Recently I read The Hidden Life, which is a collection of essays written by Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Edith was born a Jew into a wealthy family. Through her doctoral work at German universities in psychology and philosophy, she was intellectually converted to the Cross, and then through her own personal “holocaust” she was converted to Christianity in 1921. She would go on to become a well published author on Women’s Studies and Psychology, and ultimately she and one of her sisters would become contemplative Carmelite nuns through her reading of the New Testament, Kierkegaard, and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
While in a Carmelite monastery in Cologne the Gestapo tried to arrest Edith and her sister because of their Jewish ancestry. They escaped to Holland, but were ultimately arrested when the Nazis demanded the religious Jews (Jews who had converted to Catholicism and were now priests and nuns in hiding). She died in Auschwitz. Many said that she served the condemned of Auschwitz liked a mother tending to her children.
While in a Carmelite monastery she wrote many essays that have shaped modern theology. Additionally, she also wrote a number of biographical essays on St. Teresa of Avila – the foundress of the Discalced Carmelites (Edith’s order). St. Teresa of Avila is one of the most revered Catholic saints. Her profoundly astute mind and total surrender to contemplative life gifted Christianity some of the most beautiful teachings on prayer that we have. She is a “Doctor of the Church,” which means that her writings have deeply informed our theological understanding of prayer and philosophical understandings of what it means to surrender completely to Christ.
St. Teresa’s parents were deeply religious and had a very personal relationship with our Lord. Like any of us, however, Teresa’s mother had some small weaknesses. She was very ill and had nine children. Edith describes Teresa’s mother this way:
“Dona Beatriz, who was constantly housebound by her suffering, liked to find a little distraction in romances of chivalry and was weak enough to allow her children to read them, too, even though this was not the father’s intent. After her death, Teresa gave in to her passion without restraint and devoured one book after the other, busying herself with them day and night…the gentle attraction of the pious legends of her childhood paled against these colorful exploits.”
Interestingly, Louisa May Alcott confronts the very same thing in Eight Cousins.
“It gives boys such wrong ideas of life and business; shows them so much evil and vulgarity that they need not know about, and makes the one success worth having a fortune, a lord’s daughter, or some worldly honor, often not worth the time it takes to win. It does seem to me that someone might write stories that should be lively, natural, and helpful – tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such that we can love in spite of all the faults that all may have. I can’t bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better.”
Oh how much I love these two passages. These three heroes of mine (Edith, Teresa, and Louisa) have put their finger on one of the most important tasks we have as parents and teachers: the selection of wholesome, holy and helpful literature for our children.