Thursday, 9 August 2018

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross -- 9 August

Saint Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein, 1891 - 1942)

Today's saint, otherwise known as Edith Stein, was a philosopher. She was a lover - that is a seeker or searcher - after wisdom and truth. Christianity encourages such searching and has always seen in philosophy an ally in the pursuit and proclamation of the truth. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer includes among its intentions 'all who seek you with a sincere heart', thus blessing the endeavours of the philosophers. John Paul II published an encyclical letter in 1998 that is dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between faith and reason, the two wings by which the human mind rises to truth. The Christian faith is confident that any sincere search for the truth must lead to Christ who is the Truth. Edith Stein is a striking example of this journey in the 20th century. In the 2nd century there is an earlier striking example in St Justin Martyr, another philosopher with a sincere heart who considered all the possible philosophical positions on offer until his mind found its fulfillment in the Christian faith.

Edith Stein was a modern woman, a professional academic, whose lifestyle and situation when she was younger were those of the early 20th century blue-stocking. It was her encounter with the life of another woman, from a very different era, but likewise independent and strong-willed, that led her to the Catholic faith. We are told that she stayed up all night reading the Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, at the end of which Edith said, 'This is the truth'. It was not the end of her thinking or her searching: these were simply transposed into a different key. Faith does not extinguish reason or drown it: rather does it deepen reason, directing it to new questions, and giving it a depth and a reach that left to itself it would not have.

Thus we find Edith Stein translating the De veritate of St Thomas Aquinas: hers was the first German translation of this great work which considers the life of minds, the mind of God, the mind of angels, and the mind of human beings. Each kind of mind handles truth with a view to goodness, in radically different ways, but in ways that are nevertheless related so that the reality of the human being as 'image of God' is developed at great length.

Another re-orientation of reason that comes about through faith is the invitation to consider sin and evil once again only now in the light of the cross of Jesus. In her last work De scientia crucis she expounds the cross-centred spirituality of St John of the Cross. The work remains unfinished, perhaps interrupted by the arrival of the Gestapo to transport her and her sister to the death camps. The wise person, the true philosopher, knows not only about things, but comes to know things, learning through experience. And so she entered fully into the mystery of the Cross and tasted the bitter glory of martyrdom.

She was, finally, a Jew. Her canonisation was controversial. Did she die because she was a Jew or because she was a Christian? The true answer seems to be 'both'. In herself she recapitulates a complex relationship, complex historically and theologically, beginning with Romans 9-11 from the hands of Paul the Christian Jew and continuing still. We can think of her as patron also of this complex work of reconciliation and understanding between Catholics and Jews. All that she was fits her for this, her intelligence and her sincerity of heart, her knowledge and understanding of philosophy and culture, her faith and devotion and her ever-deepening love for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

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