“Like a visit to another world”

On August 9, 1942 Edith Stein, known in religious life as (St.) Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was brought to Auschwitz and exterminated that same day. Before being brought there, she was held at the Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands. After the end of the war, one of the guards at Westerbork testified of his encounter with her which, he said, was unforgettable. He said:

She was in the hell of Westerbork only a few days, walking among the prisoners, talking and praying like a saint. Yes, that’s what she was. That’s the impression which this elderly woman gave, though, on the other hand, she seemed quite young. She spoke in such a clear and humble way that anybody who listened to her was seized. A talk with her was like a visit to another world.

Condensed in every detail of this brief account is a powerful description of sanctity. Other testimonies by those who encountered her in the last weeks of her life described her love and attentive care for others in the camp. I know I’ve shared this here before, but when I was working at Gift of Peace in Washington, D.C. and Mother Teresa came to visit, she gave a brief talk to the volunteers during which she defined a saint as “one in whose presence it’s easy to believe in God.” She encouraged all the Sisters and volunteers to take on this noblesse oblige as their principle mission in life. I have always thought hers was the most succinct and actionable description of holiness I’ve ever heard, as it captures the unique priestly vocation of humanity in creation to mediate God to the world and the world to God.

This is exactly what Stein meant when she wrote, at the onset of the war, “The nation [of Germany] doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” What are we? The question that fills libraries. St. Paul opines in 2 Cor. 5:17: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Anyone who reads my work knows “new creation” is a keyword for me, and the discovery of its depth over the last ten or so years has turned my world upside down.

I actually remember the particular moment when it first overtook my imagination. I had just seen The Passion of the Christ the night it was released in the theater. You may recall the scene when Jesus fell as He was carrying the cross, and was met by Mary. It’s a visceral scene, but the line Jesus spoke to her absolutely took me apart: “See, mother, I make all things new.” I saw like lightning in that moment that it is indeed love that re-creates all things, and the Passion was the zenith of divine-human love. And I saw, in that regard, the deepest meaning of the eucharistic Words of Institution was to be found in their character as words of selfless love. As Midas’ touch turned all to gold, love’s touch claims earth for heaven.

In the “new heavens and new earth” (Rev. 21:1), all things will be fully transparent to divine glory. Presently, in the “sacramental economy,” God’s glory is manifest “in a mirror dimly, but then [in the new creation] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Here, by the act of faith, we encounter God through the mediation of signs that both reveal and conceal God in creation. But in the new creation sacramental signs will all pass away, all temple veils will be torn and only what is wholly translucent to God’s light will be admitted (Rev. 21:27) — which is another way of saying the first three petitions of the Our Father (i.e. sanctify thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven) will be fulfilled.

We wait in hope for the future coming of this new creation (2 Pet. 3:13). But St. Paul also told us something absolutely remarkable, right? “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Heaven is not something we simply wait to “go to.” Rather, when we freely consent to God bringing about His Name-kingdom-will, we trigger heaven’s coming to be wedded to earth. Saints “thin out” the distance between the old and new creations, inaugurating (or hastening!) the passing over of this world into the next. Maranatha! Saints are effective signs who permit the Absolute Future of eternity to crash into time’s present here and now, consecrating it in a manner analogous to transubstantiation. Relics are the remains of consecrated matter left behind by the saint.

“She was in the hell of Westerbork.” Like the New Jonah, saints are especially called to traverse enemy territory (Luke 6:27-36), even into the abyss, where the distance between heaven and earth is greatest. There, they are planted as seeds of the Kingdom whose cross-bearing and dying, whether white or red, germinates and bears a super-abundant yield for the life of the world in God’s time (John 6:51; 12:24). St. Teresa Benedicta was such a seed of the new creation, planted in the hell of Westerbork, or of Auschwitz, which is why “a talk with her was like a visit to another world.”

Another world, yes, a heaven that is so other from the world of hell on earth.

During an exorcism, the devil said to St. John Vianney, “If there were three like you on earth, my kingdom would be destroyed.” St. John was a humble, simple man who achieved greatness by being radically faithful to his vocation to be a man of prayer and to sacrificially love his people as a parish priest. So, before concerning ourselves with programs, plans and strategies for saving the world, we must become the goal we seek to achieve in the world around us (Matt. 5:48). If we become who we were made to be, who we are called to be, bit by bit, we let God be God, giving Him free reign in us to renew the face of the earth.

