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Bishop Barron on St. Edith Stein’s Elevated Virtue

August 9, 2016


Today is the Feast Day of St. Teresa Benedicta della Croce, or St. Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism turned Carmelite nun who was martyred in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1942. Bishop Barron explores some of the biographical details of this great saint in his book, The Priority of Christ, wherein he displays the pervasive virtue that characterized Edith Stein’s vocation and witness.

“For the classical version that Aquinas inherited, courage (fortitudo) is the virtue that enables a person to resist those fears that would prevent him from fulfilling the demands of reason. The performance of the morally right act is relatively easy when it meets no opposition either from within the agent himself or from the external environment. But there are times in the course of life when we are compelled by conscience to take a particular action even though some threat, perhaps mild, perhaps grave, looms over its performance. To do the right thing would result in the loss of one’s job, or the harsh criticism of one’s peers, or in the limit case, the forfeit of one’s life. The virtus by which a moral subject is able to face down those fears is courage.

Now what happens when this ordinary or natural courage is transfigured through the inrushing of grace? It becomes a moral resistance of fear, motivated and informed by the love of Christ which the agent has received. I use the genitive here in both a subjective and an objective sense, indicating that there is both a supernatural motivation for the person’s courage (love for Christ) and a supernatural power or form to it (Christ’s own love now infused in the person). The virtuous soldier willing to face death on the battlefield becomes the soldier for Christ; the martyr accepts death rather than denying the Lord.

What should become clear, even from this sketchiest of introductions, is that a virtue such as courage really becomes intelligible only in the measure that it is displayed biographically. What do the facing, resisting, and conquering of fear out of love for Christ look like? That question cannot, as I’ve suggested, be answered abstractly through the presentation of ideas; it can be answered only iconically, through the display of a living form. Accordingly, here I present, however inadequately, an icon of a contemporary martyr: the Carmelite mystic and scholar St. Edith Stein, Sr. Teresa Benedicta a Croce.”

Bishop Barron goes on to give a brief history of Edith Stein’s life, from her humble beginning as the youngest of seven children in a devoutly Jewish household, to the intense and meritorious academic journey on which she displayed her intellectual prowess to the greats of German philosophy and eventually abandoned her pious roots, to her ultimate conversion to Christianity upon encountering the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and experiencing the Catholic Mass. Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne in 1933. From this time until the point of her death, the continual elevation of Edith’s virtue was on full display.

“…Edith’s moral commitment—her love of family and friends, her fierce devotion to truth, her willingness to serve others as a wartime nurse, and her fortitudo in the face of obstacles interior and exterior—was, prior to her baptism, on clear display. She was, in the language of Aristotle and Aquinas, a person of rather impressive natural virtue. But now, grace would build on this foundation, or better, it would transform and transfigure it, raising it to a new pitch. To this point in her life, Edith had been relatively in control, but through the ministrations of Teresa of Avila, Anne Reinach… and many others, Jesus had gotten into her boat, and now he would be in control. Her love, passion, devotion, and courage would now appear in a new light and be oriented to a new telos.

This change is perhaps most immediately apparent in Edith’s life of prayer. Despite her extremely hectic teaching schedule, she would spend hours in silent prayer, kneeling motionless before the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes passing an entire night in such devotion. So impressed were the Dominican sisters by her prayerfulness that they ‘allowed her to place a chair off to the side of the Altar, hidden from the community as well as the congregation, in the sanctuary of the church. There, tucked away behind a column, Edith could sit or kneel for hours either absorbed in the Mass or private prayer.’ The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist would become the organizing center of her life, the beginning and the end of all her activities.”

“…on March 26, 1939, Edith made an extraordinary request of her prioress. She asked for permission to make a freewill offering of herself to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In a formally composed statement, she pledged her life as an atonement for the sins of the world, in the hopes that ‘the Antichrist may perish, if possible without a new world war, and a new order may be established.’ [This] woman born on the Jewish Day of Atonement, received into the Church on the feast day of the first shedding of the Savior’s blood, and given a name in religion designating the blessing of the cross, knew that her life was wound around the mystery of Christ’s redemptive death. With her oblation, she was formally recognizing this connection and stating her desire that she might be mystically joined to Jesus’s work of defeating evil through self-immolation in love. Under the influence of grace, her natural fortitudo was turning into the courage of the martyr. She was now pounding on the door that separated her from the crucified Jesus.

In another text from 1939, Edith wrote: ‘Therefore, the Savior today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken out in the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.’ None of this constituted a morbid death wish: throughout this dangerous period of her life, Edith tried in numerous ways to protect herself and her sister, who had come to live with her. But she had signaled willingness to be used in this salvific way should God see fit. She did not have long to wait.”

When the Gestapo came to the Carmelite convent for Edith and her sister, from which point they would load her into a train car headed toward the gas chambers of the Nazi death camp, Father Barron tells of the way that Edith remained calm, following in the footsteps of her holy spouse:

“At this climactic moment of her life, Edith was, with this courage of the martyr, moving into the role of atoning victim, one who would, in imitation of the crucified Christ, conquer evil by refusing to fight on its terms.”