A Gift, an Invocation and a Promise
By Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD
In 1997, as the world focused on the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, another significant passing went almost unnoticed. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl died on September 2 at the age of 93.
Search for Meaning
During World War II, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned at Auschwitz, where he was stripped of his identity as a medical doctor and forced to work as a cheap laborer. All of his notes, which represented his life’s work, were destroyed. His father, mother, brother and his pregnant wife died in the camps. Immersed in this great suffering and loss, Frankl began to wonder why some of his fellow prisoners were able not only to survive these horrifying conditions, but to grow in the process.
A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to. He discovered a link between prisoners’ loss of faith in the future and the dangers of giving up. He emerged from Auschwitz believing that “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of all human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” The most basic human motivation, he concluded, is the will to give meaning. Give a man meaning and he will survive!
As Nietzsche put it, ‘He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.’ Behavior is driven by a need to find meaning and purpose.
The Mystery of the Cross
On Sunday, October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized a Discalced Carmelite Sister who also lived the atrocities of Auschwitz. Her life story is remarkable confirmation of what Doctor Viktor Frankl discovered.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family on October 12, 1891, in Breslau (Germany), now Wroclaw, Poland, Edith Stein renounced her faith when she was a teenager and became an atheist. In her twenties, she already had made a name for herself in the cultural circles of the University Gottingen. Her deep, analytical mind and unwavering character (“Everything about her is true”) urged Edmund Husserl, the ‘father’ of phenomenology, to appoint her as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. There she obtained her doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on the problem of empathy.
At Gottingen and Freiburg, she came into contact with the Catholic faith. Her ardent search for truth (‘my only passion’) led her to a deep encounter with the autobiography of the Spanish mystic St. Theresa of Avila. This fusion of truth and love in Jesus Christ transformed her. She was 30 years old when she was baptized. Her family was extremely resentful of this step; her mother cried bitterly when Edith told her of her decision to become a Catholic.
While teaching at a Dominican girls’ school in Speyer (1922-1932), she translated various works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and of Cardinal Newman to familiarize herself with the Catholic thought.
She was also invited all over Europe to give lectures on the vocation of women in contemporary society. Edith Stein was acclaimed for her innovative approach to the topic of women in modern life. All this, however, had to stop because of the vicious anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazi government.
When she was 41, Edith entered the Carmelite convent at Cologne, taking the religious name Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. There she completed her metaphysical work ‘Finite and Infinite Being’, an attempt to synthesize the diverse philosophies of Aquinas and Husserl.
In 1938, with the Nazi threat growing, she was transferred to the Carmelite convent at Echt in the Netherlands. This proved insufficient to ensure her safety. On July 26, 1942, the Nazi Commissioner, irritated with the stand the Catholic Church took against the deportation of the Jews, ordered the arrest of all non-Aryan Roman Catholics.
With her sister Rosa, also a convert, Edith Stein was seized by the Gestapo and shipped in a cattle truck to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One week later, she was sent to the gas chamber, where she died with her sister. The laconic official notice of her death reads like this:
Number 44074: Edith Theresia Hedwig Stein, Echt
Born — October 12, 1891, Breslau
Died — August 9, 1942.
The vision or The Marriage of the Lamb
“Without a vision, people perish,” says Proverbs. Conversely, people with vision will thrive. A vision provides hope! And hope gets your mind and spirit moving in a positive behavior.
This is what Doctor Viktor Frankl believed. This is what Edith Stein lived. She was able to go beyond reality while remaining anchored in this reality.
What was the vision of Edith Stein? A very important question for us all because we too need to develop a mental vision for our life that will give us strength, direction, and purpose. Her vision is permeated with a living faith. Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine wrote an essay titled, “Will it be coffee, tea or He?” The subtitle is “Religion was once a conviction. Now it is a taste.” Of course, he was underscoring the naive commitment behind much of religion today.
Edith always believed in her Jewish heritage. Many interpreted her conversion to the Catholic faith and her entry into Carmel as a flight, an absurd attempt to escape the Nazi vindictiveness. She knew this was false. In fact, she never let her vows or her baptism give her the slightest advantage over her persecuted race. “Come, let us go for our people,” was the last expression she said in Carmel as she encouraged her disorientated sister Rosa to follow the Gestapo.
She just wanted to go beyond words. She just wanted to do something. And what she did was to unite her historically determined cross of membership in the Jewish people with the cross of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, she found it possible to give a redemptive meaning to suffering. “If you follow Christ, it could cost you your life,” she once wrote. She was prophetically right.
Her Jesuit friend, Father John Hirschmann in an address he delivered in Berlin, in 1979, spoke of how Edith was haunted by the dilemma of who will atone of what is happening to the Jews in the name of the German people. Let us not forget that Edith herself was a German!
One way is to answer hatred with hatred. “Although we know that God is merciful, please God do not have mercy on those who created this place. God of forgiveness, do not forgive those murderers of Jewish children here.” This was the prayer of the Nobel prize-winner Elie Wiesel who suffered Auschwitz as a child. This reaction is understandable and logical.
Edith Stein answered differently. Very differently. She realized that if the victims, instead of letting their wounds produce new hatred, would willingly carry the sufferings of their fellow victims and of their torturers, then they would unleash a powerful energy which will save many. “Bound to Him, you are omnipresent as he is.”
“Had not Jesus,” Edith used to argue, “when he prayed for those who hated him, those who crucified and pierced him, turned his wounds into the symbol of love that proved to be stronger in the end?”
Auschwitz, unfortunately, is still alive. Look at Ruanda and its genocide, ex-Yugoslavia and its ethnic cleansing, the millions of abortions and drug victims… But luckily Edith Stein is also alive in many who “want to be married to the Lamb by allowing themselves to be fastened to the cross with him.”
A love which suffers the cross will ultimately overcome all egotism and conceit. This is the real vision.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state if this copyright notice is included.