“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” (Léon Bloy).

Velle, “Will it.”

This entry was posted in Faith.

8 comments on ““Like a visit to another world”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thomas, I’ve slowly read this over and over last night and now this morning. Maybe it’s the low pressure system that is adding to the sense of a heavy weight bearing down on my head and chest, but these examples of sanctity, of these bridges to the new world, of radical, steely, sublime faith are moaning to me, “this is what is meant by ‘there is no love without the cross’.” I am in awe, ashamed of my cowardice, longing for holiness, begging for the fortitude to say yes to the crosses I recoil from. Longing to say with integrity St. Alphonsus’ prayer for the Stations: “God, let me love you, then do with me as you will.” Pray for me, please.


    • tmm says:

      Thanks Jennifer, while reading this from you:
      “ashamed of my cowardice, longing for holiness, begging for the fortitude to say yes to the crosses I recoil from. Longing to say with integrity St. Alphonsus’ prayer for the Stations: “God, let me love you, then do with me as you will”,
      this morning’s meditation grabbed my hands and the prayer dance began. Thoughts surfaced about how when someone may be about to do something irrational, another may step in and help by talking them out of it. This mirrors to me what needs to be operant in the reverse in the spiritual world, a “talking oneself in to it”. The Father is teaching me to enter the throne room (our relationship with Jesus affords unimpeded access to the Father, Hallaluia, and Praise the Lord) for a blessing in order to will what He wills and to accept what He allows. This is the only way for me to shoulder the crosses and be on spiritual cloud nine.
      📖John 14:23 “Jesus answered and said to him, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him”

      Thankful for the trigger you provided that reinforces when encountering a cross or the crosses before me, it’s to keep on repeating over and over: Oh God, I will what you will, I accept what you are allowing. This will be a form of talking myself “it to it”. As a stand alone or coupled with the Jesus Prayer, the constant repetition from the heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, holding Blessed Mother Mary’s hands, will begin the victory triumph through, with, and in Jesus. This practical experience will elicit peace and can be liken to putting one foot forward to make a step, and God Himself helping us to eventually make two. Since we know a small drip can wear away a stone, hopes are high that if we sincerely do what we can, God will do the rest for us. Knowing with the heart how much we are loved and holding fast to faith will be the fuel to persevere in desiring to will what God wills, and accepting what He allows because something great is unfolding that in incomprehensible.
      📖Philippians 1:6 “Being confident of this very thing, that he, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus”
      Thanks again for jumpstarting my spiritual day in a big way. Always too long winded, and hope my 2cents makes sense.

      ✝Whether we come by it early or come by it late
      All that matters is that we remain steadfast, persevere & keep the faith
      Jesus, Author & Finisher of our faith gives us this wonderful gift, so precious a gem
      Let’s hold tight 2 faith, knowing without it, we’ll never ever please Him
      / \ http://gigapostolate.weebly.com tmm/PTL

      • Jennifer says:

        I love the imagery or the drip that erodes the stone. That is a great description of how virtue is formed in our lives, isn’t it? Just keeping doing it and slowly over time the behaviour becomes automatic, a virtue, who we are. That’s what I see is St. Edith Stein or others like her: the reality of God’s presence, His providence, His love in all things allowed her to “keep calm and carry on” with her eyes fixed on the goal, love, without flinching. Tom’s recent post on aiming for the chopping block springs to mind. Always love these exchanges, sister!

    • Anne Garnett says:

