I recently read an interview with a contemplative nun in which she half-jokingly admitted that she was “wasting” her life for God. In the eyes of the world, her contribution seemed small. Yet, in the eyes of God, her work of constant prayer was great.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was an incredible intellect. She grew up in Germany, and showed intellectual promise from the time she was small, so it is no wonder that she went on to pursue graduate studies and the academic life. In a time when women had even less of a presence in the academic world than they do today, Edith Stein established herself as a budding intellectual. She became a philosopher, and when she converted to Catholicism, she used her gifts to promote the faith.
Were she to have remained a philosopher, working and studying in a university setting, she would have been considered successful in the eyes of the world. However, this intellectual giant made a seemingly strange choice – she discerned the call to a cloistered, Carmelite order.
The rest of the story is history. She became a Carmelite during World War II, and because she was Jewish by birth, she was taken to a concentration camp, where she eventually died.
Edith’s contribution to the intellectual tradition of the Church is a notable one. But her greatest accomplishments (many of which we will never know this side of heaven) most likely happened in Carmel. Yes, she did do some philosophical work while in Carmel, but it was not for that reason that she joined. Why would such an intelligent woman leave behind a successful academic career (albeit one that was temporarily on hold, due to the war) for the simple life of a Carmelite?
It is no coincidence that an intellectual giant, such as Edith was, made the decision to leave everything behind for Carmel.
When thinking of Edith’s life, two stories from the Gospel come to mind. The first is of the rich young man, who asks Jesus what is necessary to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all that he has and to come and follow him, and the man leaves saddened, because he owns many things and cannot bring himself to part with any (Matthew 19:16-22). Edith is, of course, an example of a “rich” person who hears the call and sells all she has to come and follow Christ.
But an even more appropriate parable for Edith is the story of the man who finds a treasure in a field. In this parable, Jesus tells of a man who discovers a treasure in a field, buries it again, and “out of joy” sells all that he owns in order to buy that same field (Matthew 13:44). This parable is particularly apt when we consider how it would have appeared to the man’s friends when he sold all that he had to buy a (seemingly useless) field. To buy a field is no great thing, but to give up everything you have in order to buy a mere field seems foolish. Alas, the man knew what they did not. He knew of the hidden treasure buried in the field, and he knew that that treasure was greater than all else he possessed. Most telling is the phrase “out of joy.” It is not out of solemn obligation that the man buys the field with the treasure. He gives up all that he has because the treasure fills him with such joy that all else is worthless in comparison.
And so, when St. Edith Stein, a philosopher of such great intellectual prowess, gives up all the she has in order to join Carmel, we must take note. It is not a passing fancy or a lapse in judgement that lands her in the Carmelites. It is the act of a woman who “out of joy” leaves behind all that she has in order to be with Jesus. In doing so, Edith is delivering her most important lecture yet, and she wants us to pay attention. She is challenging us, by her actions, to “waste” our lives for God. For surely, more than one acquaintance must have voiced their objections to her. “Edith, how can you join a cloistered Carmelite order? You have so much to contribute to the intellectual world of the Church! How can you throw that all away?!” Most likely, Edith merely smiled, knowing that what was viewed as a “waste” in the eyes of the world, was in fact a great treasure in the eyes of heaven.
St. Edith Stein challenges us to do likewise. She challenges us to find the treasure (often hidden from the eyes of the world) and to be willing to give up all that we have in pursuit of it.