Thursday, August 9, 2012

Edith Stein

Titling this post so simply seemed appropriate. Stark and somewhat claustrophobic, preventing any easy way out. Her name confronts you with typical Teutonic severity. As severe  and entrapping as her photograph.

Today the Roman liturgy commemorates Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta a Cruce. Her place in the sanctoral cycle is symbolic of so many currents running through the Roman Church in the last forty or fifty years. She simultaneously symbolizes the desires to move forward, to find repentance and rebirth, to cling to an idealized past. Edith Stein's canonization occurred during John Paul II's pontificate, a pontificate that showed a unique sensitivity to Judaism and the history of often torrid Christian interactions with the Jews. This was, to be sure, on account of the force of the late pontiff's own will. Being born a Jew, there is a sense, even if often rose tinted, that Edith Stein's place in the cult of the saints somehow bridges an imposing two religions. Being a Jew who was sent to die at Auschweitz, Edith Stein's place in the cult of the saints represents the attempt to firmly reject the holocaust and the antisemitism that inspired it through liturgical praxis. She has become the "dangerous memory" in the Roman liturgy that awakens images in the mind of what has been, thus far, the most visceral incarnation of human evil. The liturgical observance of her feast day is designed to invoke the memory and leave one with little chance to completely forget. I would also argue that her liturgical observance is an act of repentence, a solemn cultic acknowledgment that the Roman Church will never be completed cleared of involvement with the merciless hatred that lead to Edith's and six million other Jews' deaths. Yet, at times Catholics cannot resist the temptation to decontextualize Edith Stein. She was killed by the Nazis without much reference as to why she was sent to die. For Roman Church, the most dangerous memory present in Edith Stein's feast is the damning sense that due to centuries of at times encouraging antisemitism, the very Church she converted to was, culturally, responsible for her death and if her's, then many others as well.

Edith Stein was in her own time an intellectual, perhaps one could even argue she was a philosophical power house. It is not only that she was a Jew who converted, she was the liberated Western woman, a woman who succeeded in a man's world, who chose the habit of a Carmelite nun not out of obedience or suppression but indeed as the fulfillment of her own liberation. All of her freedom had brought her to that point of choosing the religious life, the nun's habit. Yet, her writings on the nature of woman after her conversion affirm the principle of female subordination to male. Although, her life, even after her conversion and reception of the habit, attested to the contrary. She is both the proof that Catholicism is not hostile to feminism and a dense philosophical defense for the traditional Roman domus.

For those willing to hear and understand, the collect for the day offers a powerful (and official) portrayal of Edith Stein's significance for the Roman cultus.

Deus patrum nostrorum,
qui beatam Teresiam Benedictam martyrem
ad cognitionem Filii tui crucifixi
eiusque imitationem usque ad mortem perduxisti,
ipsa intercedente, concede,
ut omnes homines Christum Salvatorem agnoscant
et per eum ad perpetuam tui visionem adveniant.

The opening invocation of God recalls the invocation of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intent, I think, is clear. There should be no mistake, the very Deity of the Old Testament is called upon and called upon in his own terms. The circumstances of Edith's death are not ignored. Her death is treated as an act of imitatio Christi. The collect entertains the possible interpretation that every death of the holocaust had a similar quality to it. There is a qualitative aspect to the holocaust that seems to come closest to Jesus' own agony and death. I will let the conclusion to the prayer speak for itself. It is not surprising the prayer concludes as it does.

S. Dominici - while there's still a few hours left in the day.

Today was (is still in some parts) the Feast of St. Dominic. For a good two years I was surrounded by the Dominicans and came to appreciate many aspects of Dominican intellectual and spiritual life. It is only fair to mark the feast day of their founder.

It is impossible to not think of Dominic in conjunction with Francis of Assisi. Same epoch, responding to the same crisis, and both men are spiritual origin of a religious movement/order that some astute observers would argue has little if anything to do with the founder's original intent. The manner in which the Franciscans would seem to depart from Francis' ideal is well known, thanks, in part, to Francis' own literary output. Dominic, some suspect, suffered a similar fate as Francis, although such an affirmation requires a bit of moderation. Dominic, contra Francis, left the world next to nothing in terms of literary output. Of actual writings, we possess only (to the best of my knowledge) his personal breviary with notes or notations he made and, perhaps, letters to various Dominican convents (the authenticity of these, however, is subject to some debate). Whether the Dominican Order has followed the intention of its founder could be disputed; Jordan of Saxony may very well be the practical founder of the Dominican Order as he had a heavy hand in the Order's organization after Dominic's death. Dominic is also a source of some controversy due to questions over what if any involvement he had in the forceful Albigensian crusade. In both cases, the historian is plagued by a lack of direct evidence stemming from Dominic himself. Instead, we are left analyzing how Dominic functions as a symbol in the human imagination. In line with such investigation, analyzing Dominic's proper liturgical texts only makes sense; therein we encounter how Dominic functions in the cult of divine mediators before the throne of God.

The Tridentine Missale Romanum has the following collect:

Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam beati Dominici
Confessoris tui illuminare dignatus es meritis et doctrinis:
concede; ut eius intercessione temporalibus non destituatur auxilius,
et spiritualibus semper proficiat incrementis. Per Dominum.

I would love to do further research into the compositional history of this collect. The unique medieval manner of blending at times variant spiritual/theological concepts is in full swing here. The concept of "Confessor" has been thoroughly stretched from its original Patristic sense of one who has suffered torture or martyrdom at the hands of an external authority. "Concede", meanwhile, evokes the picture of God as medieval king who in either good pleasure or fierce ire can and will deign or revoke favor. Dominic, meanwhile, appears as the noble personage who can argue our case before God, the juxtaposition of doctrinis to meritis intending to convey that this is not a mere intercessor, this one who possess the very knowledge of God and is thus capable "arguing" our case with the Deity on our behalf. The concept of intercession with the divine is ingenious; it recalls both Jewish and pre-Christian concepts of intercession/mediation with the Deity. Dominic is easily placed in the role of either the long line of Jewish figures capable of arguing with Yahweh or as any number of similar pre-Christian figures. The oration seeks terrestrial results of Dominic's intercession that will be brought to celestial completion, thus exploring the ancient theme of correspondence between the natural and the supernatural. This is, in short, one of the prayers from the Roman liturgy, that transmits very ancient and very universal religious themes and demonstrates the full elasticity of the medieval imagination.