Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein, is one of six patron saints of Europe (with Saint Benedict of Nursia, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saint Bridget of Sweden and Saint Catherine of Siena), and, as a convert from Judaism (as well as the atheism of her teens and early twenties), is someone who represents a great point of contact for dialogue between different worldviews. As someone who was a highly accomplished philosopher and who also lived out the beliefs to which she was eventually converted (to the point of dying for them), she is also a great example of moral and intellectual integrity.
As we celebrate Pentecost today, the example of Saint Teresa Benedicta is an important one, as she witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit to not only illuminate minds, but to change hearts and broaden perspective. Central to her conversion experience (which was brought on by her reading of Saint Teresa of Avila) was the conviction that sacrificial love was the only thing that could save the world and effect genuine reconciliation amongst peoples. It was this conviction – essentially that to change hearts and minds we must unite ourselves to the ceaseless love evidenced in the Cross of Christ, without exception – that led to her death at Auschwitz.
The following prayer, written by Stein as part of a Pentecost novena, shows just how much the Holy Spirit had taken hold of her heart, and how she was thereby united closer to the Cross of Christ, sharing in His love and finding new life in even the darkest places. For this is what the Holy Spirit does – as the Spirit of Christ, He will always lead us to Jesus, and the closer we embrace Our Lord, the more willing we will be to take up our cross and follow Him. The joy that Saint Teresa Benedicta felt as the inner witness of the Spirit filled her heart is shown in this prayer, and gives us a small glimpse into the faith, hope and love which enabled her to live such a heroic life. She loved as Christ loves – that is what the Spirit enables us to do, and that is what today is all about:
Who are you, sweet light, that fills me
And illumines the darkness of my heart?
You lead me like a mother’s hand,
And should you let go of me,
I would not know how to take another step.
You are the space
That embraces my being and buries it in yourself.
Away from you it sinks into the abyss
Of nothingness, from which you raised it to the light.
You, nearer to me than I to myself
And more interior than my most interior
And still impalpable and intangible
And beyond any name:
Holy Spirit-eternal love!
Are you not the sweet manna
That from the Son’s heart
Overflows into my heart,
The food of angels and the blessed?
He who raised himself from death to life,
He has also awakened me to new life
From the sleep of death.
And he gives me new life from day to day,
And at some time his fullness is to stream through me,
Life of your life-indeed, you yourself:
Holy Spirit, eternal life!
from A Pentecost Novena, courtesy of Daily Gospel.