Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Let Us Go to Die with Our People
There are three Carmelite saints who share the name Teresa. Today we celebrate Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Saint Edith Stein. Born Jewish, she became Catholic and a Carmelite religious. She is a martyr who died in Auschwitz on this date, August 9, 1942.
Sr. Catherine Fitzgerald of the Carmel in Baltimore, MD speaks of ‘spiritual generativity’ quoting from a writing of Edith Stein: "[people] bear fruit by nature of the atmosphere which radiates from them on their environment…" (From Impasse to Prophetic Hope, CTSA Proceedings 64/2009). We say that the blood of the martyrs nourishes the faith. This spiritual generativity of martyrdom is fleshed out in Edith Stein.
Edith had many experiences that are far from life giving. A renowned and brilliant philosopher she was dismissed from her field of study because she was a woman and a Jew. She found life in her faith in Jesus and then the Carmelite vocation. An event at the end of her life that captures the sense of ‘spiritual generativity’, is related by a man serving in the German army. He is in the railway yard at night when a train of boxcars arrives. It is en route to Auschwitz. The prisoners are listed as mentally deficient and will be ushered to the gas chambers upon arrival there. For those aboard, no appeals are to be permitted. As he listlessly wanders among the trains he sees a boxcar with its door open, reeking of unwashed people. He describes a woman standing in the open door. She asks him to get water for those with her. From his account I see a woman very much in charge, her request is compelling, she places herself between the suffering victims behind her and those on the outside who would harm them. She bears fruit by nature of the atmosphere that radiates from her on her environment.
This week of Edith Stein’s feast we have celebrated the Transfiguration of the Lord. Moses who embodies the People of Israel talks with Jesus. Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, whose ministry included those outside the Chosen People, is also in the dialogue. Elijah captures that part of Israel’s vocation to be the light of the nations. Edith’s words to her sister Rosa, as they go to their death, "Let Us Go to Die with Our People", are words of spiritual generativity. Moses and Elijah respectively bring the Chosen People and Israel’s vision fulfilled to the overshadowing light of Christ’s Paschal Mystery foreseen in the Transfiguration. Edith carries that Paschal Mystery with her into those gathered in the horrors of the shoah, her people.
Sister Teresa Benedicta has as her religious title, ‘of the Cross’. Planted in the earth it blossoms. How much this philosopher must have pondered the Cross. Her final book is ‘The Science of the Cross’. The second letter of Peter calls us to keep our attention on the experience of the Transfiguration, "Keep your attention closely fixed on it, as you would on a lamp shining in the dark place until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your heart." The Exultet of the Easter Vigil proclaims that Christ is that Morning Star come back from the dead who will shed his peaceful light upon us.
Edith Stein, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pondered the Cross in the light of Jesus Resurrection, his victory over the Cross. She is a woman of spiritual generativity for us.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is pastor of St. Joseph’s Monastery parish in Baltimore, Maryland.