mother against daughter and daughter against mother

August 9, 1942 is the likely date given for Edith Stein’s death. She and her sister Rosa were gassed soon after their transport from Holland reached Auschwitz. Stein was also known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Discalced Carmelite nun, philosopher, writer, theologian. I’ve loved her for many years.  Both our lives had been inside-out by the same book – The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Her reaction had been the same as mine had been – “this is truth!” 

Sr.Teresa Benedicta of the Cross OCD

I wrote a paper about Edith Stein in graduate school – before she was beatified and then canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. As much as I love her, understand the process by which she was made a “saint”, believe she lived in union with the Divine, acted heroically and self-sacrificially, I knew trouble brewed before the beatification took place. In Carmelite terms, she is the moth going to the flame of union and martyrdom. But why is Edith a martyr when 11 million people died in the camps? The list includes one-and- a-half million innocent children, as well as specifically targeted gypsies, homosexuals, mentally deficient people, and, of course, 6 million Jews. The canonization of Edith Stein raises multiple moral questions.

But what made me think of Edith Stein especially this past week (and today, August 9, of course) came about through contemplating the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday: 

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Luke 12:51-53

Edith was the youngest and beloved child of Auguste Stein, her devout Jewish mother.  In an already close family, the two loved one another deeply. Edith’s intellectual progress drew her first to atheism, to psychology, and then to philosophy, particularly phenomenology. She became Edmund Husserl’s assistant. She wrote her PhD thesis under him “On the Problem of Empathy.” Many of her circle were Christians or became Christians, but this did not influence her as much as reading Teresa and then John of the Cross, applying her philosophical methods to the work of these Christian mystics. ( I always wonder what might have happened if she had been exposed to Jewish mysticism?)

It’s one thing to study mysticism and another to enter into the process itself.  Her whole life and training prepared her to embrace the practice of prayer. The liturgy, the divine office, silence, transfigured her. Edith Stein was baptized in 1922. On visits and extended stays at home she slipped out of the house early in the morning to go to mass, but her mother still “heard the door click”. Edith continued to attend synagogue with her mother who once turned to her pointedly during the Sh’ma to say, “Do you hear that? The Lord our God, He is ONE !”

Another time Auguste Stein said to Edith, “He (Jesus) was a good man – I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?” No one could understand this dilemma more than Edith Stein. And yet she felt a vocation to become a Carmelite nun.

Can you see the  deep tragedy? Mother and daughter, both lovers of God, one a Christian drawn to radical expression of a contemplative vocation, and the other a faithful Jew, perhaps a mystic herself, devoted to God and truth? 

So what is it that brings a sword of the kingdom setting mother against daughter and daughter against mother? I don’t believe one or another religion is “right”. How a limited, three-dimensional perception in a multi-dimensional universe can presume to have the whole of Reality packaged so neatly is impossible! The process of fulfillment for Edith Stein was to continue the Christian journey and its demands, however distraught her mother was. And her mother, in turn, even tried to block Edith’s profession perhaps because the distraught mother thought her effort would save her daughter’s soul.

Edith Stein only went to the Carmel after the Nuremberg laws made it impossible for a Jew to teach, even at a Roman Catholic university. For Auguste Stein the timing of Edith’s leave-taking during the tightening of Nazi persecutions made her daughter’s betrayal more poignant.

Auguste Stein died at the very hour Edith renewed her vows in Carmel. Some of her family were able to emigrate. Most died in Teresianstat.  When Edith’s presence in the Cologne Carmel made it dangerous for her sisters, she was sent to Echt in Holland. There her sister Rosa, who had also become a Christian,  joined her and became the portress of the convent.  In August of 1942, in retaliation for the protest of churches against Nazi persecution of Dutch Jews, Christian Jews who so far had been spared were rounded up and sent to death camps.

I think from now on, when I pray with Edith Stein, I’ll include her mother. For what is peace, one without the other? 

Who are you, kindly light, who fill me now,
And brighten all the darkness of my heart?
You guide me forward, like a mother’s hand,
And if you let me go,
I could not take a single step alone.

-from a poem by Edith Stein

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2 Responses to “mother against daughter and daughter against mother”

  1. Linda O. Hardin-Atkins Says:

    isbn:978-1-60911-248-6
    Press release: April 19,2010

    Mysticism has allowed for me to transcend error and
    to find God omnipresent here on earth

    Thanks!

  2. claire Says:

    Thank you for this post. I did read a couple of books on Edith Stein but did not remember she wrote poetry.
    Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum… And probably so many other women, men, and children.
    So many to pray with, to pray for.
    Thank you.

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