Friday, 30 November 2012

God's Handwriting: History

It strikes me that reading God's handwriting in history is much harder than reading God's handwriting in your heart. It is also harder to write about because although one can write about the human experience of conscience generally, history is personal and particular to every single person as well as the general circumstances in which a nation and the the world lives. It doesn't help either than a lot of history is just not God-given. God did not stretch out His hand and prevent Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, but He did not will it either.

How a good God can allow evil to happen is theologically called "The Problem of Evil" and I'm not going into it now because it would take a long time, and a lot of reading, and my right hand hurts today. What I'll do is talk about personal history and then illustrate the relationship of someone's personal history with the contemporary geo-political events with her life.

Everyone who is reading my blog has a personal history, and even if you are only nineteen, you can look back upon your life and look for both patterns and astonishing, unusual events that have led you to where you are now. You can find people whom you wished to be like, people whom you did not wish to be like, and people who recognized a talent in you for something and told you what it was. I suggest you hang onto the memories of good, blunt teachers who liked you and said things like "You'd make a good journalist" or "You'd thrive in law school" or even "I'll see your name in lights one day" because the Holy Spirit may have been speaking through them.

You might want to pay attention, too, to memories of what you wanted to do with your life when you were a child. Unless they are entirely ground down, children are remarkably uncomplicated about their desires and plans. If they want to marry their kindergarten teachers, they say so. At fourteen, we no longer have that kind of mental freedom. We glance uneasy at the people around us and wonder what they would say if they knew what we wanted and we wonder if we want is in keeping with our image of ourselves and blah, blah, blah.

When I started elementary school, my uncle gave me a little journal with my name embossed in gold. It has a page for every school year from Kindergarten to 8 and was highly organized. It includes pockets for report cards and favourite scraps of schoolwork. For the first few years it asks what the owner wants to be when she grows up. My first answers were "Mother" "Artist" and "Writer."

(Five years later, my uncle was dead. He had no wife and no children. But my oldest brother and I treasure his memory and his few letters to us. And with his gift, he started my lifelong diary and writing habit. He was the first Searching Single I ever knew and loved, and the spectre of his early death occasionally flogs my brother and I into taking batter care of ourselves, into getting up from the computer, and losing weight and eating better. Although my uncle could not have known this, his short life has had an important and lasting influence on his once-little niece and nephew.)

Now you may point out that it was all very well that when I was 4/5 I wanted to be a mother, but I am not a mother, so what was that all about? And indeed that is a good question, one I sometimes ask myself, because by the age of fourteen, I was very good at childcare and quite fond of babies and small children. However (like you) I grew up at a time when motherhood was denigrated in pop culture, and the idea of being a "just a housewife" was horrifying to me. I wanted to be my dad, not my mum, and what I wanted above all else was to learn, talk and write about stuff, to live the life of the mind around artists and intellectuals, in a way compatible with my Catholic faith.

And absolutely nobody told me that this would make getting married and having children much more difficult, or that my fertility might drop dramatically at 35, and actually I think I can see the hand of God in even this. For whatever reason, it would seem that God does not want me to be a physical mother but to be a spiritual mother. When you are over 40, have married twice, love children and young people, write a lot of relationship and spiritual advice to the next generation, and yet have never become pregnant, this seems a logical assumption to make. Yes, it's not over till it's over. But come on: I don't even have the will to chart. We are approaching miracle territory here. (And nobody say naprotechnology again or I will scream.)

Now as this has once again disintegrated into a story about lovely me, let me examine a concrete personal life lived in the wider history of the world. It is the life of a German Jewish girl named Edith who was born in 1891 in a city called Breslau. (It is now Wrocław, Poland.) Her family were observant Jews and her father was a businessman. However, Edith's mother was an even better businesswoman, and when Edith's father died, the mother greatly increased the family finances. From a young age, Edith saw that a head for business is not beyond the capabilities of womankind.

The German universities had recently decided that post-secondary education was also not beyond the capabilities of womankind, so Edith went to university and excelled in Philosophy. However, the universities had not yet decided that women could be professors of Philosophy, so that bit of history put a serious block in a formal university teaching career. However, it also led to Edith teaching in a girls' school, which led to her contemplating what it means to be a woman, and how women should be educated, and what we offer to the professions.

By then Edith had converted to Christianity, an event strongly resisted by her Jewish family and even resented by them because of growing German anti-Semitism. Her family's resistance--particularly her mother's disapproval--stopped Edith from doing what she dearly wanted to do: become a Carmelite nun like St. Teresa of Avila. (Part of Edith's personal history is that she came across St. Teresa's autobiography at a friend's house and it converted her to Christianity.)

Because Edith did not feel she could be a nun, she continued to teach, to write and to lecture. As a Catholic woman intellectual, she felt it necessary to counter the growing tendencies in German society to view German women as either just like men (taught by ordinary socialists) or as baby-machines and providers of home comforts for the Master Race (taught by the National Socialists).

