VOCATION TO ASCEND: A HOLOCAUST OF LOVE
Enter August. And with it some of my most favorite saints. To the point where it’s either multiple overlapping novenas (Catholic problems) or just pick one. I mean – the whole line up of God’s best really shows up in the dog days of summer: Saints John Vianney, Dominic, Lawrence, Edith Stein, Clare, Philomena, Maximilian Kolbe, Augustin, Monica and Our Lady. I love them all for various and significant reasons, especially Clare and Philomena who share an August 11th doubleheader and have really been with me for so long, interceding for my work and life. There are more, but these are my faves.
When I was a young TV news journalist working in Boston in the mid to late 90s, I was invited into a Rosary cenacle where one of the spiritual directors of the group was a Melkite married priest whose daughter was cured miraculously through the intercession of Saint Edith Stein. Who?
In 1987 Benedicta McCarthy was only two and a half years old and swallowed enough Tylenol that equalled 16 lethal doses leaving her in a coma, her kidneys and liver failing with her body in full staph infection. Named for Teresea Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), the family began to invite the Jewish nun to obtain a miracle to save little Benedicta’s life. Within days of entire groups of people joining in a prayer chain asking Sister Teresa Benedicta’s intercession, the little girl walked out of Massachusetts General Hospital totally healed. The Jewish doctor Ronald Kleinman from the prominent Boston MGH hospital, one of the best in the world, went on record saying,”‘I’m not saying it was a miracle…I’m saying it was miraculous. I’m Jewish. I don’t believe per se in miracles, but I can say I didn’t expect her to recover.” Dr. Kleinman eventually traveled to the Vatican where he was interrogated for five hours about the reported medical miracle.
At the time when this “miracle” began to swirl in the news, I was only in high school so it was not on my radar – I never even heard of this Edith Stein, the German Jew who became convert to Catholicism and a professed Carmelite nun in the order of greats like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese de Lisieux, aka “the Little Flower.”
Stein was raised a devout Jew in the early 1900’s but in her teen years deliberately stopped praying and became an Atheist. A philosopher in pursuit of truth, she was led ultimately to Jesus Christ in a radical conversion leading to Carmelite religious life.
During the rise of Hitler, for safety, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edit Stein) and her sister Rosa, an extern sister, were sent to the Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands around 1938. Because of her Jewish heritage, at the time of the Nazi invasion of that country in 1942, they were arrested on Aug 2nd and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they died in the gas chamber on August 9, 1942.
In my little cenacle, a holy man in the group prayed with me very briefly and said that the Lord showed him that I was going to Europe. That it would be a great blessing in my life. I was dirt poor, working paycheck to paycheck in my early 20s and couldn’t really fathom what that meant. Or how I’d even get there. During this time, the cenacle members began to say “You are a Walkenstein, don’t you want to go to Edith Stein’s canonization in Rome?‘ I was talking to my mom and suggesting and asking – “do you think we should go? to thank God for daddy’s conversion?” I didn’t know much about Edith Stein, but I knew and loved the other prominent Carmelite saints in her religious order and yet somehow we were being beckoned to enter into this powerful moment in the history of the Church. My dad was a Jewish convert to Catholicism and was Baptized in the fall of 1993 just a few years previous.
When God wants to move for you He will move. I started scoping out international airfare and to my shock were were able to purchase round trip tickets for something obnoxious like $300 round trip. Our cenacle family hooked us up with a way to stay in a convent steps from St. Peter’s square for $30 American dollars a night. We didn’t have “tickets” to the canonization Mass but just flew overseas on faith. I’m a firm believer that when you take a step, God takes several big steps. This sort stepping out in faith produced some major fruit and an unforgettable first of many trips to Rome.
God provided this “shoe string” way for us to travel – my first trip to Rome and Europe and what would be three weeks embedded in Roman culture and steeped in extraordinary experiences at St. Peter’s, Edith Stein’s canonization, many encounters with Saint John Paul II and all under little direction from Sr. Nicolina who was our Italian host. (Go travel for a nun, and get a nun). When Sr. Nicolina “overbooked” the convent, she brought us up to sleep in the nun’s quarters. She was a true Italian mother – she made sure we had daily Mass and tipped us off on all the Holy sites and where to climb in prayer on my knees in petition for my future husband, she directed us away from a few dangerous things and told us where to find the best food. Our days were packed up to the gills with experience after experience, vision after vision and we’d return to the gated convent well past our curfew to Sister Nicolina waiting up to have the recap of the day and prep for the next. We fell in love with Rome and our new little Italian Sister tough loving mother.
