for August 9: Memorial of Dr. Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Early feminist ● German Jewish philosopher ● Catholic intellectual ● Discalced Carmelite ● victim of the Shoah ● Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ● “Virgin and Martyr.” These are just some of the descriptors that have shaped the remembrance of Edith Stein (1891-1942). Her memorial in the liturgical calendar falls on August 9, the presumed day on which in 1942 she was marched from the transport train into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Ways of remembering Edith Stein after her death in Auschwitz are many, and the topography of her memory includes sensitive terrain. Yad Vashem, for example, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, commemorates Edith Stein as a Jewish woman murdered by the Nazis: “Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany in 1891. Prior to WWII she lived in Koeln, Germany. Edith was murdered in the Shoah.” The Catholic and Carmelite identity that Edith Stein took to Auschwitz with her is inconsequential here. That identity of course is what the official Roman Catholic veneration of Edith Stein foregrounds, namely the fact that she sought baptism in the Catholic Church in 1922, lived as a committed Catholic Christian for twenty years of her life, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 in her Carmelite habit. Moreover, her death in Auschwitz was not unrelated to her Catholic faith — although that claim has been contested. Regarding the veneration of Edith Stein as a “martyr,” I suggest that two facts must be held together in any consideration of her murder at Auschwitz. First and foremost is the fact that she was a victim of the Shoah because of her ethnic Jewishness (she had left the Jewish faith behind years before becoming Catholic). Second is the fact that she was rounded up for transportation to Auschwitz in 1942 precisely as a Catholic Jew, in direct retaliation by the Nazi Regime against the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public condemnation of the persecution of Jews. This condemnation had taken the form of an open letter, read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, July 26, 1942. The Nazi Regime responded swiftly by rounding up hundreds of Roman Catholics of Jewish descent living in the Netherlands. Most of these Catholic Jews were then transported to Auschwitz, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross among them. These two basic elements of Edith Stein’s forced journey to Auschwitz – her ethnic Jewishness, and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public protest against the persecution of Jews, which was the direct cause of her arrest – need to be acknowledged together.

There are other parts of Edith Stein’s identity that should be held together with her ethnic Jewishness and her Catholic faith. I am here thinking especially of her scholarly passion. It is important to recognize that Edith Stein was one of the first women to aspire to a post-doctoral degree and to a career in academia in Germany, and that she did not leave behind that scholarly passion when she entered the Carmel in Cologne in 1933. Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (a name she chose for herself, with that particular spelling) embraced Carmelite religious life with all her scholarly skills in hand, and her Carmelite superiors knew to appreciate those skills. Against Carmelite conventions at the time, her Provincial explicitly permitted ongoing scholarly work for Sr. Teresa Benedicta, which she clearly delighted in as her letters from Carmel show. Her last book, a study of St. John of the Cross, was all but complete when she went to Auschwitz.

That it is possible to venerate Edith Stein on August 9 with her fierce intellect is shown by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It remembers her as “Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Philosopher, Monastic, and Martyr 1942.” That alone is a vast improvement over the conventional titles of “virgin and martyr” in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Collect for her memorial in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:

Pour out your grace upon thy church, O God; that, like your servant Edith            Stein, we may always seek what is true, defend what is right, reprove                what is evil, and forgive those who sin against us, even as your Son                    commanded; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you            and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever.

This way of remembering and honoring Edith Stein – as a philosopher, monastic, and martyr – offers a vision of a future in which women scholars who also live holy lives are not shorn of their scholarly passion when the church officially recognizes their sanctity.

