Edith Stein

In this season of Lent we have chosen, in our preaching, to contemplate the message of the prophets and martyrs of our time. We are seeking, through them, to apprehend the meaning of suffering, leadership, and witness. We do so in our contemporary context, the overriding spiritual and moral concerns of which are vexed and complicated. We do so also in a contemporary culture that has lost the art of nuance and deep questioning.

How long is the list of topics we cannot talk about for fear of crossing the boundaries of politically correct language, or of infringing on someone’s rights? How afraid are we to offend and disturb by penetrating into complexity through questioning? Can we ask a woman or man in profound distress and pain to keep living instead of asking assistance to control his or her own death? Can we ask a woman longing to have a healthy baby after having seven children die of horrible disease to suspend her ‘right’ to a healthy child because we do not yet know the full consequences of using three people’s DNA to achieve this?[1] Can we ask a family who knows that their fetus or unborn child may potentially be born with severe Down Syndrome not to abort this mysterious entity in the face of a long life of illness, complication, care, and unknowing?[2] Can we ask someone who is incredibly unhappy in a marriage to stay for a lifetime? It is not that we know the right answers to the predicaments posed in the above questions, but if we cannot look at them closely in Love and Truth then we are the blind leading the blind.

Is there any place, is there any wisdom left, for discerning, for speaking Truth in Love? Or have we lost our faith in Truth and so skewed our vision of Love that the muscles of fortitude and forbearance required to suffer true Love have atrophied beyond repair?

This Lent, we seek the guidance of those who have lived and died in the pursuit of Truth and who bore suffering and sacrifice in their life and death for Love. We do so because we in our culture are in desperate need: we need courage; we need to find a way through this morass of decisions that face us daily.

We need this because the pursuit of happiness has led us into a tangled wood. We need this because being nice to one another and not asking the hard questions has only sublimated the violence that now seems to be bubbling forth in strange and awful ways. We need this because allowing economics and rights language to lead the way in our decision-making has gotten us all up against a wall with no way through.

In a beautiful conversation on Friday about our hopes for the Church, Rev’d Fleming Rutledge told me that every morning she prays that God would bring forth witnesses to Truth in this age. Perhaps her prayer leads us to this sermon series. We are seeking guidance from martyrs and prophets because we are in need of prophets and witnesses for our time and for Christ’s Church. The world is in need of those who know Love so deeply that they will discern Truth carefully and speak Truth deeply. We need those who will live lives open to Love in suffering that can lead to death.

“Where is the God of Elijah?” we call this Lent, as we hit the waters of the Jordan with the cloaks of those who have gone before.

Where Is the God of Elijah

Let it be known beyond all, the God of Elijah has revealed himself in the incarnation, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is he who proclaims of Himself in our Gospel for this evening: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[3]

Only Jesus Christ as the God Man, who reveals the hidden glory and mystery of God through His death on the cross and His resurrection, has loved enough to hold all of these questions within Himself unto death. He holds them in order that the Truth of the Judgment and merciful Love of God might be revealed. It is He that compels those whom we seek to understand this Lent to witness to His grace. Our question is not “how did the martyrs and prophets become who they were in their humanity?” We do not inquire so that we may emulate their actions. Rather, our question must be “what did they see in Christ, what did they hear in the Gospel that opened their ears and their hearts to be drawn into the Truth and Love which sustained them unto death?” Only in this way can they be instrumental to our transformation.

When we look directly at the lives of prophets and martyrs instead of looking at Jesus Christ, the source of their witness, one of two things happens: either we are drawn into an unhealthy and inaccessible hagiography of their persons, which is alienating and untrue, or we begin to uncover all of their flaws and weaknesses and disregard their witness, writing them off due to our disappointment in their sinful humanity. Prophets and martyrs cannot save or transform us unless they become for us icons whose transparency and instrumentality point us through to He who is the Love and Truth that carried them.

The action of God in each of the lives of those we contemplate this Lent made these humans instrumental participants in the transformation of the world. They have exhibited a freedom unknown to me, and maybe to you. Somehow they acted as if they knew that to “serve him is perfect freedom.” They were not perfect, but something compelled them to speak Truth in Love, and doing this had a profound impact. They died in that freedom and stories told of them say that in their death they were beyond fear. What would it be to see Jesus Christ, his suffering, his cross, in such a way as to want to take up one’s own cross and follow Him in the face of death, death to self, and possibly physical death?

