‘Led by God’s Hand’: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Communion With Christ
Sister M. Regina van den Berg’s book opens a new chapter in the life of a philosopher saint.
ROME — Edith Stein — St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — is well known for her heroic journey from Judaism to atheism to Catholicism and, ultimately, her martyrdom in the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1942.
But in a new book, Communion With Christ: According to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, U.S. Sister M. Regina van den Berg, of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George (FSGM), goes deeper into St. Teresa’s life and writings in the context of the “spirituality of communion.” She explains how, as a philosopher, St. Teresa was directed towards attaining communion with the Truth and how she discovered that Truth was a Person, Jesus Christ.
In these March 14 comments to the Register, Sister Regina explains in more detail the essence of St. Teresa’s teaching on communion with Christ and with others, how she understood the importance of empathy and her thoughts on the true purpose of education.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to write this book.
I have been a religious sister for 22 years, and during the course of my philosophical studies I had the opportunity to research the works and the life of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). I recognized a leitmotif in her works, which was present, to my surprise, even in the writings that preceded her conversion to Catholicism. The theme found in virtually all (if not all) of her works is that of communion, that is, of our relationship with other persons, including the Divine Persons, of our place in community and of our understanding of ourselves, especially in light of other persons. The theme of communion is present also in her life, and in the book, I therefore sought to convey not only what she wrote, but also what she teaches by her example.
In the book I desired to provide as comprehensive a presentation of St. Teresa Benedicta’s understanding of communion as possible, especially for those who are not familiar with the saint’s native German language or with philosophy (especially phenomenology, the study of human consciousness and experience). For this reason, I examined the saint’s contribution to the philosophy of empathy and of community (in Chapters 2 and 6 respectively) in way that is understandable to those who are not schooled in philosophy. I also drew from a number of the presentations she gave on pedagogy during the years immediately preceding her entrance to Carmel, which are not yet available in English (especially in Chapter 5). In that way, I sought to present St. Teresa Benedicta’s thought in a fuller way and to introduce the readers to some texts with which they may not be familiar.
In describing the life of St. Teresa Benedicta, I quoted generously from the “Acts of the Process of Beatification and Canonization,” which have not been translated into English, because the accounts of the witnesses provide important insights.
How are the life and writings of St. Teresa Benedicta relevant today? What can she teach us?
The theme of communion gained significance in the life of the Church, especially after the Second Vatican Council; and when St. Pope John Paul II renewed the call to communion in his [apostolic letter] Novo Millenio Ineunte, written at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year 2000, it seemed to me that St. Teresa Benedicta could show us how to respond to that call.
Communion is the deepest longing of every human heart — it always was and always will be. We long to be known, loved and understood and to know, love and understand. We long to be at peace with God and with others and to find our God-given place in community. What we experience in our daily life is often the opposite of communion: We experience strife, discord, division. We suffer most from the discord we experience with those to whom we are bound by a special tie: a spouse, our family members, those with whom we work, members of our religious community, fellow believers, etc.
I am convinced that St. Teresa Benedicta can help us by her teaching, by her example and by her intercession to heal the wounds of division we experience so painfully and that she can show us the way to communion. For me, as a religious sister, St. Teresa Benedicta shows the way to the healing needed in the religious life, but she speaks also to the community of marriage, of the family, of the school and of the larger communities to which we belong. Of course, the fullness of communion will never be attained in this life, but awaits us in the life to come.
Why was St. Teresa Benedicta a good teacher for what it means to be in communion with Christ and his cross?
St. Teresa Benedicta teaches effectively what it means to be in communion with Christ and his cross because, as common parlance put it, “she walked the talk,” that is, she lived fully what she taught.
Like each of us, St. Teresa Benedicta experienced various forms of suffering in her life, physical and emotional and spiritual, which, in her case, culminated in the ultimate gift of her life in martyrdom. What sets her apart is not the crosses in her life, but the way that she accepted them. As she herself says, she learned to be “led by God’s hand,” to accept all the crosses in her life as the means to be more fully united to Christ and as the way to assist other souls.
What does it mean to be in communion with our brothers and sisters?
St. Teresa Benedicta speaks of community as a means of being in communion with others. In community, the individual members, while remaining always individuals, unite in a common vision and form a “we” in which each person contributes his energy, talents and time to the good of the community.
St. Teresa Benedicta speaks of the community which arises in a family, in the classroom and even in realities such as an army unit or a state. The more each member contributes to the community, the stronger it is; the more distinct its “personality,” the stronger its common vision.
What does St. Teresa Benedicta have to say about communion between man and woman? Why are her writings “ahead of her time” on this subject?
In her foreword, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand most aptly points out that St. Teresa Benedicta’s message “is not, as people like to say, ‘ahead of her time’ (a very equivocal statement), but is above her time. Truth is timeless.” Recognizing that an understanding of who one is created to be as a man or as a woman is essential for living in harmony with oneself and then with others, St. Teresa Benedicta examined what it means to be a man or a woman and how each can live most fully according to his or her God-given nature. With keen insight, she points out the typical faults of both men and women and proposes ways in which these faults can be overcome.
In some respects, as the question suggests, St. Teresa Benedicta seems to be “ahead of her time.”
In response to the question of whether it is appropriate for a wife and mother to work outside of the home, for example, St. Teresa Benedicta, writing around the early 1930s, said that, yes, in certain cases, it is good for a woman to work outside the home, if, for example, a woman, by staying at home, were to fall into the typical feminine faults of idle curiosity, overprotectiveness and intrusiveness in other person’s lives.
How was St. Teresa Benedicta a heroic example of what it means to be in communion with God’s will?
The example which comes most readily to mind is that of her heroic martyrdom. The accounts we have from the days that followed her arrest show that she accepted the arrest and her imminent death as God’s will for her life. Those who met her in the concentration camp recount her peaceful countenance and referred to her as “an angel of mercy.” They describe that she cared for and played with the children whose mothers were in such distress that they neglected them. It was the course of her life before her arrest on Aug. 2, 1942, and all the small ways that she sought to do God’s will, not her own, that prepared her to accept martyrdom as God’s will.
What does the saint mean when she wrote of “empathy”?
We human persons have the capacity to “in feel” another person, to enter, in a certain sense, into what another experiences, even if it is very different from our own experience.
Empathy permits us to understand deeply — not perfectly — another human person, and, through empathy, we know best how to love and help others. Empathy is also important in our life of prayer, as we seek to “in feel” Christ.
How do her thoughts on communion help us to understand the purpose of education?
In our society, we tend to view the purpose of education from a utilitarian perspective, namely, as a means to prepare young people for a particular kind of work. This is true, of course, but very limited, and I think that St. Teresa Benedicta convincingly shows us that there is a much more important purpose to education, namely, to form the person and to prepare the person to know and embrace his vocation.
In her various presentations on education, she illustrates that it is the role of the teacher in the classroom — especially in the elementary school — to form the young people in her care into a community in which each student discovers his place in the classroom and learns to use his talents for the good of all. Living in the community of the classroom helps the young person to discover what will be his place in society as an adult.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
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