I have long been haunted by a quote by Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Carmelite nun, Jewish daughter and sister, philosopher, one time atheist, convert, contemplative, martyr of Auschwitz .
“Nowadays I always feel transported into Napoleonic times, and I can imagine in what tension people lived then everywhere in Europe. I wonder: will we live to see the events of our days become ‘history’? I have a great desire to see all this sometime in the light of eternity. For one realizes ever more clearly how blind we are toward everything. One marvels at how mistakenly one viewed a lot of things before, and yet the very next moment one commits the blunder again of forming an opinion without having the necessary basis for it.” Edith Stein: A Self-Portrait in Letters, quoted in the People’s Companion to the Breviary.
This quote is included in the office book published by the Carmelites of Indianapolis. It is the reading for Week IV, Friday, evening prayer. The first time I heard this read during community prayer when I was a candidate back in 2005, my heart stopped. I didn’t know much about Edith Stein, except that she had been killed in a concentration camp. But it led me to learn more about her, which only made the quote that much more powerful.
When she was a professor of philosophy she studied the problem of empathy. Writing in 1925–the same year that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published–she proposed that the capacity for empathy ensures “openness among human beings” rather than separation or alienation. She engaged in her philosophical study of this capacity for empathy because she believed it “to be descriptive of human reality and the foundation needed for productive action” for life in the human community.
Now, on this sad day almost 100 years later, a day which our nation’s present leader has chosen to round up children, women and men–largely of one ethnic group–transporting them to camps, separating families and causing terror to thousands of people, I cannot help but ask for her intercession.
Nowadays, I sometimes feel transported to her times. And it is a scary time to be, one that rocks one’s faith in humanity and causes one to cry out to the heavens. What tension we live in today. Are we complicit? Are we bystanders? Or do we stand on the right side of history, crying out “Not in My Name,” and acting on behalf of human dignity?
And then of course there is today’s Gospel reading, the Good Samaritan, which makes it crystal clear what we are to do. What sad twisted irony that the raids against our immigrant brothers and sisters are set to begin today when this Gospel is proclaimed in churches across our nation. Of course, no doubt, many families are staying away from church today, afraid that they might be swept up, no matter what their legal status. And others listen with deaf ears.
Today, the Carmelite Nuns of Great Britain shared a quote from Edith Stein on their Twitter account in which she reflects on today’s Gospel reading.
“‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This commandment is valid unconditionally and without qualification. The neighbour is not the one whom I ‘like’ but any and every human being with whom I come into contact, without exception.”
Without exception. Unconditional. Without qualification.
When Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 in the chapel of her monastery in the Netherlands and taken to a transit camp for deportation, eventually to Auschwitz, she commented: “I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. … I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress.”
When she arrived at Auschwitz, she ministered to God’s people in distress, even as she was one among them.
“It was Edith Stein’s complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners. There was a spirit of indescribable misery in the camp; the new prisoners, especially suffered from extreme anxiety. Edith Stein went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping, and consoling them. Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. She immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.” –Edith Stein, A Biography, quoted on Carmelites of Boston website.
And so I pray.
St. Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, you who studied empathy, lived a life of compassionate love, pray for us. Inspire empathy, respect for human dignity, and action for justice. Lead those of us who might become bystanders instead to solidarity and compassionate love. Help us to pray for conversion of heart in those who wield their power without enough apparent capacity for empathy or neighborliness. Most of all, be with those who suffer. Comfort the mothers, fathers and children facing inhumanity in these dark times. Pray for us all, that our hearts may become wider, wide enough to encompass all our neighbors, unconditionally and without exception. Amen.