Monday, August 09, 2010

St. Edith Stein and Reality

Thinking about St. Edith Stein this morning after Mass, my imagination sought to portray Auschwitz, the eventual burning of her body and its evaporation into “nothing” available for sensible perception.

This thought was provoked in me by remembering the following paragraph about Maximilian Kolbe and his martyrdom in the same Auschwitz: “Some of Kolbe’s friends were brash enough to request that his body not be burned, but buried. The request was denied. Kolbe would not have liked being singled out that way. Years earlier he had said: ‘I would like to be ground to dust for the Immaculate Virgin and have this dust be blown away by the wind all over the world.’

‘The bodies were to be carried to the crematorium on the morning of August fifteenth. Very devout friends of mine were the ones who had to carry them out in the trough-like wooden boxes. The told me: “Watch closely, the first one we carry out will be Father Maximilian.”

‘I stood watching. As they passed, I took off my striped prisoner’s cap, although this was forbidden. Nobody noticed. I was pretty well hidden. I had to watch him like that going to the crematorium’” [Patricia Treece "A Man for Others" Our Sunday Visitor (1982) 176].

I began to think: What is real? Where can we find what is really real? What is permanent because it is real?

I recalled the “breathtaking”[1] address of Benedict XVI on October 6, 2008 where he said: the Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent.”

Connected to this absolute realism of the Word of God is the corresponding realism of the person who hears the Word and does it. Our Lady was the prototype who heard the Word of God and took it in such that the Word became flesh in her, and from her. Faith was her act of self-abandonment. Simon had taken in the Word in by praying with Christ to the Father in Luke 9, 18 (“As He was praying alone, His disciples were with Him…”) and was able to say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter – as solid reality.

This dramatizes for me Ratzinger’s summary of his habilitation thesis when he says: “You cannot put revelation in your pocket like a book you carry around with you. It is a living reality that requires a living person as the locus of its presence.”[2] That is, the believer becomes real insofar as he becomes the Word by hearing such that he does it. That seems to be the only reality that perdures. Revelation is an act in which God shows Himself. Faith is a corresponding act of hearing and doing the Word heard. Outside of that, everything else perishes into nothingness.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Saint Edith Stein (October 12, 1891 – August 9, 1942) was a German-Jewish philosopher, nun, and is a martyr and saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Born into an observant Jewish family but an atheist by her teenage years, she converted to Christianity in 1922, was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church and was received into the Discalced Carmelite Order as a postulant in 1934. Although she moved from Germany to the Netherlands to avoid Nazi persecution, in 1942 she was arrested and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died in the gas chamber.

Edith Stein was canonized as Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (her monastic name) by Pope John Paul II in 1998; however, she is often referred to as "Saint Edith Stein".

[1] Scott W. Hahn, “Covenant and Communion,” Brazos Press (2009) 22.

[2] J. Ratzinger, “God Word: Scripture – Tradtion – Office,” Ignatius (2008) 52.

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