Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 August 2019
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at All Saints Margaret Street on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 11 August 2019 at Evensong & Benediction.
‘We have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity’ (2 Cor 1. 12)
On 2 August 1942, two women sat in a small convent in Southern Holland. They were sisters. They were both nuns and also siblings. The older sister was visibly upset. The younger was more composed.
There came an expected knock on the door. It was opened and there stood a Gestapo officer. He asked for them by name and the sisters were taken away.
The last known words of the younger to the older sister were: ‘Come, let us go to our people’. They went to a detention centre and joined others who were being rounded up.
Nazi Germany invaded The Netherlands in 1940, and in July 1942 the Dutch Catholic Bishops issued an open letter condemning Nazi oppression. The Nazis retaliated and detained Catholics as well as Jews.
In the following days the sisters were transported east. They finally arrived at Auschwitz and were killed in the gas chambers on or around 9 August.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II canonized the younger sister. She is now known as St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross but more widely she’s known by the name given her at birth: Edith, Edith Stein.
Edith was born in 1891 in the capital of Silesia, then Breslau in Eastern Germany; now known as Wroclaw in Poland.
Edith was the youngest of 11 children and was part of a typical middleclass Jewish family. When she was two years old, the family suffered a profound loss. Her father died suddenly. It now became apparent that he was in debt and his business was almost bankrupt.
Edith’s mother, Auguste was a fighter. She took over the business and turned the family fortunes around. Spare money she spent on the education of her children.
Edith was bright. In 1913, aged 22 she went to university to read psychology – unusual then for a woman to enter higher education – but at the end of her first year, war broke out. She trained as a Red Cross nurse and worked in a military hospital.
After the war, Edith returned to her studies – shifting her focus from psychology to philosophy. She had the good fortune to become the student of one of the greatest philosophers of the time, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was born in the same year that this church was consecrated – 1859.
Husserl was breaking new ground in philosophy. He wasn’t so much concerned with the classical questions such as ‘What is truth?’ or ‘How do we understand beauty?’ Instead, Husserl was investigating what lies at a deeper level. Before we can ask these questions, we have to be ‘conscious’. We are all conscious human beings (except perhaps during sermons!) but what does consciousness consist of? It’s more than just knowing things.
To answer this, Husserl broadened the scope of philosophy to include psychology and new fields such as neuroscience. Under Husserl, Edith wrote her PhD on the nature of empathy. The phrase ‘I feel your pain’ is now something of a cliché but then it was novel for scholars to study empathy. Edith went on to become an academic in her own right.
Alongside her intellectual journey, there was a spiritual one. To cut a long story short: Like many of her generation, Edith moved away from the Jewish observance of her parents, but a series of events and her reading Christian philosophers brought her to the Christian faith.
To the horror of her mother especially, Edith determined not only to become a Christian but also a nun. The Spanish mystics (St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila) were a powerful influence, and Edith felt called to become a Carmelite. She was baptized in 1922 but persuaded by the Church not to enter the cloister but to teach in catholic institutions instead.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, people who were not Aryans were forbidden to teach. Edith took this to be a sign that she should now enter the cloister and she joined the Carmel in Cologne along with her sister, Rosa who became a member of the Third Order.
In 1939, the Carmelite Order moved Edith and Rosa to Holland for safety, but the war followed them. An attempt to get them to neutral Switzerland failed, and we now know how the story ended.
‘We have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity’ wrote St Paul. He might almost have been writing Edith’s epitaph.
The Church honours the saints not only because of the quality of their lives in their own day but because they leave a legacy for the future. They are guiding lights.
Edith Stein wrote on a wide variety of topics including politics. For her, the interior life and the public realm were all of a piece. She was politically active.
After WW1 she joined the centre-right German Democratic Party which was dedicated to maintaining Germany as a republic. The Kaiser was widely blamed for the country’s defeat. In the aftermath of the war there was much soul-searching about what it meant to be German and what the future would hold for Germany as well as for Europe as a whole.
Drawing on Husserl, Edith saw consciousness as the key. The more we are conscious of what we belong to – family, neighbourhood, race – the more we identify ourselves as a people (a ‘Volk’). At its best a Volk becomes a state.
But by the mid-1920s, Edith had moved away from a simple link between people and state. There were periods in the 18C and 19C for example when Poland had no borders to call its own, but the Poles were obviously a people with their own culture and language. They were a Volk.
For there to be a true national will there has to be a strong sense of identity. Without this, those with power will trade on people’s fears and provide a false identity. ‘The will of the people’ is a phrase that’s easily banded about and becomes a blank screen on which anxieties are projected. This doesn’t always turn out well. Edith nursed its consequences in one war and perished in another.
Edith came to believe that the only safeguard against the meltdown created by unbridled nationalism is to see humanity as a whole. Nations must be conscious that they have not only a will but also a vocation, a vocation to benefit the common good. So it was that in 1933 Edith wrote to the Pope imploring the pontiff to speak-out against the oppression of the Jews. The wholeness of humanity was at risk.
For Edith Stein, her intellectual, spiritual and political journeys were not about denying the past but embracing an ever-enlarging vision. ‘Come, let us go to our people’ were her final words. She never forgot where she had come from. Empathy was no empty concept. The future, no foregone conclusion.
In a volatile world behaving ‘with frankness and godly sincerity’ is the example, the light that Edith Stein/St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross holds out to us. May that light be our guide in learning the lessons of history.
May she pray for us and we pray with her and indeed the whole company of heaven. Amen.