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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003

Edith Stein
and the Contemplative Vocation

by Sister Joan Gormley

After her conversion to Catholicism in 1921, Edith Stein, though strongly attracted to contemplation, continued her active life of teaching, research, and lecturing for eleven years. Her spiritual director wanted the new convert from Judaism to become accustomed to life as a Catholic before entering religious life. He also saw Edith Stein as particularly well placed for exerting Christian influence in the deteriorating situation of Germany in the thirties. Only when the Aryan laws excluding Jews from professional life caused Edith to lose her position at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Muenster in April 1933, did Edith find herself free to pursue contemplative religious life. On October 15 of the same year, she entered the Carmel of Cologne, received the habit the following April, and made final profession in 1938.

While still living her professional life in the world, Edith had realized that the contemplative vocation, whether within or outside the cloister, does not isolate a person completely from the world, but to the contrary, entails a new and deeper immersion in the world. She expresses her insight to a friend:

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 out of oneself", that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it.1

When she entered Carmel, Edith carried with her the awareness that her engagement with the world would not end but would become ever more complete and intense and that, like every contemplative, she was called to exercise a redemptive presence in the world. A companion from student days felt he had lost a friend upon Edith's entrance into religious life; but the new novice assured him that their friendship had not ended but intensified: "Whoever enters Carmel is not lost to his own, but is theirs fully for the first time; it is our vocation to stand before God for all".2

As she matured in her monastic vocation, Sister Teresa Benedicta grew in the realization that prayer for others increases in power as the contemplative is joined more intimately with the sacrifice of self in union with the Cross of Christ. Before her entrance, Edith had already experienced a sense of powerlessness when she failed in her attempts to convert her former teacher and friend, Edmund Husserl, before his death. She confided to a friend that she had to sacrifice herself more in order to have greater influence for salvation. "After every encounter in which I am made aware how powerless we are to exercise direct influence, I have a deeper sense of the urgency of my own holocaustum".3 The theme recurs as she explains her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in terms of taking upon herself the suffering of Christ for God's people.

I received it exactly as I requested it. By the cross I understand the destiny of God's people which, even at that time [her entrance into Carmel] began to announce itself. I thought that those who recognized it as the cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all. Certainly, today I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross.4

Saint Teresa Benedicta's mature thought on the contemplative vocation in the Church merits study, as does her distinctive understanding of the prayer and sacrifice that have traditionally been recognized as essential for the contemplative life. First we will examine Edith Stein's oft-stated view that the contemplative life is not a closing to the world but a way of radical openness to it. Then we will consider her view of participation in Christ's redemptive suffering as inherent in the contemplative's spousal relationship with the Crucified Lord.

I. Contemplative Life: Standing before God
In early 1935, after about a year and a half of Carmelite formation, Sister Teresa Benedicta was asked to prepare a short essay on Carmelite life. Her work was published in the Sunday supplement of the Augsburg Post on March 31 of that year under the title "On the History and Spirit of Carmel".5 To convey at a popular level the essence of the Carmelite vocation, the author contemplates Elijah the prophet, the Old Testament Father of the Carmelite Order. She highlights the first words attributed to the prophet in his encounter with the idolatrous king, Ahab, and designates them as the key to the Carmelite and contemplative vocation:

As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except at my word (I Kgs 17:1).6

In her explanation of the Carmelite vocation, Edith Stein focuses on Elijah's privileged position of standing before God. She enumerates three reasons why he is near to God and powerful to act on behalf of the people. First, he gave up all for the sake of the treasure of being in God's presence, living without a home, in utter dependence upon God. Secondly, having forsaken ordinary human relationships, he directed all his love to the Lord. Finally, he lived ready, like the angels, to serve at God's bidding. Paradoxically, having renounced status and power in this world, the prophet received the mission to exercise the very power of God in the midst of Israel and in the presence of the king. By his word, the man of God shut up the heavens for three years and, at the time declared by God, ended the drought. During the famine, he multiplied food and raised the dead son of a widow who had helped him in his need.7