The historic rise of the Nazis led to the end of Edith's career in education, as even Jews who had converted to Christianity were considered a pernicious influence. This led Edith to a crossroads. As she had no other career options, she could either go to America or enter a Carmelite monastery. Uppermost in her mind was how either decision would affect her mother. She decided that it would hurt her mother least if she went into the Carmelite convent in Cologne. When things got so bad for Jews in Germany it looked like Edith might be taken from the convent, she was sent to a Carmelite convent in Holland.

That proved not to be a safe place. Nazi Germany conquered Holland, and although it did not want to alienate the non-Jewish Dutch (who in the Nazi view were also Germanic and master-racey), they began to persecute the Dutch Jews. The Catholic bishops of Holland publicly denounced the Nazis for this. In retaliation, the Nazis rounded up Jewish-Catholic converts and their families, and sent the Jewish-Catholics without families, e.g. the priests, monks and nuns, to Auschwitz. There Edith and her sister Rosa died.

It is hard to see how the horrible death at Auschwitz of Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedetta of the Cross), the most important Catholic woman theologian of the 20th century, could be the will of God. However, Edith did not try very hard to escape this fate. In fact, in 1939 she prayed that her death would somehow be a help to her fellow Jews. Meanwhile, in the Dutch barracks where prisoners stayed before being released or sent to Auschwitz, Edith wore her habit and took care of the children whose mothers were too traumatized to do so. Witnesses wrote that the presence of the Jewish-Catholic convert priests, monks and nuns were of infinite comfort to the other Jewish-Catholic converts and their Catholic spouses. They publicly praised their bishops for speaking out.

The lives of saints are very important for us to see how God works even in the most horrible historical circumstances to lead us to our life work and the meaning of our life. Edith Stein was as important as she is for us women because, when she wasn't allowed to teach at a university, she put her energies into teaching girls and writing about women. This work led, though John Paul II, to the writing of Mulieris Dignitatem. When the Nazis ruled she couldn't teach or lecture, Edith Stein decided to stay in Germany so as to become a Carmelite nun and not move too far from her mother. Under obedience, she went to Holland when sent there. And as a Jewish-Catholic convert in Holland she died among other Jewish-Catholic converts in retaliation for the Dutch bishops' protest. At the time, she was a comfort and help to other Jewish-Catholics in danger of Auschwitz. Today she stands as a reminder to Catholics that Jews can be saints and to the world that A) Catholic bishops did indeed protest Nazi persecution of the Jews and B) that when they did, Catholics died for it.

Most of us cannot change the course of world history. Edith Stein could not. But we can see in history how the saints dealt with their own historical circumstances to carry out God's will. Personally, I find it immensely significant that Edith Stein stayed in Europe, a decision that led both to her life as a nun and her death at Auschwitz, because she thought her staying would be the decision least painful for the person she loved best on earth: her mother. That human love, that obedience to the commandment "Honour thy father and mother", led to sainthood.




10 comments:

Guinevere said...

I'm new to this lovely blog and got a thrill when I saw you wrote about Edith Stein because I just started reading her Essays on Woman 2 days ago! How's that for God's Handwriting in personal history? :)

The book also has an excerpt from a newspaper clipping praising a lecture she gave on October 1, 1930 in Salzburg. Thought I'd share part of it:

"Manifesting brilliant reflection, she inferred from a formulated truth of St. Thomas, "anima forma corporis" (the soul is the formative principle of the body), that inasmuch as the feminine body is a feminine body, this feminine body must also correspond to a feminine soul just as the masculine body must correspond to a masculine soul. Hence, the feminine psychic attitude with its perceptive and loving focus on the personal and the whole is a necessary attitude for the development of humanity. And it is also needed in order to recognize what lies dormant in the individual, to have an open mind, and to practice a self-effacing love. This is precisely the basic attitude of woman. From this stems her vocation as 'man's companion' and also the reality of her maternal attitude toward her husband. Her gift for empathy can also be developed in matters which in themselves are foreign to the feminine nature as long as these matters are of a personal nature."

Happy Friday all!

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Thank you so much for this post and the last one. I wanted to let you know that I think they are wonderful and have given me a lot to consider, even though I don't have anything to add to the discussion right now. :-)

~Nzie

MaryJane said...

I just wanted to say that I am really grateful for women like St. Teresia Benedicta - and for women like you! Instead of complaining about the lack of something in your life (children), you spend your time helping us singles remember the good parts of being single. And you dish out lots of good advice regarding the bad parts.

It's a great example you are setting for women who might not have exactly what they would like - that life can still be really good when serving others. So, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for going anonymous on this one, but it's kind of a delicate thing...

