Lent with St Edith Stein Day 39: St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross

Lent with St Edith Stein Day 39: St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross

               When St Edith Stein joined the Carmelites, she took the name Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. It is perhaps a more fitting name for her as she had the opportunity to embrace the cross so completely in her final days and death.

               St Edith was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany in 1891. She converted to Catholicism in 1922. During World War II and the Holocaust, Jews who had converted were initially granted immunity, but that was revoked after Dutch Bishops made an extraordinary stand against Hitler by issuing a joint pastoral letter condemning the actions of the Nazis. On August 2, 1942, SS soldiers arrived at the convent to collect St Edith, as well as her sister, Rosa, who was staying with her. On August 9, one week later, St Edith was killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

               For the last 22 days, we’ve been working our way through The Science of the Cross, St Edith’s final work. Contrary to what some say, it was completed; there was no dramatic scene where she was racing to type the final words as SS soldiers raced up the stairs to stop her. But it is significant that this was the subject matter that consumed her thoughts during her final days.

               To say St Edith wasn’t stupid would be the understatement of the century. She knew what was going on in the world around her. She understood that although immunity had been granted that the bloodlust of the Nazis would likely eventually reach her. St Edith had read St John of the Cross’s writings previously and her superior asked her to compose this book, likely as a distraction for her. Although, I don’t think distraction is the right word; focus is better. It was a focus for her.

               At the beginning of Lent, way back at the start of March when we all had such high hopes for ourselves, we were told on Ash Wednesday to remember our deaths. St Edith knew for some time that her death was not only eventual, but imminent. She knew that it would not be a dignified death, with loved ones around her bedside and a crucifix in her hand. It would be a shameful, mass killing. Her body would be disposed of, not only without the religious rites we all desire, but as if it were no more than trash; only human garbage.

               St Edith knew all this and spent her last days working on her memoir (which was never completed) and The Science of the Cross. I’m sure she didn’t imagine you and I discussing it 80 years later during Lent. The world was living through some of the darkest times in history and the faithful needed to focus their gaze on Christ and embrace the cross. And here we are, 80 years later, living through dark times, needing to focus our gaze on Christ and embrace the cross. I don’t know if St Edith found perfect and complete union with God in this life, but I know from the stories that were told about her brief time in Auschwitz that she found peace and love and a joy that could not be snuffed out in the gas chamber.

               Today as we remember the passion of our Lord on Good Friday, let us remember our own deaths and embrace our crosses. Let’s move forward, move closer to God and in him, seek a peace and love that cannot be taken from us, no matter how difficult the road ahead.

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