It is not difficult to see that the author has transposed the biblical account of Elijah into a different key, interpreting the prophet's life in light of the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience as lived in Carmel. Like Elijah, the Carmelite renounces worldly goods, relationships, and autonomy in order to be in God's presence, receiving His word and making intercession for all. The Carmelite Rule requires the religious to remain in their cells "meditating on the Law of the Lord day and night", and "watching in prayer". For Sister Teresa Benedicta, such meditation and watching are equivalent to a call to be like Elijah, "standing before the face of God". The Carmelite watches in prayer in all its many forms: participation in the sacred liturgy, reading and meditative study of the Gospel; attentive listening to the preaching of the Church; Eucharistic adoration.8

Edith Stein's understanding of the ecclesial character of contemplative prayer bears the mark of her personal and scholarly life. Through long years of study before and after her baptism, she displayed an abiding interest in the call of each human person to live an interior life. She was convinced that a man must master himself, find his place in the world, and relate to his neighbor, not from superficial levels of his being but from its innermost core. This deepest and most hidden center of the person, which Edith Stein calls the "spirit", is the place where the person is most at home and most perfectly free.9 Under the tutelage of Saint Teresa of Avila, Sister Teresa Benedicta further developed the notion of the interiority of the person, already important in her thinking, and applied it to prayer.10 In the deepest center of his being, the person meets God and stands before His face. He can then perceive the true meaning of things and events and can respond to whatever is demanded by life, acting for good in the world. "The more recollectedly a man lives in the interior of his soul, the stronger will be the radiation that emanates from him and exercises its spell on others".11

Applied to prayer, this means that the deeper the soul's bond with God and the more complete its surrender to grace, "the stronger will be its influence on the form of the Church. Conversely, the more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God, the more it needs souls united to God".12

Under the influence of the two great Carmelite teachers, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, she arrived at a new understanding of the interior life that had so long occupied her thoughts as a philosopher and in her early years of Christian life. Through her new teachers, Sister Teresa Benedicta came to see the mystical marriage of the soul with Christ as the culminating point of the contemplative life. Her distinctive contribution was to display more clearly the link between the spiritual marriage and participation in the Cross of Christ.

II. Espousals with Christ: Participation in the Passion
Sister Teresa Benedicta's writings during the last period of her life reflect her growing awareness that the spiritual marriage with Christ is a union with Christ Crucified, in which the bride becomes an active participant in her Spouse's redemptive suffering. Her last major work, uncompleted at the time of her arrest and death, was The Science of the Cross, an interpretive study of the thought of Saint John of the Cross.13 In writing of the "science of the Cross", the author was pursuing the fruitful truth of that redemptive mystery of Christ which, through the Church's preaching and life, is cast like a seed into the soul, a seed which can grow and bear fruit.14 She knew well that, unlike sciences learned in the university, the science of the Cross "can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically".15 Doctrine and life simply must be joined for the student who wishes to become learned in the mystery of the Cross. Sister Teresa Benedicta explicitly identifies the "dark night" of preparation for the mystical marriage with the experience of the Cross, the center of her own contemplative prayer and thought.16 In conferences and reflections written for her community, the nun incorporated insights gleaned from her work on John of the Cross and deepened in her personal prayer.

For example, in a series of undated reflections written for the feast of Saint John of the Cross, she ponders the reasons for the saint's desire for suffering and concludes that he was not merely motivated by a desire to remember or resemble the suffering Christ but by the desire to suffer with Christ for the sake of the world, thus participating actively in its redemption.17 Writing for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross,18 the day on which by custom the nuns renewed their vows, she strikes the same note. In moving terms, Teresa Benedicta insists that contemplatives must be involved in the suffering unleashed by events of the preceding weeks with the German invasion of Poland and the onset of World War II. It is instructive to recall that, upon the outbreak of the First World War, Edith Stein had dropped her studies immediately and volunteered for nursing duties at the front. She felt deeply that her private and personal concerns had to be suspended until the emergency was over:

"I have no private life anymore", I told myself, "All my energy must be devoted to this great happening. Only when the war is over, if I'm still alive, will I be permitted to think of my private affairs once more".19

Within the cloister, Sister Teresa Benedicta again experienced the desire to be "at the front". She also experienced the conviction that this desire was meant to be fulfilled for herself and the other nuns, precisely in view of their spousal relationship with Christ.

Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefields in the west and in the East? You are not a physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the wounds.... Does the lament of the widows and orphans distress you? You would like to be an angel of mercy and help them. Look at the Crucified. If you are nuptially bound to Him by the faithful observance of your holy vows, your being is precious Blood. Bound to Him, you are omnipresent as He is. You cannot help here or there like the physician, the nurse, the priest. You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross.20

"Nuptially bound" to Him, the spouse of Christ must be present whenever and wherever Christ carries on the work of redemption. The same thoughts are echoed in personal notes of Sister Teresa Benedicta, found after her death: "Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of the Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation".21

Sister Teresa Benedicta regarded the contemplative's suffering for the salvation of the world as the correlative of the spouse's "nuptial bond" with the Redeemer and the fulfillment of the universal maternal vocation of the Bride of Christ. These themes became more insistent in subsequent meditations, written for celebrations of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in 1940 and 1941. The first is a meditation on Revelation 19:7: "The marriage of the Lamb has come and the bride has prepared herself". After reflections on the sacrifice of the Lamb and on the fruitfulness of the Church as "Bridal Mother, who becomes mother of all the redeemed", the meditation invites Christ's spouses to live clearly their vocation as brides of the Lamb who was slain and concludes with a petition to be able to pray the bride's prayer:

Let us draw from the springs of salvation for ourselves and for the entire parched world. Give us the grace to speak the bride's words with a pure heart: Come!
Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon!22

The following year, to celebrate the same feast, the last before her death, Sister Teresa Benedicta looks at the figure of Mary. In the silence of her heart, the decision for the Incarnation was taken. Suffering with Christ at the foot of the Cross, she became the Mother of Grace and took on the work of atonement.

Released from everything earthly, to stand in worship in the presence of God to love Him with her whole heart, to beseech His grace for sinful people, and in atonement to substitute herself for these people, as the maidservant of the Lord to await His beckoning -- this was her life.23

The spiritual maternity of Mary is thus the paradigm for the spouse of Christ who, at the Cross, arrives at the fullness of her maternal vocation.

The love of Christ impels them to descend into the darkest night. And no earthly Maternal joy resembles the bliss of a soul permitted to enkindle the light of grace in the night of sins. The way to this is the cross. Beneath the cross, the virgin of virgins becomes the Mother of Grace.24

Contemplation: The "atoning fire" of Christ's Sacrifice
Edith Stein regarded the contemplative life as participation in the same atoning fire as Christ experienced in taking upon Himself the sins of the world. At first, this fire was hidden within His soul; then, on Calvary, it was revealed on the Cross.

In the Passion and death of Christ our sins have been consumed by fire. If we accept this by faith, and if we accept the whole Christ in faithful self-giving, that is to say by choosing and walking in the way of the imitation of Christ, He will lead us "through His Passion and Cross to the glory of the Resurrection". Through the life of contemplation, man passes with Christ through the atoning fire to the blissful union of love.25

All who are in Christ, most especially those nuptially bound to Him in consecrated life, are drawn into His sacrifice.26 Those who belong to Christ must first hear Him speak to the Father and learn to speak in the same way. In their silent dialogue with their Lord, the events of the history of the Church and the renewal of the face of the earth are prepared. Not only must these consecrated souls engage in silent dialogue; they must follow the Lamb on the path of glory that leads through suffering and death. They are not just standing at the foot of the Cross, but "allowing themselves to be fastened to the cross with Him".27

