St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, 1891-1942), whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, is one of the patron saints of Europe, where the Church is suffering so much at this time. St Teresa Benedicta surely did not imagine what God had in store for her – from Jew to atheist to brilliant scholar to Catholic convert to enclosed Carmelite mystic to martyr of the Nazi holocaust. She did not turn sadly back when she felt the pain of the thorns, but trusted in God each step of the way.
How did Edith, an atheist, discover Christ? Through the Mystery of the Cross, and the Faith and Hope revealed in Suffering when fixing one’s eyes on Christ Crucified.
In 1917 she was at Freiburg, assistant to Husserl. One day she received news of the death of Adolph Reinach on the field of battle. His wife and other friends asked Edith to come and sort his papers and various philosophical writings. She hesitated at first, feeling she had no words to comfort his wife, believing her to be desperate in her grief. When she met the young widow, however, she was struck by her resigned, almost serene attitude. In this attitude Edith grasped immediately the strength of the Christian Faith. The gates of an unknown kingdom had suddenly been thrown open, the kingdom of Christian Hope. Relating this experience many years later to the Jesuit, Fr Hirschaum, she confessed:
“This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the divine strength it brings to those who bear it. I saw for the first time within my reach the Church, born of the Redeemer’s sufferings in his victory over the sting of death. It was at that moment that my incredulity was shattered and the light of Christ shone forth, Christ in the mystery of the Cross”.
These words were spoken years later when Edith felt the full weight of the Cross bearing down on her persecuted people. Back in 1917 she had discovered from this experience that all her rationalistic and atheistic arguments were as nothing in comparison with the Christian Faith. Comparing herself with this deeply Christian woman, she realised that Christianity could offer her essential value-guides in the search for Truth. She realised the importance of faith in God, in order to free people from existential anguish, and to experience that “transcendental peace” which, in the phenomenology of Husserl, derives exclusively from the action of God in the soul. The serenity and trust of the widow Reinach had taught Edith that this “transcendental peace” is identical in the Christian Faith with the strength of the Cross of Christ, accepted in the hope of resurrection to immortal life. Only the meeting with Christ on the Cross can enable interior peace to be found and to sublimate suffering.
Years later, after her conversion to Catholicism, and with her entry to the Carmel of Cologne, Edith began a time of suffering and assimilation to Christ, which brought her to the heights of the mysticism of the Cross.
The saintly Fr Willie Doyle (Irish Jesuit priest, who was killed by a bomb blast in August 1917 during WW1 whilst ministering to his men) wrote in his diary:
“You must bear in mind that, if God has marked you out for very great graces and possibly a holiness of which you do not even dream, you must be ready to suffer; and the more of this comes to you, especially sufferings of soul, the happier it ought to make you. . . . Love of God is holiness, but the price of love is pain. Round the treasure-house of His love, God has set a thorny hedge; those who would force their way through must not shrink when they feel the sharpness of the thorns piercing their very soul. But alas! how many after a step or two turn sadly back in fear, and so never reach the side of Jesus.”
This is representative of the message of Christ Himself who tells us:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Pat Kenny of the Iona Institute, and author of the blog, “Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ“, explains: “The way to holiness is hard. It is true that it may be filled with many consolations and the help of God’s grace, but the pursuit of sanctity itself is a hard road. This is seen in the life of every saint, from the martyrs to the hidden contemplatives to those living apostolic lives in the world, whether religious or lay. This suffering isn’t always physical, it can entail a suffering of the soul, similar, for instance, to that darkness experienced by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta for most of her life. Today in the West, and very especially in Ireland, it is becoming increasingly clear that our suffering as Catholics may involve scorn and insults because of our faith. But for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere, we see a hard road that now leads to actual martyrdom, and even crucifixion, at the hands of Islamic militants.
Progress in the spiritual life requires effort, just like progress in a sport or a career requires effort. Those who win medals do not do so by accident – their success is based on many years of training and effort. But the fact that effort is required is not a sufficient excuse to stay still; as Fr Doyle says, we may have been marked out for a holiness of which we do not even dream. What a tragedy, for us and the world, if we do not strive to reach the level of holiness God has planned for us. Imagine if Fr Doyle had settled for a life of average sanctity, if he turned “sadly back in fear”? He could have lived a comfortable life; he could have managed to get a relatively easing posting at home. But how much more difficult would life in the trenches have been for some of those soldiers as a result? The same can be said for all the saints – if they had turned back sadly in fear, how many religious orders with all their works would remain unfounded; how many works of charity or of apostolate would remain undone?
And the same can be said of us. If we turn back out of fear of suffering, how many people will be worse off? That’s why the universal call to holiness is so remarkable, and exciting, and why we must not forget the implications of this spiritual truth for all of us. There are some high ranking prelates in the Church who have recently expressed the view that heroism isn’t for “ordinary Christians”. This is a strange clericalist mindset and it seems hard to reconcile this with the Gospel and with the witness of the first Christians. It’s true that we may not actually become heroic in practice, but we are still called to strive for heroism, even in faithfulness to mundane daily duties.”
But we must not give way to fear, for Christ has promised His grace, and this will help carry us forward, for without it we can do nothing. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He will help us. As St Benedict tells us in his Rule:
“For as we advance…in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.”
Finally, we remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“Jesus is nailed to the cross…Let us halt before this image of pain, before the suffering Son of God. Let us look upon him at time of presumptuousness and pleasure, in order to learn to respect limits and to see the superficiality of all merely material goods. Let us look upon him at times of trial and tribulation and realise that it is then that we are closest to God. Let us nail ourselves to him, resisting the temptation to stand apart or to join others in mocking him.”