Thursday, August 09, 2012

Edith Stein, Patron Saint of Modernity




Today is the feast day of St Edith Stein.

Edith Stein, or Theresa Benedicta of the Cross as she became, is one of my favourite saints because fascinated as I am by the relationship between Catholicism and Modernity, she is a quintessentially modern saint. From her questing searching psyche which saw her experiment with different ideologies before settling on Catholicism, through the stymieing of her academic career on account of her gender, to her tragic end in a bleak Auschwitz gas chamber, she seems to embody much of the soaring turbulent 20th Century.

In 1933 she began work on her memoirs, entitled Life in a Jewish Family. True to her extraordinary form she left posterity a fascinating portrait of German Jewish life just before calamity befell it. And yet, there's something troubling about the forward she writes, which you can read here, for in it she articulates a touchingly naive faith in the power of honest writing to divert people away from racial hatred.

Her forward is dated 21 September 1933. Less than two months later, the ominous forward to genocide was scrawled across German and Austrian streets: Kristallnacht.

Rather than Edith Stein's appeal to empathy it was arguably the restless head of a revolutionary movement, Lev Bronstein who understood with grim realism that fascism was a menace of such magnitude that the only debate which could be permitted with its adherents was, as he put it, to acquaint their heads with the pavement.

And yet when the smoke of total war cleared and Europeans gazed frankly at the devastation around them, resolving to build their New Jerusalems and vowing Never Again to allow such terrible things to happen and once the period of rebuilding had come to an end and people relaxed into the sunny optimistic 60s, books not unalike Edith Stein's started appearing in municipal libraries and schools throughout the West. These slim volumes of benign propaganda invited white European readers into the ordinary homes of non white immigrants. Their message: these Rastafarian, or Muslim, or Chinese or Turkish families are not so different to you.

Edith Stein, the avant garde, yes she is a very modern saint.