Today is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a religious sister who died in a concentration camp in Holland on August 9, 1942. She began life as Edith Stein, a Jewish atheist, philosopher, and professor. After her conversion in 1922, Stein spent 11 years writing, teaching and living as a witness to her Catholic faith before entering a Discalced Carmelite monastery in 1933. No longer permitted to teach due to new anti-Semitic laws, Sr. Teresa Benedicta shared her wisdom through her writing. A life of prayer allowed her to see the hate, derision, and racism of her time through the eyes of faith. The wisdom she left behind continues to speak truth into our experience. Her writings have a particular prophetic witness for the challenges we face today.
Both as a country and as a Church, we are faced with challenges that beg for our cooperation, unity, and dialogue. More often, when faced with polarized politics, we seek to tear down the opposition. Rather than engaging in dialogue and seeking to understand, we choose to demonize. Neither the topic nor the side is relevant; this is a pervasive temptation that infects all of us. It is safer to adhere to ideology and to denounce the opposition as fundamentally flawed than to engage with open hearts and minds. We will not agree. It will be frustrating. But any path to peace must begin with a willingness to sit with and listen to those with whom we disagree and find frustrating. To do this, we must be willing to let go of the illusory barriers we build between ourselves and others. We must first recognize that beneath ideology, beyond borders, regardless of differences in lifestyles and moral convictions, we are ultimately one. We share in the same humanity, in the vulnerabilities of this life, and in our common longing for meaning and relationship with one another. We are all sons and daughters of the one God – those who recognize this and those who don’t.
In the following passage from The Mystery of Christmas, Edith Stein reflects on the mystery of the incarnation and its implications for our common humanity. As she reveals, there is no one from whom we are truly separate. Separateness, as Thomas Merton writes, is an illusion. Reading her words can help us see our own lives and actions in a different light. Let us honor St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross today by soaking in her wisdom, and letting her words and witness transform our hearts.
“If Christ is the Head and we are the members in the Mystical Body, then we relate to each other as member to member and we are all one in God, a divine life. If God is in us and if he is love, then it cannot be otherwise but to love one another. Therefore, our love for our brothers and sisters is the measure of our love for God. But it is different from a natural, human love which affects this one or that who may be related to us, or who may be close to us because of the bounds of temperament or common interests. The rest are “strangers” who don’t concern us, perhaps even by their presence annoy us, so that love is kept as far away as possible. For the Christian there is no “strange human being.” He is in every instance the “neighbor” whom we have with us and who is in most need of us. It makes no difference whether he is related or not, whether we “like” him or not, whether he is “morally worthy” of help or not. The love of Christ knows no bounds, it never ceases, it never withdraws in the face of hatred or foul play. He came for the sake of sinners and not for the righteous. If the love of Christ is in us, then we do as he did and seek after the lost sheep.
Natural love seeks to possess the beloved entirely and as far as possible to to share him. Christ came to win back lost mankind for the Father; whoever loves with his love will want people for God and not for himself. Of course, that is the surest way to possess them forever; for wherever we have entrusted a person to God, then we are one with him in God, whereas craving to overpower sooner or later always leads to a loss. It is true of the other’s soul as well as for one’s own and for every external possession. Whoever is out to win and possess, loses; whoever hands over to God, wins.”
Are we seeking the kingdom of God or one of our own making? In our politics, on social media, in comments to our friends – we can ask ourselves whether we further unity or division. What comments do we make about those who believe differently than we do? How do we regard those who were born in different places and circumstances? Do we see first our shared humanity, the sameness that binds us all? Or do we emphasize our differences? Do our words connect or alienate? Do we seek to understand, or do we ascribe the worst possible motives to the actions of those with whom we disagree?
It makes no difference on which side of an issue or border we stand; we are all vulnerable to the poisonous lie that we don’t belong to one another. Let us drink from a different cup: the cup of the blood of Christ, that proclaims the truth of our unity. This is the cup that removes the walls we place between us, walls built on sand. Let us allow the blood of Christ to wash away the filters over our eyes and the masks we paint over the faces of those unlike us. May it restore our sight to see the truth: the image of God in the face of the other. Every single other.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us!