Interactive spirituality underlies Catholic ritual and ceremony

Father John A. Kiley

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is more often remembered as Edith Stein, the brilliant philosopher, who was born into an observant German-Jewish family, inclined toward atheism as a young adult, eventually converted to the Roman Catholic Church and then became a Discalced Carmelite nun. Reminiscent of Loyola, reading the life of St. Teresa of Avila was instrumental in her conversion in 1922 after which she gave up university life and taught in a Catholic grammar school for ten years. Still, Edith’s academic credentials are impressive. She worked with the eminent philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. She translated Aquinas’ “On Truth” into German. She became a lecturer at the Catholic-associated Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster in 1932, resigning in 1933 due to anti-Semitic legislation. At that time, Edith wrote to Pope Pius XI about Nazi abuse.

Edith Stein entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery of Our Lady of Peace in Cologne, Germany in 1933, and there wrote a work comparing the philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas and her former mentor Edmund Husserl. Edith was eventually transferred along with her sister Rosa to the Carmelite monastery in Echt, Holland, where she continued to write philosophical works and to pray for her Jewish people. In 1942, the Dutch Bishops read a public statement in all churches condemning Nazi racism. In retaliation, the Nazi authorities ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts who had previously been spared. The Stein sisters were among those 987 Jews deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. On August 9, 1942, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross died in a gas chamber.

Clearly Edith Stein, as a Catholic lay woman and a religious sister, had access to all the lofty ideas that have characterized Roman Catholicism for twenty centuries. And certainly, Sister Teresa put her grasp of Catholic theology and secular philosophies to advantageous use. She dialogued with academics, she taught young students, she guided teachers, she wrote books and she even attempted to direct the pope. Yet there was one very telling incident that greatly impressed Stein as a young adult in the process of her conversion to Christianity. She had a number of Christian friends, some of Lutheran and some of Roman Catholic background. On one occasion, Stein had to attend a church ceremony with one of her Catholic friends. Perhaps it was the funeral or the wedding of an acquaintance.

When Stein and her Catholic friend found their place in church, she sat down and awaited the ceremony. But her Catholic friend knelt down, folded her hands, gazed toward the altar and became absorbed in a moment of interior conversation with the Divine Presence she believed to be there. Stein was stunned at this discreet demonstration of personal faith. She thought how often she had been into Jewish synagogues and Protestant churches during her lifetime in Germany. And whenever she entered these other houses of worship all she was expecting was a service, a ceremony, a ritual. Here, in this Catholic Church, her devout friend was noticeably enjoying a personal relationship with the Lord she believed to be present by grace in her soul and by sacrament in the tabernacle. Stein was quietly introduced for the first time to an appreciation of the interactive spirituality that underlies Catholic ritual and ceremony. She began to perceive the personal element in Christianity that would transform her own soul. The dogmas, doctrines, beliefs and theologies of Catholicism were all at the service of the soul’s deepening dialogue with the Divine. As Stein’s own patron, St. Teresa of Avila observed, “Prayer is a conversation with Someone we know loves us.”

This coming Sunday’s Gospel is the familiar instruction on the two great commandments of the law: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The lesson learned by Stein awaiting Mass in that German Catholic church was that love of God and neighbor are not merely the stuff of rabbinical argument or theological disputation. Godly love and fraternal charity must go beyond discussion and beyond speculation to influence the believer’s heart and soul. The quiet moment in church, the rosary picked up at home, the phone call to an ailing friend, the letter written to an official, the gentle admonishment of an erring colleague, patience with a child, serenity with a spouse: in the end, these are proofs of theology, these are the best evidence for things unseen.