A 2017 Lenten Bookshelf: A Second Look at a Six Fold Path: Part 5 – Carmelite
By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
(From Article 540 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
In this six-part series, Kevin Burns selects a book for each week of Lent. Each book speaks to one of the great traditions within Catholic culture. Each book also shows how its author struggles to apply that tradition. Six different approaches to the same journey through the desert of Lent to the Easter promise of resurrection.
Week Five: Edith Stein O. C. D. (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) on the Carmelite path.
Once upon a time – in fact, in the first decade the fourteenth century – St. Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, proposed the creation of a community for the hermits and pilgrims who had chosen to live on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land during the uncertain years immediately following the violence of the Crusades. He suggested they establish a way of life that integrated their spirit of pilgrimage, elect a suitable leader, and build a chapel. And they did.
What we now know as the Carmelite movement was launched, a way of life guided by the Rule of St. Albert, one article of which states: “Since human life on earth is a trial and all who want to live devotedly in Christ suffer persecution; your enemy the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour. You must then with all diligence put on the armour of God so that you may be able to stand up to the ambushes of the enemy.” (Article XIV)
Fast forward to 1933. A convert from Judaism chooses to enter the Carmelite monastery in Köln, Germany. Her name is Edith Stein and Carmelite world she enters is not quite the same as that imagined by St. Albert. The Carmelite tradition that has attracted her is the one influenced by the mystic and poet, St. John of the Cross. He, in turn, had been influenced deeply by St. Teresa of Avila and together they shaped a new Carmelite movement of Discalced, literally “shoe-less” Carmelites, who committed their lives to an overtly austere and disciplined spirituality.
St. John of the Cross was born in 1542 and was educated by Jesuits. He joined the original “branch” of the Carmelites in 1563 and was ordained four years later. Uncertain about where his real spiritual “home” might be, he contemplated joining the Carthusians, but dropped that idea when Theresa of Avila intervened. She invited him to join the Carmelite movement that she had formed, the Discalced Reform Carmelites.
And he did, taking over the leadership of her house of study, and eventually becoming the confessor to the nuns from 1572 to 1577. He wrote, “What more do you want, O soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfactions, fullness and kingdom – your Beloved whom you desire and seek?”
Sometimes that kind of desire-driven seeking takes an odd turn. Within the Carmelite world, the Calced (“shoe-wearing”) and the Discalced (“shoe-less”) didn’t see eye-to-eye on some of the basics. This echoed the historic rift in the Franciscan world with the breakaway of the hood-wearing Capuchin Friars from the Friars Minor. Mendicant or Conventual? Yet still in the Franciscan tradition.
Back to Edith Stein, she was born into a Jewish family in 1891 and converted to Catholicism in 1922. She entered the Carmelites at critical year in German history, 1933. Outside the gates of her welcoming cloister with its deep tradition of prayer, contemplation, silence, solitude, asceticism, Hitler had begun the ambush of every aspect of life in Germany.
Edith Stein was an academic, just 25 years old when she earned her doctorate in philosophy. She was an assistant to the philosopher and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. And if her conversion to Catholicism shocked her colleagues, then her decision to enter the enclosed world of the Carmelites utterly confused them.
Max Müller, the German philologist, describes meeting her in 1931, shortly before she turned away from the academic world. “She appeared to me full of joy, feminine, charming, and full of hope for a university career. She appeared delicate, but not small. Her facial traits were balanced, her expression not pessimistic. Her eyes were especially expressive. I was very disturbed when I learned two years later that she had entered ‘the strictest women’s order in the church.’ It did not seem to me to suit her joie de vivre.” (from: Never Forget – Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Edith Stein, edited by Waltraud Herbstrith O.C.D. Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1998)
Edith Stein did not stop writing after joining the Carmelites. She linked philosophy with theology and spirituality, and much of her writing addresses the challenge of the “coherence of meaning.” In her 1935-6 work, Finite and Eternal Being, she writes, “from God’s point of view – nothing is accidental … my entire life, even in the most minute details, was pre-designed in the plans of divine providence and is thus for the all-seeing eye of God a perfect coherence of meaning. Once I began to realize this, my heart rejoices in anticipation of the light of glory in whose sheen this coherence of meaning will be fully unveiled to me.”
After the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938, when German synagogues were destroyed, the Carmelites realized that Edith Stein could be vulnerable. They quietly moved her to their monastery in Echt in Holland. In 1942, the Gestapo caught up with her, arrested her, and transported her to a transit camp in Amersfoort. Then she was moved to the same camp where Etty Hillesum was detained, Westerbork. On different transports, Stein and Hillesum were moved to what would be their final destination: Auschwitz. It was there that Edith Stein and 987 other Jews who were in the transport were gassed. Edith Stein was beatified in in 1987 and canonized in 1998.
On this fifth week of Lent, I have isolated three brief Carmelite perspectives on the Lenten journey, selected from the works of Edith Stein, now revered as St. Benedicta of the Cross.
On the power of prayer:
Prayer is the highest achievement of which the human spirit is capable. But it is not merely a human achievement. Prayer is a Jacob’s ladder on which the human spirit ascends to God and God’s grace descends to people. – 1933, (p. 119)
Responding to the Challenge of the Cross:
The eyes of the Crucified look down on you, asking, probing. Will you make your covenant with the Crucified anew in all seriousness? What will you answer him? “Lord, where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Ave Crux, spes unica.” [Hail the Cross, our only hope.] – 1939 (p. 134)
And from her final publication, the reminder that contemplation is has radical consequences:
In the Passion and death of Christ our sins were consumed by fire. If we accept that in faith, and if we accept the whole Christ in faith-filled surrender, which means, however, that we choose and walk the path of the imitation of Christ, then he will lead us ‘through his passion and cross to the glory of his resurrection.’ This is exactly what is experienced in contemplation.- 1942 (p. 158)
These Edith Stein excerpts are found in Edith Stein – Essential Writings, Selected with an Introduction by John Sullivan, O.C.D., and published by Orbis Books (2002) in its Modern Spiritual Masters Series.
Monty Williams S.J. concludes this Lenten series by directing us to the Ignatian path, a journey “that begins when we realize that we are trapped in a creation – cosmic, human, and personal – that is disordered. The first stage of intimacy carries us to the realization that even here we are loved, protected, and held in God’s love.”