      Jennifer, I can VERY much relate to the “cowardice” you speak of. I have an absolute aversion and fear of pain, discomfort and difficulties. It is a real obstacle in my attempts at growing in faith as I just can’t seem to find any peace in “picking up my cross and following Him”. I often ask God, “Is there any place for me in Your kingdom? A person who can talk a good talk, can have lofty aspirations to be holy and good and yet absolutely RUNS from the thought of carrying her cross? Who is always looking for the easy way? Who finds herself resentful and angry and even bitter when struggles come her way?”. My head tells me that these crosses can pave the road to my salvation, that I can offer them up as an act of redemptive suffering, that God infuses grace into them yet my heart absolutely recoils from them. My first thought upon the twinge of a headache coming on is to quickly take an Advil — not to suffer through it and offer it up! I will share with you an insight I just had yesterday. I can’t say that it completely transforms my reluctance to experience pain or difficulty but it did shed some light onto perhaps why God allows crosses in our lives …. I was at the dr. with my four year old and she found out she needed a few shots. She immediately curled up in my lap once the nurse left and started to cry telling me she was afraid it was going to hurt. I explained to her that it probably would hurt, it would sting and she might cry. I proceeded to tell her that while it would be unpleasant, it was for her health and well being. That she would be inoculated against certain diseases that would be far more unpleasant than the vaccinations she would be receiving to prevent them. Of course, this “logic” did little to appease her fears and she continued to fret. This morning, in my prayer time, God used this exchange between her and I to demonstrate what many of the crosses He allows into my life are for. It was as if He was saying to me, “Yes, I know it will hurt. It will sting. It will be unpleasant but it is for your good! I am protecting you from bigger, heavier crosses. These crosses I allow in your life are often for your protection. There is no denying they hurt and can be painful but they are for your own good”.. Of course I, who sometimes has the maturity of a four year old, listened to Him and still cried out, “But I am scared! I don’t want it to hurt!”. However, I am encouraged by knowing that He knows me! He knows I will never be a “St. Theresa Benedicts of the Cross” who is full of courage and love for God and willingly accepted a horrible death. Rather, I am the child who cries to her Father, “I am afraid!”. I think of these great and holy saints and wonder how in the world do they achieve such holiness? How do they willingly accept such horrific pains both physical and mental and find joy in them? It absolutely bewilders and fascinates me and simultaneously convicts me of my own cowardice. I guess all we can do is know that He knows our weaknesses and He loves us anyway and just like my heart broke for my daughter at the sight of her tears and fears over impending shots, He also grieves with us in our struggles sympathizes with our weak nature. I encourage you to “speak” to St. Therese, the Little Flower. She also lamented that she could not soar to the heights of the great saints and yet she found her own sanctification in offering up the little aches and pains and frustrations of life that we all encounter. I am so grateful and find much consolation in the fact that there is room for all of us in Heaven — both the great, holy and courageous saints who shed their blood and gave their lives for God as well as us, “little souls” who are unable to soar to these heights. God is good!

      • Jennifer says:

        That’s a great insight from your daughter’s inoculations. It’s funny you mentioned the headache as I had a doozy of one this morning, but it’s a great example: I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking a painkiller, or a nap, or an extra strong coffee or all of the above (ahem), at the same time trying to remain serene and offer up the suffering for as long as it lasts and not use it as an excuse to be unbearable to others. I digress, but I think what you are saying here, like I just said to trudymm, is that it refers back to Tom’s recent post about aiming for the chopping block, the ends, which is always love for God-neighbour and also his post about the spirituality of offering.

        I’m pretty tolerant to physical pain so I do have a different cross than you, maybe it doesn’t bother me much because I see it as kinda uninvited, unexpected and something you just gotta roll with — here’s the pain, all you can do is accept it; psychologically I figure, whining about it isn’t going to make it go away and may cause it to endure. Maybe that’s just me! I’m a huge klutz so minor pains are a major part of my life 🙂 For me I’m thinking more about the crosses that are easier to avoid: avoiding talking to that difficult person I know God is calling me to talk to; or having a difficult but necessary conversation. Opening up; showing my flaws; risking failure and rejection. My temptation is to NOT put love where there is no love so that there can be love. Does that make sense?

        Thank you though for your encouragement. Yes, St. Therese’s little way is wholly encouraging to me. Oh, He does love us little souls so! I can say with certitude that I know I’ve nothing to offer to Him but the life and love He gives to me in the first place; and I know He is patient and merciful and so generous with little ones like us. And just like learning that physical pain won’t be forever, He is gently showing me that the pain of the risk of loving and falling flat on my face won’t last forever either and He will use it for my good, and more often than not there is so much grace in the offering and much less failing, and that whether or not I fail is not the end; whether or not I loved is. I need to remind myself a hundred times a day of Mary’s example of brilliant faith to trust in Him. Love never fails. Or to paraphrase Dory, “Just keep loving; just keep loving. What do you do? Just love, love, love.”

        God IS good, sister!

  2. Patrick Reilly says:

    Wow. Very inspiring. Come Holy Spirit and help us make us a new creation!

  3. Hi Tom! Wow, you have really been a writing machine lately…suddenly there are 1-2 posts coming my way each day from you. I can’t read them all but wanted you to know this one particularly blessed me. Thank you! Arron

    Sent from my iPhone


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