"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? -Luke 12:49-56
About This Week's Prompts for Personal Meditation Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. -Luke 12:51-53
'Advent, already?' I asked from the cocoon of my study. At first glance the Gospel seems apocalyptic. But with a little more attention I perceived instead an intensification of Jesus' radical call to social reversals: the upsetting of the powerful in favor of the lowly. Of COURSE his message would overturn the family - the inauguration of the kingdom overturns everything else.
For this week's retreat I chose three scenes where the choice of radical love upset the family balance. Francis of Assisi publicly forsakes his father in the town square (meditation one). Jesus continues his story of the "prodigal son" with the emotional protestation of the faithful elder brother (meditation two). Finally, I'm often haunted by the heartrending scene between the philosopher Edith Stein and her elderly, devout mother, when Edith finally admits she is becoming a Carmelite nun just as Nazi persecutions intensify in 1933 (meditation three and Suzanne's meditation).
Nevertheless, hold fast to those you love. -Suzanne
Meditation One stark naked
Because Francis took bolts of cloth from his father's business, selling them and giving away the money, his father brings a legal suit against Francis.
But the day's surprises had just begun.
With remarkable composure, Francis rose from his place and approached the bishop. “My lord,” he said, raising his voice, “I will gladly give back to my father not only the money acquired from his things, but even all my clothes.” With that, Francis slipped through a side door of the cathedral, only to appear moments later stark naked, standing before the bishop and holding out all his clothes, with a cash purse placed on top of them. The astonished bishop took the garments and the money, handing them over to an acolyte.
Francis now turned to the crowd and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Peter Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, and I want only to say from now on, 'Our Father, Who art in heaven,' and not, 'My father, Peter Bernardone.'”
-Donald Spoto Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi
Peter Berdardone is restrained as he watches his son Francis strip on the town square, detail, Giotto, 1297-99
...and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Luke 48b-50
And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. -Mark 1:17-20
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." -Mark 3:31-35
My heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood. -St. Augustine (on separation from his concubine)
Christ Returns to His Family, Martini, 1342
Who are you, kindly light, who fill me now,
And brighten all the darkness of my heart?
You guide me forward, like a mother’s hand,
And if you let me go,
I could not take a single step alone.
-from a poem by Edith Stein
St. Francis, Rununciation of Worldly Goods, Giotto, 1297-99
Meditation Two the faithful son Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound." Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!" Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
Meditation Three beloved youngest daughter
Christians themselves often have trouble understanding the value of a contemplative vocation; for the Steins it was an impossibility. The day came when Frau Stein asked her daughter, "What do you plan on doing with the sisters in Cologne?" When Edith answered "Join them," peace at home was a thing of the past. Everyone in the family felt crushed by the tragedy. Edith herself clung to her friends to keep from faltering in her decision; her mother, not daring to display her anger openly, wept in desperation; the brothers and sisters did all they could to change their sister's mind. … To the eighty-four year old Frau Stein, it seemed as if her daughter wished to desert her just at the moment when Jews in Germany were undergoing bitter persecution. Edith Stein recognized the impossible nature of the situation. She knew there was no explanation that would satisfy her mother. Her friends and colleagues came forward with sympathy and advice, but they could not help her.
-Waltraud Herbstrith Edith Stein: A Biography
The Last Word
What could be meant by a peace which is not like the kind the world gives? It is a peace... stronger than suffering. Not a peace without warfare, but peace despite warfare, within warfare, beyond warfare. It is the peace of a soul that through love has come to dwell entirely in heaven and to share in heaven's own peace, regardless of anything earthly that can happen to it.
-Charles de Foucauld
Mother Against Daughter and Daughter Against Mother
August 9, 1942 is the likely date given for Edith Stein’s death. She and her sister Rosa were gassed soon after their transport from Holland reached Auschwitz. Stein was also known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Discalced Carmelite nun, philosopher, writer, theologian.
Edith’s intellectual progress drew her first to atheism, to psychology, and then to philosophy, particularly phenomenology. She became Edmund Husserl’s assistant. She wrote her PhD thesis under him “On the Problem of Empathy.” Many of her circle were Christians or became Christians, but this did not influence her as much as reading Teresa and then John of the Cross, applying her philosophical methods to the work of these Christian mystics. ( I always wonder what might have happened if she had been exposed to Jewish mysticism?)
It’s one thing to study mysticism and another to enter into the process itself. Her whole life and training prepared her to embrace the practice of prayer. The liturgy, the divine office, silence, transfigured her. Edith Stein was baptized in 1922.
Edith was the youngest and beloved child of Auguste Stein, her devout Jewish mother. In an already close family, the two loved one another deeply. Naturally, Edith's Christianity tore her mother's heart.
On visits and extended stays at home Edith slipped out of the house early in the morning to go to mass, but her mother still “heard the door click”. Edith continued to attend synagogue with her mother who once turned to her pointedly during the Sh’ma to say, “Do you hear that? The Lord our God, He is ONE !”
Another time Auguste Stein said to Edith, “He (Jesus) was a good man – I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?” No one could understand this dilemma more than Edith Stein. And yet she felt a vocation to become a Carmelite nun.
Can you see the deep tragedy? Mother and daughter, both lovers of God, one a Christian drawn to radical expression of a contemplative vocation, and the other a faithful Jew, perhaps a mystic herself, devoted to God and truth?
What kind of perverse sword of the kingdom sets a devout mother against daughter and daughter against mother? The process of fulfillment for Edith Stein was to continue the Christian journey and its demands, however devastated her mother was. And her mother, in turn, even tried to block Edith’s profession perhaps because the distraught mother thought her effort would save her daughter’s soul.
Edith Stein only went to the Carmel after the Nuremberg laws made it impossible for a Jew to teach, even at a Roman Catholic university. For Auguste Stein the timing of Edith’s leave-taking during the tightening of Nazi persecutions made her daughter’s betrayal more poignant. Auguste Stein died at the very hour Edith renewed her vows in Carmel.
Some of her family were able to emigrate. Most died in Teresianstat. When Edith’s presence in the Cologne Carmel made it dangerous for her sisters, she was sent to Echt in Holland. There her sister Rosa, who had also become a Christian, joined her and became the portress of the convent. In August of 1942, in retaliation for the protest of churches against Nazi persecution of Dutch Jews, Christian Jews who so far had been spared were rounded up and sent to death camps.
When I pray with Edith Stein, I include her mother. For what kind of “peace” can there be, one without the other?