Dr. Edith Stein in 1925

A “Prayer for Vocations,” Or, how not to Arrange the Liturgical Chairs on the Deck of the Titanic

I recently read a resignation letter from a priest to his bishop. The letter was written on the 33rd anniversary of the priest’s ordination, from within a psychiatric ward. It was an open, clear, and honest text. The priest had been in charge of a key diocesan office and witnessed a different reality in the lives of the faithful than his bishop wanted to acknowledge. This had created an unholy dissonance in the heart of this priest; the only way he could envision staying true to his priestly vocation was to say “no” to the bishop’s joy and pride in the diocese appearing to be a bulwark against the evils of modernity, liberalism, the culture of choice, Cafeteria Catholicism, etc. One particular element the priest mentioned in his letter was the fact that the bishop routinely lifted up with pride the ordinations of a few young men to the priesthood in his diocese. What was never acknowledged was that none of these young men were led to ordained ministry in that diocese itself; they came there by way of shopping for candidates for ordination internationally.

I think there is something deeply troubling in not acknowledging that the Titanic – in this case: the ship of vocations to ordained ministry – is sinking (even if this happens most dramatically in the North Atlantic world). Not that there is nothing to be done on a sinking ship, or compelling prayers to be had for that moment, but rituals of refusal of reality are, simply, unconvincing because un-truthful. As such, they are unable to set us free to face the moment with the “saintliness demanded by the present moment” (Dorothy Day). This brings me to a prayer that the bishop of the diocese in which I live much of the year asked all parishes to pray together at the end of Sunday Mass. Called a “Prayer for Vocations,” at heart it is a prayer for young men to be called to the priesthood. An opening paragraph of the scripted prayer reminds God that we are each created for a definite purpose and asks God to allow us to say “yes” to our vocations. The key petition that follows is for “vocations to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.” It asks that “our young men respond to Your call with courage and zeal.”

In principle, praying for vocations is simply one response to Jesus’s invitation to pray for laborers to be sent out into the harvest (Mt 9:37f). What strikes me as deeply problematic in this particular prayer for vocations is the context in which we are asked to pray it. To put it starkly, this prayer seems to ask a community to stick its head in the sand with regard to the drastic decline in vocations to ordained ministry in the North Atlantic world. Not that I do not believe in the power of prayer. I do, fervently so. But there are prayers that disempower, on the deck of the Titanic. As such, rather than being a sign of trust in God’s abundant grace, such prayers force us to perform a falsehood, and that on a sinking ship. After all, other prayers than the one cited above could be spoken, in 2023. Why not pray for the Church to come to its senses and begin again to ordain married men? We do already have married priests, in the Eastern Catholic churches. One might even pray that the insistent focus on one specific form of gendered embodiment – and one only – as a prerequisite for ordained ministry might fall by the wayside.

I say all this after having initially tried on the bishop’s prayer for “young men” to choose priestly ordination (but why not “older” men?). This despite the fact that as a scholar of liturgy, I object to a bishop’s pet-projects having to be voiced by a congregation before the final blessing at Sunday Mass. Intercessions are a perfectly appropriate place for that, if must be. More recently, I have simply remained silent, but that seemed a posture of angry defiance and not much more. Finally, I have started praying my own prayer, sotto voce, for God to speed up the Latin church’s recovery of priestly ordination for married men (it seems an eminently sensible little prayer, if I say so myself). Maybe next I will try on a prayer for gender simply no longer to function as a hyper-marked element in discernment for priestly vocations.

For now, however, the larger issue for me has become the question of truthfulness in prayer, as we try to stand before God in worship, in community. When is it time to say “no” to a performance that makes us complicit in a falsehood, by obedience to a command to rearrange deck chairs on a sinking ship rather than focus on the sinking that is so clearly taking place?

And yes, if I had not read the resignation letter by the priest I mentioned earlier, and then asked myself where I might be invited to resist, this bishop’s prayer might never have risen in my consciousness beyond a regular Sunday morning annoyance. The letter-writing priest, I am glad to say, is no longer on a psychiatric ward but with a religious community that has enveloped him and re-grounded his sense of priestly vocation. It seems that Truth can indeed set one free, even on a sinking ship.

July 6: Maria Goretti beyond the “Virgin and Martyr”

Today, the liturgical calendar asks us to remember a 12-year-old Italian girl, Maria Goretti, who died on this day in 1902 after being sexually assaulted by an older boy. On her deathbed, she explicitly forgave her assailant.

