Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mary Oliver, Edith Stein and Me

Ten years ago I was in Rome for a controversial ceremony. Edith Stein, a convert from the Judaism of her early years and a victim of the concentration camps, was being proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Brilliant agnostic university woman turned cloistered nun, she had posed as many problems for her Jewish family in her lifetime as she subsequently did for Jewish men and women facing the Church’s claim that Edith Stein had died a martyr for her Christian faith. Hadn’t Edith Stein – like six million others – died in the concentration camps because she was Jewish, born to her Jewish family on Yom Kippur in 1891?

During studies at a local divinity school some years back, I wrote a paper on Edith Stein, applying to the story of her long adult attraction to Christianity and her eventual decision to ask for baptism the notion of conversion as developed by philosopher Bernard Lonergan. Far from the forced conversions that darkened the history of the Church’s interactions with the Jewish people, Lonergan’s notion of conversion emphasizes an individual’s free embrace of a truth recognized for the claim it makes on the intellect and heart. Nothing I had read in Edith Stein’s writings ever suggested that conversion for her had been anything merely convenient or strategic or forced.

I sat in a chair in my library at home late one night this summer, thinking about a journey that Edith Stein had made in October 1933. An academic in her early forties, she was traveling from her family’s home in Breslau (Wroclaw in present-day Poland) to the city of Cologne to be received into a cloistered Carmelite convent. Her narrative of that long train ride and of the events leading up to it reveals a woman at a critical moment in her life. A choice she had made about the way she would henceforth live her life was about to alter forever the physical and emotional landscape in which she interacted with family, friends and acquaintances.

Why would she do it? What guarantee did she have that the decision she had made would be worth the heartache it was bound to cause her Jewish family and even herself? What right did she have to ask these good people to go through so pronounced a rupture in what till now had been their normal lives with her? Why couldn’t she be content with a regimen of regular churchgoing, daily prayer and the occasional retreat? Who was she to say that the good resulting from her choice of this radical vision of her life was not available in some healthier form in her bonds with her family and the traditions in which they had their roots? How did she know that she hadn’t been fundamentally mistaken in her understanding of Christianity, perhaps emotionally blindsided by the National Socialist atmosphere growing in the Germany around her?

That night I sat in the library by myself and re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.” I found in it a compelling psychological portrait of a person ready to make the kind of change Edith Stein had made in stepping onto the train in the station in Breslau that day in October seventy-five years ago. That a church later recognized in her life a pattern that might prove helpful and transformative to generations yet to come should not lead us to expect to find in her story a simple vocation narrative. Hers was not a blissful contemplative path, a journey without struggle or waiting or insecurity. Physical and professional and emotional survival was not to be taken for granted for an exceptionally bright woman named Edith Stein living in the Germany of her day.

So suppose you were that exceptionally bright woman in your thirties and over the years you had gotten everyone in your life to believe you saw your life and its possibilities a certain way. Suppose you yourself had gotten to believe that that was the complete story of who you were. In other words, suppose through long practice you had forgotten the effort it took each day to act that way, to act as though you knew what the world was like and you knew the roles you could play in it. You had heard a lot and particularly you had read a lot about truth to self, but you had concluded long ago that everyone had a public self that was different from the interior self out of which you looked at what passed in the world for your happiness or success.

And then one day you got to read what someone so like you that it was scary, what someone on the other side of interior collapse four hundred years earlier had discovered about the uselessness of all such effort to seem all right. After reading the life of Teresa of Avila straight through one summer night in 1921, you began to imagine what it would be like to be face to face with a God who had never asked for that kind of futile, exhausting effort from you or anyone else. Suppose you got to hear that God saying, “There is a happiness waiting for you if you want it. There is a true voice waiting for you to use if you want it.”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.

Let’s consider the possibility that life in her house growing up may not have been everything Edith Stein needed or wanted. We can first understand “house” literally as the physical environment in which Auguste Stein raised her eleven children after their father’s untimely death in 1893, when Edith was two. The impossibility of experiencing a father’s love and the economic demands on the newly widowed mother may have favored an intellectual development in Edith Stein that was precocious but extremely private.

