The Spirit of Carmel is Love: thoughts on the journey of Edith Stein

In Edith’s day August 1st was celebrated as the feast of St Peter in Chains. It’s very interesting that this same day is also the feast of the Maccabee brothers who fought against the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes and died as martyrs. These are celebrated together because the brothers’ bones are supposedly kept in the church of St Peter-in-Chains in Rome and 1st August was the feast of its dedication.

I underline this date for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the eve of 2nd August, the date of Edith’s arrest. One reading for that day’s liturgy was the account of St Peter’s first captivity in Jerusalem given in the Acts of the Apostles (12: 6 – 10). If you look at this story closely you realise that it’s a very close parallel to the account of the Resurrection - the angel of light who comes to draw Christ from the sleep of death, the cry “Arise”, the word which expresses the Resurrection, for Christ has arisen from the dead. And then there’s the stone before the miraculously opened tomb, the presence of the angel, Christ leaving his tomb to go and send his disciples out on their mission.

Secondly, Edith particularly loved the liturgy for this feast. In a letter she confided, “I particularly like this feast, not for what it commemorates but for what is signified by this release from chains at the hands of the angel. How many chains have already been struck off in this way and what blessedness there will be when the last ones fall. Until then, we must keep silent in those which still encircle us – the more we remain in silence the less we will feel them. 

On 2nd August this mystery of release from chains was brought about for Edith by an angel of darkness, an angel of suffering, who came to snatch her from her grilles and draw her out of her protecting cell. And we know where this angel led her…..But at the same time we can read Edith’s departure from her cell in the light of what John of the Cross says about dying from love.  This departure, this last leaving behind of self, made concrete in leaving her Carmel, is like Peter’s  leaving behind of his prison-cell,  like Christ’s leaving behind of the tomb in his resurrection, like the movement of the soul burning with love who tears the final veil, the final obstacle between her and God. It’s this love which made Edith depart from all that still kept her in this world. She walked towards martyrdom, towards sacrifice, but she walked burning with love.

St John of the Cross explains that it can seem to our human eyes that this death is the result of external events: accidents, illnesses, all kinds of disasters. And Auschwitz was indeed such an experience. But, more deeply, what we cannot see - just as in the case of Christ who gave his life freely on the Cross, delivered up into the hands of sinners - is that the true cause of death is the living flame of love.  And in contemplating Edith’s death how can we not think of that passage in The Living Flame which refers to the sacrifice of Manoah: he sets light to the sacrifice and at the centre of the flame is found an angel of the Lord, the Spirit of love who draws the flame of human sacrifice – the gift of self – into its own dynamic and, tearing the last veil, draws it into the heart of the fire of eternal love. (Cf LF 1,4; Judges 13 : 20)

To finish I invite you to ponder on a meditation composed by Edith in September, 1939 for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The Second World War had just broken out. Europe and the world were on fire. The sisters had gathered to renew their vows. Here are some extracts from her meditation.

“Hail, O Cross, our only hope” this is the cry the Church urges us to make in this time dedicated to contemplating the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Crucified looks at us and asks us if we are ready to hold to the promise made him in an hour of grace. He has some good reason to ask us this. The Saviour looks at us gravely and questioningly and asks each one of us, “Do you want to remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider this well…

The world is on fire, the open struggle between Christ and Anti-Christ has begun. To take part for Christ could cost you your life. Weigh well what you are committing yourself to….

Before you the Saviour hangs on the cross, because he was made obedient to death on the cross. He has not come into the world to do his own will but his Father’s. If you want to become the spouse of the Crucified you must give up your own will entirely and desire nothing but to accomplish God’s will…

Before you your Saviour hangs on the Cross, naked and destitute, because he has chosen poverty.  Whoever wishes to follow him must give up all earthly goods.

Before you your Saviour hangs on the Cross, his heart open.  He has poured out his heart’s blood to win your heart. if you want to follow him in chastity, your heart must be purified of all earthly desire: Jesus Crucified must be the sole object of your desires, your aspirations, your thoughts.

It’s the loving heart of your Redeemer which invites you to follow him…The arms of the Crucified are outspread to draw you to his heart. He wants your life so that he can give you his.

The world is on fire. The fire can equally well burn our house. But, beneath all the flames stands the Cross which nothing can consume. It is the path from earth to heaven. Whoever embraces it with faith, with love and with hope will be carried by it into the heart of the Trinity.

The world is on fire. Do you feel an urgency to put it out? Raise your eyes towards the Cross. From the open heart flows the Redeemer’s blood, the blood which extinguishes the flames of Hell. Free your heart in the faithful fulfilment of your vows and the flood of divine love will fill it to overflowing and will make it carry its fruits to the ends of the earth.

Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefields from West to East? You are neither doctor nor nurse, you cannot dress their wounds. You are enclosed in your cell and cannot reach them.

Do you hear the anguished cry of the dying? You would like to be a priest and tend them. Are you moved by the distress of the widows and orphans?  You would like to be an angel of consolation and go to their help.

Raise your eyes towards the Crucified.  If you are his spouse his blood will also be yours. United to him you will be present everywhere, just as he is. Not here or there, like the doctor, nurse or priest but on all fronts, in every place of desolation – present in the power of the Cross. Your compassionate love, love from the divine Heart, will take you everywhere and everywhere will pour out his precious blood – which soothes, which heals, which saves.

The eyes of the Crucified rest on you: they question you, they search you. Are you ready to renew your alliance with the Crucified? What reply will you give him? “Lord, where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Hail O Cross, our only hope.

In what lies Edith’s identity as a Carmelite? If love which animates one’s whole existence is, indeed, the essence of Carmelite life, then it must be a life within the Church which lives the totality of the experiences of its members: it must be a life of truly universal love, not taking any one particular form. We can see that Edith wasn’t Carmelite simply from 1933 –1942, behind the grilles of her cloister. She wasn’t Carmelite simply from her baptism, which was for her also her call to consecration in Carmel. She had been Carmelite from the very beginning.

A universal love fashioned her whole existence, a love grave and serious but at the same time serene and peaceful, that gave her strength that conformed her to Christ that opened towards the whole Church. This kind of love is truly the name of the Holy Spirit. The Carmelite Edith lived a life fashioned by the call of the Spirit of love within her, her heart open and sensitive to the universality of the action of the Holy Spirit.

May she, through the unique richness of her experience, enable us to discover the torrent of love which floods the Church in each of its members. May she lead us to discover that we are called to this universal love, whatever our life-situation, that we have the great responsibility of keeping alive in the Church the spirit of prayer and oblation. Edith calls us to the universality of the Christian vocation, the vocation to love. 


By Translated by Heather Ward with thanks to Vives Flammes.

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