In the recent Carmelites.net Q&A I participated in I confessed that—despite the fact I’ve lived most of my life in a Carmelite parish—I was relatively ignorant of the Carmelite tradition and of the lives of their many saints.
In particular Edith Stein, the Jewish convert and Carmelite nun who died at Auschwitz interested me. This is in part perhaps because of the central role the Holocaust has played in my mental landscape. It is a reality that, at a young age, destroyed for me the very idea of human progress, or faith in any human institution. However, as I grew older and explored stories around the events it also brought me to some of the most beautiful and humane responses to tragedy and disaster I’ve read, works like Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or Andre Schwartz-Bart’s Last of the Just. There is more to my interest than just this however; Stein’s story is a fascinating one even without its tragic end.
In any case, Stein has for years haunted me from a distance. I followed the controversy around her canonization; she would turn up from time to time in my reading, evoking an intention, never followed up to read some of her own writings. For a couple weeks now I’ve been doing just this, reading first Waltraud Herbstrith’s biography of Stein, and now her incomplete autobiography.
As one would rather expect of a saint she lived a varied and interesting life. Raised Jewish, she became an atheist and then a Catholic. She was a philosopher, a popular public speaker, and an advocate for women’s rights. There is a lot to think about in her life devoted to reason and philosophy, which led her ultimately to religious life, and a lot to both sadden and inspire in the story of her martyrdom.
First to strike me however were less dramatic aspects of Stein’s life.
There is a challenge for me in reading about Stein. In the existing text of her autobiography she never speaks about her spiritual life. In her biography however there are powerful descriptions of her devotion to prayer, of whole nights spent kneeling in church. Prayer is for me often a struggle, to find time, focus, to not fall asleep halfway through; often it feels too much like trying to conduct a one-sided conversation in my head. Though she presumably meant to write about her spiritual development, how she came from being an atheist to those nights spent in prayer, Stein’s autobiography does not reach that far. At the time she was killed she had not gotten as far as the end of WWI. What she does cover extensively however is her college and graduate school days. Writing decades later she has a sharp memory for the humorous events, vacation adventures and long nights spent in philosophical discussions with her friends and fellow students.
Having read about her later spiritual life, the juxtaposition of these themes struck me. I can’t know what the experience of nights spent in prayer meant to Stein. I wonder however, if for her, sitting up all night in church was less an ascetic practice, and rather more like spending all night debating the meaning of life with college friends. We all remember what this was like, and maybe still experience it when old friends visit. It is something that happens naturally, not because of duty or discipline. It is something that you desire so much you can’t help but do it, even when other duties, or sleep, beckon. I can’t say that I’ve had many experiences of prayer like that, but there is something very beautiful in the idea. It is a challenge, and not an easy one to face, to ask if our relationship to prayer is that natural and unaffected. It is a promise also of the possible rewards, certainly too many of us are too much alone and could use more late nights spent in good company.