Sister Nicolina guided our every move and directed us to the place where we would obtain tickets for the canonization Mass to be held at St. Peter’s Square in an outdoor Mass. We had to make a visit to Santa Susana, the American Church in Rome. As we climbed flights and flights of stairs in the October non air conditioned Rome heat, we were almost forced to rest at each landing where there was a window on each “level” with one bridal gown, another bridal gown, and another, each more exquisite than the first. A climb. It was glorious and beautiful – and bizarre. We are headed to the offices for this parish church in Rome and confronted with bridal gown after gown, so it sort of stuck out for us. All I could think of was the prayer in my heart for my vocation would require a spiritual climb. It was a beautiful visual presentation of a sort of “ascent” that revealed the top of the peak – His glory.
There were so many mystical and powerful things on this trip – and things not mystical – but, you know, Italian sensational- like pasta, gelato, Italian men and fashion and leather! The fact that we took this trip with my aunt and two cousins made it the most special – something the five of us share in a way no other family members do. For my mom, Aunt Joan and my cousins Ann and Alaine, I can’t think of these days leading to Edith Stein’s feast without remembrance of this time that seemed to stand still. I marvel at the way we were all called to her together.
When you are a product of a mixed marriage, be it ethnic race or religion, there is always this reconciliation of that blending and the differences for me growing up were so distinct and unraveling in their beauty and mystery. Through Saint Edith Stein, I was understanding the beauty of the blending of heritages and the overarching common denominator among all God’s children which is love. Edith Stein by virtue of her Christian Baptism could have found a loophole to her decided fate at the gas chamber. Yet she refused to use her Christianity as a way to run from the Cross. No, she flew right into it in solidarity with her people.
When I recall the words of Saint John Paul in his homily on her canonization day, I am filled with emotion at the thought of little us, drawn so close to such great love. I know above all, it’s not so much about my Jewishness or Catholicness or my Gernmanness as the why – it’s that God wanted to draw us closer to the truth that true freedom comes from dying and being a martyr for Love. This is a truth the Lord wanted me to receive at my young age, but would not come to its fullest manifest understanding until maturity.
Some of the profound insight of Saint John Paul II about Saint Edith Stein is worth unpacking and reflecting on: “Truth and love need each other. Saint Teresa Benedicta is a witness to this. The ‘martyr for love’ who gave her life for her friends, let no one surpass her in love. At the same time, with her whole being she sought the truth, of which she wrote, ‘No spiritual work comes into the world without great suffering. It always challenges the whole person.”
And he goes on to say this, “”God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24)… the divine teacher spoke these words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. What he gave is chance but attentive listener we also find in the life of Edith Stein, her her ‘ascent of Mount Carmel.’ the depth of the divine mystery became perceptible to her in the silence of contemplation. Gradually throughout her life, as she grew in the knowledge of God, worshipping him in spirit and truth, she experienced even more clearly her specific vocation to ascend the Cross with Christ, to embrace it with serenity and trust, so love it by following in the footsteps of her beloved Spouse: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is offered to us today as a model to inspire us and a protectress to call upon.”
Our vocation is Love – no matter what path we elect to serve Christ. Our vocation of Love is to carry our Cross and unite with it, to pass through the fires of that Love that He bore with peace, assurance and ascent. The witnesses of Edith Stein’s presence as the newest prisoner at the death camps speak of her radical example:
“It was Edith Stein’s complete calm and self-possession that marked her out from the rest of the prisoners. There was a spirit of indescribable misery in the camp; the new prisoners, especially suffered from extreme anxiety. Edit Stein went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping and consoling them. Many of the mothers were on the brink of insanity and had sat moaning for days, without giving thought to their children. She immediately set about taking care of these little ones. She washed them, combed their hair, and tried to make sure they were fed and cared for.” (source: Edith Stein, A Biography)
In the storm and amid the “holocaust of love” as you offer your life in service to Christ in the area of vocation in which you are called, look to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, as an example of the witness of radical love that knows no borders and ascends to the heights of His glory.
If you are reading this longer than normal blog today August 1st, we can travel together to Aug 9th with a little novena, asking this powerful saint of our lifetime for her powerful intercession in the area in which God calls us to live out this love by way of the Cross, a love that knows no borders.
Saint Edith Stein, pray for us!
Praying for you,