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.