Lessons Beyond the Death Camps

James Wilson

The work of salvation takes place in obscurity and stillness. In the heart’s quiet dialogue with God the living building blocks out of which the kingdom of God grows are prepared, the chosen instruments for the construction forged.
—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross


Some will remember you for what they call you,
A fact or category, and some will
Remember chiefly how you died, and think
Of blood’s enthralling stain. Still others reach
Beyond that final silence to the life
That did not know it sought salvation but
Merely the clarity of things and thought;
That chattered in the corridors of the real,
Took tea with Husserl, before the mountain
Within you beckoned you to climb, the room
Of inner darkness called with creaking floors.
You wrote out what you saw and then sought stillness.
And not for what you said but what you were,
Not for your truest name you were packed off
To death. After the smoke, bones left forgotten,
Your jotted notes shut in a metal trunk,
As others knew reprisals and occupations,
Your thought lived in the study of a priest.


In evil times and aftertimes, in times
When all the stubbled fields of action smolder,
Bowed-headed words must make an arcane study
Of the personable earth. In his wired room—
With worship driven halfway under half-
Frozen turf, and the land plowed by the tread
Of foreign tanks—he sometimes read aloud,
The silent ears struck with the murmur of truth.

In those times, your words carried on the quiet,
Fostered his own. Thought, act, and judging person,
Radiant the murdered signal of your voice
That moved him from ambitions on the stage.
Below the frequencies of State radio,
That remnant bookish beauty leaned into
His ear—a ghostly Carmelite with time
Enough to stipple out accented thoughts,
Souvenirs of the Inter-war. You’d sewn—
When laity still, and still had need to write,
Before you chained yourself to beauty, or
The Brownshirts came—you’d tried to sew a white
Garment of act and thought, seamless with being.
No faith without experience. No unseen
Without the seen. Your four books filled his head,
And stitched until Woljtyla took the thread.


What terrified love did she bear
The soldiers as they stormed the convent
To silence the word they thought must
Be spoken to be heard? What love

Did she with her sister pray
As the rails drew the cattle car
On toward their final, smoking home?
Their shoulders brushed within the darkness.


This life: she’d graphed its pattern on the page,
The frail inconstant forms of bone and speech,
And gave to one mind, tranquil in an age
Of violence, knowledge exceeding speech.
Not in her name as Jew or Carmelite;
Not just in death, her study’s parasite;
But in the working out of truth and choice,
In words that prayed when others lapsed in rage,
Did she guide, perhaps, the bullet, guide his voice
As John Paul slouched up the mountain of an age.


Those years after,
The Successor
From his throne,
Voice hoarse, intoned
That she was neither
Casualty nor teacher,
But Doctor and Martyr,
Jewish daughter,
Holy doctor,
Spiritual mother,
Illumined voice
Of agon and choice,
A converted heart
Who’d played her part,
A sainted sign
Named Edith Stein.