09 August 2019

Feast of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

prodigal daughter2.jpgAt today's service I read the Gospel from today's daily readings. It was the very familiar, " Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." (Matt 16:24-28). It was not the optional readings for the Feast but certainly suited the day given who Sister Teresa Benedicta was and is. I think it is easy for us to think of taking up our crosses as an exhortation simply to embrace suffering. It certainly means that but it means more besides, namely, it calls us to grow in what some call cruciformity as we adopt an attitude of vulnerability and love towards all we meet in our world. It asks that we open ours arms and our hearts to embrace those we meet with the love of God that empowers us. In short we allow the love of and our love for others to shape us in a cruciform way. Two elements brought this home to me this week besides the fact of our Feast.

Last week and this I reread several novels by Chaim Potok. One of these was My Name is Asher Lev. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew growing up in the earlier to mid 1900's. His devoutly religious family are Ladover Hasidim who seek to counter the murderous anti-Semitism so prevalent in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's by establishing Ladover communities, synagogues and yeshivas. They have lost dearly-loved relatives in pogroms and the holocaust and have heard again and again that anti-Semitism is a justifiable result of the supposed fact that "It was Jews that killed Jesus". (It must be said that this is an undeniable, and unutterably shameful piece of our Christian history which has blasphemously victimized the innocent in the name of the greatest act of selfless love we know.) So these people too are marked by the Cross of Christ; it is linked for them to the senseless and hate-filled deaths of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins --- and yet, at great risk to himself  Asher's father travels in faithfulness to the Master of the Universe to support Jews and extend Ladover Hasidism throughout Europe.

That is one part of the story. The other is that Asher Lev has a prodigious gift; he is an artist, a young man with an irresistible and insatiable desire/need to draw and paint. As he grows up in this fundamentalist Ladover community, his family is torn between dealing with Asher's gift (which, his father, especially, thinks is demonic in origin) and the desire to honor one another and Ladover Hasidism. Asher's Mother stands torn between her love for her Son and his gift, her love for her husband, her God and the Ladover tradition; she is a buffer for everyone's pain.

Eventually Asher is led to paint the story of his family's anguish. When Asher's Father travels Rivkeh, his wife, waits for his return and stands looking out the living room window, sometimes for hours; this becomes the basis for Asher's greatest paintings, two crucifixions. Each has his Mother framed in the living room window, tied there with the ties from the venetian blinds and stretched between her husband returning from his travels and her son (whose paint brush represents a spear which penetrates her heart). All are held together by love, but of course it is not an easy thing. It is an anguished, tortured love. Asher has drawn on crucifixion because it is the only aesthetic frame he knows as an artist which is sufficient to "hold" and express the torment, pain, and passion of his life. His family are bewildered by his art, offended, betrayed, torn by his gift and profoundly saddened by the way in which Asher has hurt them with it. Asher is exiled from the Brooklyn Ladover community. Cruciformity marks every life in this story. As Christians we know the profound anguish and today, to a lesser degree, the offense of the cross but for us it has primary notes of joy and triumph as well.

The second element which brought this dimension home to me especially was the fact that this is August, the month associated with entrance to religious life for many of us, the month of professions and jubilees, the month when we celebrate the commitments we and our Brothers and Sisters have made to life in Christ. It is the month when the appropriate refrain I have heard several times is: He is faithful and so are we!! This year is my pastor's 50th jubilee and I entered 50 years ago this month as well. All over the world stories of jubilees are shared: one I heard was about an IHM Sister who is 102 yo and celebrated her 85th jubilee last week; she processed into liturgy determined to walk the distance on her own two feet. She did it and was joyful and triumphant when she reached the altar as were those celebrating with her. This too was a symbol of her long and faithfully-formed cruciform life. Another Jubilarian at the same liturgy processed in with her niece, a young Sister who had just made her first profession. The two walked in hand in hand, the younger supporting the elder, both radiant with joy. When I shared this story with another Sister I was reminded then of a Franciscan from her congregation who died at 107 yo and who also celebrated 85 years of religious life; her niece is also a Franciscan (same congregation) and is alive, though quite elderly, today. Stories of lives dedicated to Christ and shaped over years in vulnerability to and in the service of Incarnate Love. Cruciformity. The shape of the faithful, sometimes anguished, joy-filled and persevering discipleship Jesus calls each of us to today.

carving1.jpgThe third element, of course, the element which brings all of this together for me, is the life and witness of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross whose feast we celebrate today. Edith Stein was a brilliant Jewish philosopher who studied for her doctorate under Edmund Hussurl. As a youth she ceased believing in God but as a young adult she read St Teresa of Avila's autobiography and recognized it as truth. She became Catholic. As her life experience and spirituality broadened she wrote a dissertation on Empathy. Prevented from taking a professorship first because she was a woman, and later because of her Jewishness, she continued her reading in philosophy and theology and eventually became a Carmelite Nun. At the center of her life was the cross; she called it "our only hope". Sister Teresa Benedicta's last significant work was on St John of the Cross.

That same year, on 02 August 1942, the Gestapo came to her convent to arrest Sister Teresa and her blood sister, Rosa, also a Catholic who served at the convent. They were moved to a transit camp, Westerborc, and on 07. August, were transported to Auschwitz. She and Rosa were gassed there two days later on 09. August. 1942. As she left the convent with her sister, she said, [[Come, we are going for our people.]] Meanwhile, a good friend said of Edith: [[She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent.]] In the seemingly godless world of Nazi death camps, in the face of meaningless slaughter Sister Teresa Benedicta showed others the face of Love incarnate. Cruciformity, Jesus' call to embrace the cross with our lives was modeled by Edith Stein as John Paul II noted at her canonization, a "daughter of Israel" and a "daughter of Carmel."

Whether in anguish, joy, triumph, or all three at once and more besides --- we celebrate that we and our Brothers and Sisters in Christ are called to embrace a life of vulnerability and love empowered by our trust in the God who will be there both for and with us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. That is what it means to take up our cross, to live truly in Christ. We are not victims but victors in him for the sake of creation. This is the shape of discipleship and all authentic humanity --- a life of transforming generosity, where self-centeredness is replaced by self-emptying, and our hearts are opened to others in compassion; a life of cruciformity.