Edith Stein: the Pursuit of Truth

Tonight, the story to tell is of Edith Stein, a Jewish scholar who was sainted St. Teresa Blessed by the Cross in the Roman Catholic Church in 1998. Stein died in Auschwitz in 1942; she was a philosopher and a Carmelite nun. Stein was sainted not for her heroic acts but because she pursued Truth and knew that Truth, in Love, by Love, in her death. As Pope John Paul II said of her at her canonization:

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love, which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.[4]

Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, October 12th, 1891. At 15, due to philosophical questions, her tenacity for Truth led her to stop praying. For over ten years she called herself an atheist. In these ten years she studied phenomenological philosophy with one of the greatest thinkers of the early twentieth century, Edmund Husserl, a man she called her master. Phenomenological philosophy taught her to think, taught her to look deeply at the world. But it also led her to the edge of the capacity of philosophy, to the edge of rationality. She began to perceive the limits of philosophical reasoning through her intense study.

The profound unsettling of the First World War led her to a precipice. Friends met her there, on the narrow ridge. Together they struggled with the edge of rationality in the face of the questions posed by war. One of these friends was Adolf Reinach, Husserl’s best student and interpreter. He was led to faith while on the battlefield in the last months of his life. There, he wrote the beginnings of a work on the phenomenology of religion, pressing beyond his master into the unknown.  He said “for what purpose has this horror if it does not lead human beings closer to God?” He died on the battlefield, his work undone. He left a widow, Anna Reinach, and Stein sought her out in her grief.

What Stein found when she visited Anna Reinach was a woman with a calm demeanor and an inner peace which was striking. People came to console her but instead they left consoled. This experience was to mark Stein for the rest of her life. In her latter years Stein said of this visit:

It was my first encounter with the cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time I was seeing with my very eyes the church, born from its Redeemer’s sufferings, triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed.[5]

In the pursuit of Truth, Stein could not deny something beyond rational perception. While still calling herself an atheist, she began to reflect philosophically on what she perceived:

There is a state of resting in God, of complete relaxation of all mental activity, in which you make no plans at all, reach no decision, much less take action, but rather leave everything that is future to the divine will …resting in God is something new and unique, a feeling of being safe, of being relieved from anxiety and responsibility, to which if I surrender, new life impels me to new activity, and this without voluntary exertion in my part.[6]

Edith Stein: The Cross of Love

This was the beginning, and Stein was drawn to Christ and his Cross. Husserl, her ‘master,’ also knew this draw. One day he said to his students, “Look at my New Testament, I always have it on my desk, but I never open it. If I were to begin reading it, I know that I would have to abandon philosophy.”[7]

It was St. Theresa of Avila, the passionate lover of Christ and his Cross, that finally led her to conversion to Christianity. After reading St. Theresa’s biography, Stein bought a catechism, and in 1922 she was baptized into the faith. This was painful for her mother, a devout Jew who had pushed her daughter into intellectual pursuits.

What I want to emphasize tonight is that it was a passionate pursuit of Truth that led Stein to the Christian faith, and when she saw Christ, hidden in the suffering of the cross, she could do nothing but fully assent and follow him, though she and her family ached with the consequences. Rev’d Fleming Rutledge said yesterday in our class that the Disciples of Christ did not make a choice, they simply were addressed and had to respond by following:

What does this mean in our lives? What does it mean that so many of the most brilliant philosophers and scholars of the early twentieth century, in the face of destruction and suffering, had to turn to Christ and saw him as utterly compelling?

Though Stein was attracted to the contemplative life, she quickly came to see that turning to a devotion of Christ and his Cross could not mean an abandonment of the world. She says:

Immediately before and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God the more one must go into the world… to carry the divine life into it. [8]

Despite its fallen condition, Stein believed the world remains the theatre where the drama of God’s designs for our happiness and sanctification takes place. For this reason Stein applied her gifts of sharp observation to discern the ‘signs of the times,’ to keep in touch with the ups and downs, the ins and outs, of salvation history and its current throughout her life. [9]

The signs of her times were dark signs of increasing anti-Semitism. Her experience as a woman philosopher barred from teaching in the university, and then as a Jew enduring the same and worse along with all of her people, brought her to a profound understanding of suffering. The only sense she would make of suffering was in the Cross of Christ. She refused any other solace, but she did expect the Church to act in the face of this agony. In 1933 she wrote a letter to the Pope, a letter that never received a response:

As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews…But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.

Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself ‘Christian.’ For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.[10]

Stein believed the abuse of Christ’s name was the primary issue at stake because Christ held the whole of humanity in His being. As the intensity of Jewish persecution deepened, Stein and her family were always at risk. In this crucible, Stein turned to a deeper study of the Cross and its meaning. She saw in the suffering of Christ the only possible transformation of the world. When her friends tried to save her from what was coming she spoke out:

Do not do it! Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.”[11]

She asked them not to do it because she had come to see that in participating in Christ’s sufferings we are shaped and formed; only in the dark night can we begin to be able to see more deeply. As the first letter of Peter teaches:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desire but by the will of God. [12]

What does this mean when we face the hard questions of our contemporary context? Are we called to press into suffering as followers of Christ in order that we might be instrumental in revealing the promise of suffering in Christ? This is no easy thing to say; it makes me weep because I do not know how to make this choice, and long with all my heart not to have to make it. It is one thing to accept suffering one cannot avoid, but to choose it for the sake of knowing Christ is another altogether, and it is an almost impossible thing to ask of another person. However, to see that suffering is not simply something to be endured but rather to be chosen because it has worth in Christ is of utmost necessity in our current questions. If you can eradicate the suffering of a child with Down Syndrome, how do you choose to go ahead and have that baby? If you can die rather than writhing in pain, how do you choose not to when you are confronted with the option? How do you choose to stay in a hard, hard marriage? How do we come to know that in Christ this suffering, this grief, is the most powerful way to know Him, and that to know Him is the only, only thing that is worthwhile? “No spiritual work comes into the world without great suffering,” says Stein. “It always challenges the whole person.”[13]

Stein was taken from her monastery in August of 1942 along with her sister. Her last writing was entitled The Science of the Cross, and it was a profound philosophical interrogation of the life and writing of St. John of the Cross. She was learning from him to see in the dark as the ugly dark descended on her country, on her people, and on her personally. On her way to Auschwitz she is said to have comforted many by the deep peace and confidence in providence that she embodied. At the canonization of Stein, Pope John Paul II said:

The new saint teaches us that love for Christ undergoes suffering. Whoever truly loves does not stop at the prospect of suffering: she accepts communion in suffering with the one she loves. [14]

Stein and her sister died in the gas chamber on August 9th, 1942.

Resting in Him to Begin a New Day Like a New Life

How far am I from this peace, from this Love for the crucified one; how far am I from Truth and Love comingled? Thank God Peter knew we would be this far and preaches the consolation and promise that He who has suffered once and for all will pursue us even into our deaths to draw us into his true Love. He says,

For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the Spirit as God does.[15]

And so we pray with these words of consolation of Edith Stein:

When night comes, and retrospect shows that everything was patchwork and much that one had planned left undone, when so many things rouse shame and regret, then take all as is, lay it in God’s hands, and offer it up to Him. In this way we will be able to rest in Him, actually to rest and to begin the new day like a new life.[16]



[1] On the 24th of February, 2015 BBC ran an article by James Gallagher entitled ‘Peers start three-person baby debate’

[2] Between 60%- 92% of families who are made aware of the fact that their child may be born with Down Syndrome choose abortion.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_syndrome www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/…down-syndrome/254869

[3] Mark 1:15

[4] Homily of John Paul II For The Canonization Of Edith Stein: Sunday, 11 October 1998

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre. Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue. London: Continuum. 2006. p. 164

[6] Ibid, p. 165

[7] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy. Three Women in Dark Times: Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2000. p.17

[8] Edith Stein. Essential Writings. New York: Orbis Books, 2004. p. 37

[9] ibid. p. 21

[10] Edith Stein, Letter to Pope Pius XI

[11] Homily of John Paul II For The Canonization Of Edith Stein: Sunday, 11 October 1998

[12] 1 Peter 4: 1-2

[13] Homily of John Paul II For The Canonization Of Edith Stein: Sunday, 11 October 1998

[14] Homily of John Paul II For The Canonization Of Edith Stein: Sunday, 11 October 1998

[15] 1 Peter 4:6

[16] Verses for a Pentecost Novena: By Edith Stein