She confessed later to an early reputation for being biting in her judgments of others; her mind may have searched for security in ferreting out the faults of others as a salve for the faults in herself that she could have suspected were the cause for the withdrawal of a more attentive love. For survival, Edith Stein created a role for herself, an intellectually prestigious role as the ruthless observer of the human mind, a role people let her play. She built in this way her own kind of inner house, one that gave her space to think her own thoughts. It may have been a role that kept people in her family and in her university circles feeling they knew her while it kept her fundamentally isolated.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

What could have been more transformative than to come to the awareness that a God might be saying to her something like what Teresa of Avila had heard, “I have a happiness waiting for you if you want it”? No longer required to be someone exclusively focused on taking care of others or taking care of their opinions of her, Edith was ready, maybe even desperate for her life to change. What could have felt more essential to Edith Stein than finally to know what she sounded like?

It would be important for Edith Stein at that point in her life to be with people who understood the kind of path she was embarking on. It would be important for her not just to know of such people but to live more and more among them and alongside them. The company Edith Stein needed might be on spiritual paths very similar to hers. Or they might simply be people who knew Edith Stein so well that they had to try to understand what a path like this would mean to her, what it promised her, what it freed her from, how it might feel to her on different days, what part of the path might surprise her given her history, what part of the path might reduce her to tears for the sheer joy of walking it. They would be people who could be company because being with her on that path fed something in them, brought them to life, became a reality they could not avoid reflecting on and asking about. They would be people who could recognize the voice that finally emerged at that critical point in Edith Stein’s life, recognize it as hers – finally and unmistakably hers.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…

Edith Stein was not someone unable to understand the challenge her new vision of her life posed for many of the people that she loved. Writing later about the train ride from Breslau that October morning in 1933, she confessed that what she had just lived through those final twenty-four hours with her mother and her family had been terrible. No easy joy had marked that journey of hers. The most positive thing she could say was that she had traveled feeling sure of moving in accord with God’s hopes for her life.

In the weeks and months and years ahead, she would be supported by women and men of her acquaintance who were not surprised that lives sometimes turned out like hers. In fact, they would communicate to her the conviction of having watched someone bravely claim her life and answer the invitation of the God at its heart. She emerged from the turmoil with what she may have felt she had almost lost – the sense of being the Edith Stein she was always meant to be.

…determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Who loves the changes in us? There may ultimately be no more practical question for any of us to ask in our life.

Yom Kippur 2008

Photo of Edith Stein from Blog Cristiano

Photo of Mary Oliver from Dartmouth News


Anonymous said...

It is, I think, a sign of God that we will be led along paths we had never planned to travel. Thanks for the reminder, Donald

Vic Mansfield said...

and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…

And with that voice is another Voice that keeps us company. Thank you for this post.

A Troll At Sea said...


How nice to see someone under the Rainbow Flag post something about EDITH Stein rather than GERTRUDE Stein.

A dear old friend [a very OLD friend] of mine had Edith Stein as a high school teacher at a girl's "Gymnasium" in Breslau. She was not merely biting; she was excoriating, particularly about religion, and particularly about Catholicism. It says something about my elderly friend's feelings as a Catholic girl that she no more willing to accept Edith Stein's conversion than most Jews were.

However, I believe she was sincere; the anti-religious stance of many assimilated Jews in Germany approached a religious intensity, and there is no maxim like the one about the extremes meeting...

Pax vobiscum.

John said...

Edith Stein's life -- and Mary Oliver's as well -- provide proof that things can happen in all of our lives that surprise those who think they know us.

They can surprise us too.

Thanks for visiting.

Ur-spo said...

This poem and this poet are both some of my favorites.
Going off into the unknown and facing the wrath of your 'tribe' is a scary journey few take - and there is no knowledge and to will happen.
i hope i have the courage to do so some day.

Tim said...

She and I followed reverse, yet similar paths. I left my New Orleans Catholicism for liberal Judaism when I moved to Atlanta. Strange, yet familiar.

John said...

Thank you, Tim, for giving me the occasion to re-read what I had written some years back.

I welcome you as a reader.