How much influence do you think sexual sin has on the personal history of a woman? Obviously God can redeem and call anyone to anything (Mary Magdalene, for example), but do you think that women who have had some experience of un-chastity, even if not the sexual act itself, are far less likely to find themselves being called to religious life? Maybe because they would prefer to be married and experience sexuality that way, or because they no longer feel free to give themselves to God in a consecrated way? (Leaving aside canonical issues, of course.)

It seems worth discussing in this culture where very few remain completely pure until/ through adulthood.

Seraphic said...

I will answer this one in today's post.

Urszula said...

What a beautiful post, Seraphic! I am greatly enjoying these posts on vocation, and they are giving me a lot to think about.

I recently joined a vocation discernment type class led by a single woman with lots of corporate experience, and so I've been thinking about the topic a lot. The course was great, precisely because the perspective was very well-rounded and the group leader was genuinely interested in helping each person discover their own talents as opposed to forcing us down a particular path.

An exercise I found very helpful was to list in two columns a) the activities we enjoyed as kids (everything, from building elaborate sand castle cities to helping parents cook) b) activities we 'lose' ourselves in as adults. Essentially, activities we do where we don't notice the passage of time, since we are so engrossed (and no, time-suckers like facebook or TV don't count, but reading about history would). It was a very valuable exercise and helped me to see the link between what I do today - in my free time- and what I loved as a kid. And try to see if the engrossing adult activities can somehow be more related to or incorporated in my daily work.

Anna said...

Perhaps I'm reading this wrong, but I'm saddened by your statement that "...what I wanted above all else was to learn, talk and write about stuff, to live the life of the mind around artists and intellectuals, in a way compatible with my Catholic faith. And absolutely nobody told me that this would make getting married and having children much more difficult". This seems to tie in to my and other intellectual women's fears that by being brainy or highly educated, we will miss the boat on marriage and babies.

Seraphic said...

You might, you might not. But do you really want to marry some guy who couldn't give a squashed strawberry for the life of the mind? One of the problems with being very bright and becoming highly educated is that you increase your chances of becoming bored by 90% of available men. A hairdresser who goes to night school to take business courses with an eye to running her own salon is not going to turn up her nose at a hard-working construction worker, especially if he is from her own ethnic group.

By the way, not enough women go into the skilled trades. If I had trained as a pastry chef, I would be making a mint. According the the job board I saw, Edinburgh is crying out for pastry chefs.

Another difficulty about being an intellectual Catholic is that naturally you do not want to sleep with a man and live with him for a year or two before getting married. And this will turn off a whole lot of men in intellectual and artistic circles, who are not themselves good Catholics, for example. They will go off and bed, co-habit with and perhaps eventually marry the women who are okay with this newly conventional way of life.

Being sad about it doesn't make it any less true (if true). And it is one of those general statistics that, worldwide, the more education a woman has, the fewer babies she has. I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't start having babies at 16 or because she can afford to go on the Pill or what.

But anyway you never know what God has planned for you, and there are lots of highly educated, highly trained and intelligent women who get married before it is too late to have babies.

My sister-in-law is a doctor, and she married at about 32 (I think) and she has two beautiful babies. Fortunately she did not have it in her head that she should marry a fellow doctor or an even more senior doctor, and that a highly creative and musical computer geek was good marriage material because he was so sweet.

Anyway, I think older women should warn younger women that this whole ten-years-in-university thing (not to mention the whole being faithful to the teachings of Christ attitude) might make the marriage-and-babies way of life a little harder to achieve. My advice to anyone who really, REALLY just wants to be a happy housewife and mother of six is not to rack up a lot of student loans.

Chances are, braininess and a decade in university will not in itself make you miss the boat on marriage and babies. They will probably just mean that you will catch one of the later boats. My boat came when I was 37 and I am sooo grateful I didn't take the wrong boat.

Seraphic said...

No pun intended on "making a mint."

Really, I don't want to discourage women from developing your intellectual gifts, if those are the gifts you have. And I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from picking up their cross and following Christ, which these days means saying "No I won't sleep with you" to a lot of well-meaning but confused men, who were brought up thinking sex is what all adults do because this is the new convention, and most people are by definition conventional.

I'm just saying it is not cruel to say that a long university career is not the quickest path to marriage and children. For one thing, you are likely to meet a lot of men who are racking up thousands of dollars in student loans that it may take them decades to pay off, even if they do get one of the few jobs teaching Theology or (yuk, yuk) Media Studies.

MaryJane said...

Oh, Amen, Amen to the 10-years-in-a-university thing. The best advice I heard was, "don't go to grad school unless you can't absolutely not go." (And I would add, even then, think twice if it is going mean buckets of loans, ugh.)

On the other hand, some people have to be in these fields, and it's nice when sometimes they are women who are interested in The Thing Itself and not Being There Because They Are Women.