Extending forgiveness to her murderer definitely is a holy act, a sign of a deep following of Gospel-mandates. But to think of Maria Goretti’s resistance to sexual assault as a heroic battle for her “purity” or “chastity” — rather than as a twelve-year-old’s struggle against sexualized violence — betrays a serious mis-construal of rape that many today find deeply troubling. Sadly, listing Maria Goretti as a “Virgin and Martyr” in the liturgical calendar of saints does not help to shift this mis-construal, and that of Maria Goretti as a martyr of chastity (it is troubling to think that priests today might use the recent new texts for a votive Mass for Chastity today!).

I find myself in need of different texts to think and pray with today. I offer a stanza from the hymn text, “Sacred the Body” by Ruth C. Duck, as a counter-narrative for all those similarly troubled by established narratives in the church of what it might mean when a 12-year-old girl struggles against sexualized violence:

Sacred the body
God has created,
Temple of Spirit that dwells deep inside.

Love does not batter, neglect, or abuse.
Love touches gently,
Never coercing.
Love leaves the other with power to choose.

In my reading of her story, Maria Goretti resisted sexualized coercion and violence (I do not know of any 12-year-olds who would actually welcome that kind of violence). The real spirit of Maria’s holiness becomes visible to me not in her safeguarding her “purity,” but in her forgiving her assailant before she died. Alessandro, after having served his prison sentence, became a Capuchin brother.

Writing our Lives in the Margins: Liturgical Texts & the Life of Faith

Last week, for the feast of St. Thomas More, I kept an image of his prayer-book close at hand. More took this book with him in 1534 to the Tower of London, where he was executed for treason a year later. In the margins of this prayer-book, Thomas More hand-wrote his own reflections, notes, and prayers. It is as close as one can get to Thomas More’s lived life and prayed faith.

What is usually referred to as Thomas More’s prayer-book is in reality two books bound together, both of them liturgical: a printed Book of Hours and a Latin Psalter. Whether these two were already bound together when Thomas More took them to the Tower with him is unclear but what is clear is that within these liturgical books, Thomas More wrote his own prayer-life, scribbling notes in the margins of various psalms, and — most famously — a long prayer in the margins beginning at the Office of Prime. The prayer stretches across the following pages and pages. Many things are remarkable about these texts and what Thomas More prayed about and for (and against!). What moves me, not least as a scholar of liturgy, is how he wrote his life into the liturgical texts wherever they left room for that. This prayer-book, in other words, witnesses not only to how Thomas More prayed with a given liturgical text, but also beyond it. And he did so by writing in the margins, seeking room for his own words as he turned page after page to identify blank spaces (Thomas More was not alone in this but followed the pious practice of many late medieval believers, as Eamon Duffy has shown).

That particular practice – namely, the fusion of printed liturgical texts and a lived faith scribbled around these texts – has something to say to us today. After all, we ourselves are not only witnesses of this fusion taking place on the pages of St. Thomas More’s prayer-book but co-creators of this fusion in the here and now, as we chart our own path through a lived life of faith, praying with the liturgy, and beyond it, and sometimes against it (at least that is true in my case, as a woman and a theologian in the twenty-first century).

I think of this fusion when I cycle to Mass past the building that now houses the prayer-book of St. Thomas More, namely Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I am glad to say that I have been able to see and hold and study this book on a number of occasions. So, I wave to St. Thomas More’s prayer-book in its temperature-controlled vault of the library as I cycle past. I tell it that I honor it as a precious relic of someone who spoke truth to power and paid with his life for obedience to God rather than to Empire, even if Yale’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library wouldn’t know to catalogue the book as such. At least, the prayer-book of St. Thomas More now lives in close proximity to a church named after the saint who prayed with and beyond this book. As I cycle on to that church, I am grateful for the reminder that the liturgy and my own lived life of faith fuse in ever new — and never simple — ways.