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Terrance KleinNovember 02, 2022
edith stein in a statue in cologne germanyEdith Stein, pictured in this statue, lived in Cologne, Germany, until she was sent to the Netherlands and later to Auschwitz. (Franz Gerd Frank via Wikimedia Commons)

A Reflection for the Feast of All Souls

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9 Romans 6:3-9 John 6:37-40

They gave her 10 minutes to gather her things and say goodbye. The bishops of the Netherlands had recently denounced Nazi deportations of Jews and Dutch citizens. The Nazis retaliated by arresting 245 Catholics of Jewish descent. The cloistered Carmelite sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was one of them.

She had been born Edith Stein into a secular Jewish family. Edith was one of the first women in Germany to gain a doctorate, which she did while studying under the renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl. A Jew could not hold a professorship in Nazi Germany, but Edith Stein taught for several years outside that system before becoming a Catholic and entering a Carmelite monastery. Fearing the direction of events in Germany, her Carmelite superiors had sent Sister Teresa Benedicta to a Carmel in the Netherlands. Her biological sister Rosa, a fellow Carmelite, accompanied her.

Try to imagine those 10 minutes, offered only to degrade them! A Carmelite would not have much to pack, but who can say goodbye in such a short amount of time? Who can collect up and close a life? Sister Teresa Benedicta said to her sister, “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.”

There is no time in eternity, but, by God’s grace, there is still a “becoming.” During our lives, hopefully, we become someone who can love God in return.

On the Feast of All Souls, we pray for our dead. Why? Because they are “our people” in life and in death. As we say in the opening of the vigil for the departed, “we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” Hence, the dead still pray for us, and we still pray for them. This belief is found both in Scripture and in the practice of the early church.

But what is there to pray about? We surely need the prayers of the saints, but what might be required by those who already stand judged before the face of God? Even if they have been worthy of God, for most souls the answer is still quite simple: time to get ready.

Of course, there is no time in eternity, but, by God’s grace, there is still a “becoming.” God calls us into life for a single purpose, to offer himself to us. But note that God calls us into life, into a becoming. We are fashioned unfinished. God creates us for love, so God creates us in time, in a becoming. This is what it means to be free creatures. During our lives, hopefully, we become someone who can love God in return.

When we die, if we have not yet become someone capable of receiving God, then God, in mercy, allows us to complete the process.

We are those who become. In contrast, God is utter fullness, more than we can possibly imagine! Yet we were created for God. If you think that you are already capable of receiving the fullness of God, you either have a very large view of yourself or a quite small understanding of God.

Yes, God decrees our salvation just as God decreed our creation. But in both, we continue to become. Even after death we become our acceptance of God.

When we die, if we have not yet become someone capable of receiving God, then God, in mercy, allows us to complete the process. And there is a process, because, unlike God, we are always those who are becoming. As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted, even the Beatific Vision is not something accomplished once forever. How can it be if God cannot be fathomed?

Is purgatory a time and a place? Is heaven? Heaven is a consummated relationship, and it has a physical, albeit glorified, component. Purgatory is best understood as heaven’s portal—in Dante’s Purgatorio, its people are smiling! It is a post-mortem process of becoming, aided, as all human growth is, by the prayers of others.

“Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.” The sisters would die a few months later in Auschwitz. But Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, did not see this as severing either her relationship to God or to her people. She had lived for both, and she would die for both. If, in the mercy of God, her death could aid others in becoming who they were meant to be before God, before or after death, then, Amen. “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.”

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