
Edith Stein, brilliant philosopher and Jewish woman who would become a Carmelite Nun, is most familiar with the Cross. She echoes Passionist spirituality. Edith’s religious name is Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her journey to religious life took her from a mother and family she deeply loved, through years of prominence as a foremost disciple to the philosopher Edmund Husserl, months of caring for the wounded during the First World War, and then becoming a Christian in 1922, a Carmelite in 1933.
Jumping ahead to 1942, Edith has moved to the Carmel of Echt in Holland where the sisters thought it safer because of her Jewish background and growing Nazi threats. The Dutch bishops had a pastoral letter read at all the Sunday Masses condemning Nazi practices. As a reprisal priests and religious of Jewish background were rounded up and sentenced to die in Auschwitz. No appeals would be permitted. With her Jewish brothers and sisters, this contemplative was put to death.
Matthew’s gospel today reverberates with Passion themes. To the 2nd prediction of the Passion Matthew gives us the reaction of the disciples, simply, "they became very sad". To be very sad is the feeling that comes from reading of the meaningless deaths of Edith Stein and all innocent victims of the holocaust. But Edith might direct us to look for meaning in the Cross?
Edith knew the Cross. Her final writing, entitled, "The Science of the Cross" comments on St. John of the Cross, as he explores the marriage of God and the soul, the surrendering of each to the other. She writes "There is no other way to union than that which leads through the Cross and night, the death of the old self…. The bridal union of the soul with God is the goal for which she was created, purchased through the Cross, consummated on the Cross and sealed for all eternity with the Cross." pp 217, 273
Matthew then shows us Jesus as the Son of God. No need not pay the Temple tax, this is his father’s house! Our Lord speaks knowingly he is in charge, but to avoid scandal we will pay. There is a scene shortly before she dies that shows Edith in charge, Christ like in stature, and I believe drawing strength from what is so close to her, the Cross.
She is taken by train to the "east" on August 2nd. The train stops in Westerbork on the 6th. (Etty Hilesum, "An Interrupted Life", a Jew and mystic who helped in the camp of Westerbork in Holland until she would go to her death in Auschwitz herself, makes reference to what seems to be Edith’s passage through the camp). Then late one night in a railroad yard closer to Auschwitz, a man who seems pressed into service, perhaps some military duty, smells the awful odor coming from the cars of a stopped train. It is full of those heading to the death camp. He looks up and sees a woman standing in the open door of one of the cars… She asks if he would get water for those on the train. It seems this was the train of Edith Stein and that it was she who stood there seemingly in control of this hopeless situation, protectively standing between her suffering brothers and sisters and the dark night, and all that awaited them. We can imagine Edith drawing strength from the Cross even as she moved toward it.
The witness is startled to see her, he feels her helplessness, is aware of a horrible situation. One wonders if he might even have helped had she tried to escape? Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, O.C.D., is a witness too. She shows us herself as one whom Jesus invites to stand before the Cross, even such a cross as the meaninglessness of the holocaust; and like her we are invited to draw strength from the Cross to help and protect our brothers and sisters.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is pastor of St. Joseph’s Monastery parish in Baltimore, MD.