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.”