As is well known, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross lived out all that she wrote about the essential character of prayer and suffering for the contemplative life. In the silent dialogue of her prayer in Carmel, she prepared as Christ's spouse to pass through the same atoning fire as He did for the sake of her people and for the redemption of the world. In March of 1939, Sister Teresa Benedicta requested permission from her prioress to offer herself as a "victim of propitiation for true peace" and for the fall of the Anti-Christ. Since it was already "the twelfth hour", she asked that the permission be given immediately.28 In this action, as well as in her last written testimonies before her death, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross revealed her personal conviction, born of experience, that the contemplative life is rooted in and continues the mystery of Christ's atoning sacrifice, an absolutely loving surrender for the sake of the world.

1 Edith Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, ed. By L. Gelber and Romanus Leuven, OCD. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies [ICS], 1993, p. 54. Letter dated February 12, 1928.
2 Stein, Letters, p. 32.
3 Letters, p. 60.
4 Letters, p. 295.
5 Edith Stein, The Hidden Life: Hagiographic Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, tr. by Waltraut Stein. Washington, DC: ICS, 1992, pp. 1-6.
6 Hidden Life, p. 1.
7 Hidden Life, pp. 2-3.
8 Edith Stein resisted a too narrow definition of the "prayer of the Church". In a short essay entitled "The Prayer of the Church", written in 1936, she expressed in summary fashion what amounts to a theme in her writings: "All authentic prayer is the prayer of the Church. Through every sincere prayer something happens in the Church, and it is the Church itself that is praying therein, for it is the Holy Spirit living in the Church that intercedes for every individual soul 'with sighs too deep for words'". See Hidden Life, p. 15.
9 Long before her conversion, Edith Stein had discovered the depths of the human heart in the depths of her own person. In her autobiography, she recounts a story of a game in which one child leaves the room while the others decide on three questions to be answered "on your honor and conscience". Edith never forgot the experience of this childhood descent into the depths of her person and the awareness she had there of the truth. See Life in a Jewish Family: An Autobiography. Washington, DC: ICS, 1986, p. 67.
10 Especially helpful to the German Carmelite was Teresa's work, The Interior Castle (Las moradas). In a commentary on the Spanish Carmelite's great work, Edith Stein comments on the seventh and innermost dwelling place where the King dwells (Interior Castle 7,1,3), making it equivalent to her own concept of "the ultimate depths of the being". On the influence of Teresa of Avila on Edith Stein, see Ciro Garcia, Edith Stein: Una espiritualidad de frontera. Burgos: Monte Carmelo, 1998, pp. 142-50.
11 These words from Finite and Eternal Being are cited by Hilda C. Graef, The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Work of Edith Stein. Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1956, p. 160.
12 "The Hidden Life and Epiphany" in Hidden Life, p. 110.
13 The Science of the Cross: A Study of St. John of the Cross. Chicago: Regnery, 1960.
14 Science of the Cross, p. 1.
15 Letters, p. 341.
16 Garcia, Espiritualidad de frontera, pp. 164-66.
17 "Love of the Cross" in Hidden Life, pp. 91-93.
18 "Elevation of the Cross, September 14, 1939" in Hidden Life, pp. 94-96.
19 Life, p. 297.
20 "Elevation of the Cross", p. 96.
21 Life, p. 435. These words are from unpublished notes of Edith Stein. They were used by the editors of of her autobiography to conclude the chapter appended to the uncompleted work, bringing the story to the final journey of Edith Stein to Auschwitz. Correctly, they regarded these words as summing up her life and spirituality.
22 "The Marriage of the Lamb: for September 14, 1940" in Hidden Life, p. 101.
23 "Prayer of the Church", p. 3.
24 "Exaltation of the Cross: September 14, 1941" in Hidden Life, p. 104.
25 Science of the Cross, p. 139.
26 "Prayer of the Church" in Hidden Life, p. 9.
27 "Marriage of the Lamb" in Hidden Life, p. 99.
28 Letters, p. 305.

Sister Joan Gormley, teaches Scripture at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She studied at Harvard University, Fordham University and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.

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