Note: The following homily for the Memorial of the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Jesus was given by Deacon Br. Pier Giorgio of Christ the King, O.C.D., on the occasion of the clothing Mass of a Discalced Carmelite nun.
At the end of May in 1921, St. Teresa Benedicta, then Edith Stein, boarded a train in Göttingen bound for her friend’s house in the Southwest of Germany. Prior to embarking, another friend, Pauline Reinach, who later became a Benedictine nun, gave to Edith her copy of St. Teresa’s The Book of Her Life. Her time in Göttingen had been a bit chaotic, and so this peaceful book must have been a welcome gift. By this time, Edith was perhaps being readied for her conversion, but her experience of the book must have had a significant impact because, within two months of reading it, she wrote to her sister Erna to prepare their mother for her conversion to Catholicism. She later told a priest that it was her experience of reading St. Teresa’s Life that became the final catalyst for her conversion.
In her reading of St. Teresa’s Life, St. Teresa Benedicta would have encountered our Holy Mother’s experience of the Transverberation of her heart in chapter 29. Teresa writes:
The Lord wanted me while in this [paralyzed] state to see sometimes the following vision: I saw close to me toward my left side an angel in bodily form. . . . the angel was not large but small; he was very beautiful and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be all afire. . . . I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God. The pain is not bodily but spiritual, although the body doesn’t fail to share in some of it, and even a great deal. The loving exchange that takes place between the soul and God is so sweet that I beg Him in His goodness to give a taste of this love to anyone who thinks I am lying.1
Perhaps it is difficult to imagine this vision with St. Teresa herself. But I think that Edith would have tried to imagine it. In her own philosophical mind, she well understood the phenomenon of empathizing with the experience of others even when we do not directly feel the joy or pain that others feel. She had spent the previous decade of her life reflecting on this process as it occurs in the realm of ordinary life experiences.
But what about extraordinary experiences? In the final paragraph of her dissertation on empathy, written before her conversion, she writes this:
There have been people who thought that in a sudden change of their person they experienced the effect of the grace of God, others who felt themselves to be guided in their conduct by a protective spirit. . . . Who can say whether there is genuine experience present here? . . . Nevertheless, the study of religious consciousness seems to me to be the most appropriate means of answering our question [of empathy], just as, on the other hand, its answer is of most interest for the domain of religion. However, I leave the answering of this question to further investigation and satisfy myself here with a “non liquet,” “It is not clear.”2
So, imagine what her reaction would have been to reading St. Teresa’s mystical experience just five or so years after writing those words. It was precisely this type of experience that Edith wanted to investigate. Within weeks of reading St. Teresa’s Life, she wrote to her friend Roman Ingarden, “At home, I have started a treatise on the philosophy of religion. I do not know what will come of it. Presumably, in the future, I will work only in this area.”3 Two months later she wrote again to Ingarden, a letter dated on the feast of St. Teresa, and told him that she intended to become Catholic: “I have not written to you about what led me to this. Actually, it is very difficult to say and I certainly cannot write about it. In any case, in recent years, I have lived very much more than I have philosophized. My works are all expressions of what has occupied me in life because the way I am now, I just have to reflect over it all.”4
We cannot know with certainty the exact nature of this change that came about in the summer of 1921. But given this last statement, I don’t believe she experienced merely an intellectual conversion. Rather, I think she experienced an actual grace, given to her by God and bestowed because of her seeking after the nature of religious experience. Perhaps (and this is merely imaginative speculation) she even doubted St. Teresa’s mystical experience and thus the prayer of St. Teresa was answered in St. Teresa Benedicta: “I beg Him in His goodness to give a taste of this love to anyone who thinks I am lying.”5
The Latin verb transverbero means to pierce through. And in a more ordinary way, is this not what God does to us in conversion? He pierces through our darkness and fills us with light. Nineteen years after her conversion, in 1940, Edith Stein, now Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote the following double sonnet on the occasion of this feast of Our Holy Mother’s Transverberation. I hypothesize that her composition was inspired both by St. Teresa’s mystical experience as well as her own experience of God piercing through her life in 1921:
From Heaven’s heights a beam of light here flashes,
He came into the dark depths of my heart,
The soul was wounded by Love’s flaming dart,
Which penetrated all my limbs like lashes.
Transformed since then is my entire being.
Am I no more the same one that I was?
That light has cleared away the dark, because
I am like one who was once blind now seeing.
Deep under me in unsubstantial distance,
I see the world and all the rage of its states,
Its buzzing noise does not reach me in this place.
Eternal stars glow over my existence,
And wondrously a bow of peace radiates,
A gentle sign of God’s great mercy and grace.
* * *
The ray of heaven’s light allows me rest not,
Thus what is lighted must become a light.
The Light eternal sends me to earth’s plight:
And so I turn to bear the world now so fraught.
The love of God within my heart burns so deep,
It gladly set the world in whole aflame.
That love is homeless and attracts no fame,
This causes pain and makes the faithful soul weep.
It loves to let the golden stars shine brightly
Into the deepest depths of earth’s darkest vale,
With gentle light to penetrate the dark night.
It wants to join both Heav’n and earth so tightly,
And carry by the Holy Spirit’s strong gale
The world aloft upon His wings into light.6
Dear Sister, today you have been clothed in the Holy Habit of Our Holy Mother St. Teresa. In this vocation, I pray you will tread along the path taken by both St. Teresa and St. Teresa Benedicta. And while you may not experience the extraordinary mystical graces freely given to them by God, I pray that you will find in the depths of your soul this mysterious light. As St. Teresa Benedicta expresses in this sonnet, the love of God, as it is directed in your life, will cause you pain due to His homelessness in the world. But may He always find a home in you. This is what Jesus instructs us in the Gospel today: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. . . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:23, 27). Sister, this peace is given to you in this life. This is the vocation of a daughter of St. Teresa, to have your daily life pierced by the presence of God, to receive this presence in peace and then bear witness to the peace of Jesus; To be lighted by God and so be a light for this world.
- Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life 29.13. Found in The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), 1:252.
- Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1989), 117–18.
- Edith Stein, Letters to Roman Ingarden (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2014), 188. (Letter 76).
- Stein, 192. (Letter 78).
- Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life 29.13.
- My own translation. In the original German (ESGA 20:198), St. Teresa Benedicta uses the form of Petrarchan sonnets favored by the Italians: 14 lines in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA CDDC EFG EFG. This pattern is repeated in the second sonnet. On the A, B, E, F, and G lines, she ends each line with an additional syllable for a total of 11 rather than the customary 10. This is similar to the so-called “feminine ending” common in English iambic pentameter. A famous example of this type of 11-syllable line is Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be; that is the question.” I have attempted to follow her convention in this translation while remaining as faithful as possible to the original.