The first half of the 20th century was a furnace in which steel was forged and useless ore was cast to the side. Evil was everywhere and death appeared to rule the world - there's no escaping that. The materialist and nihilist philosophies that were driven to power in the east and the west found their path cleared by Satan and the numbed submission of the masses.
No matter what ugliness the future holds, can anything be more barbaric and senseless than the battlefields of WWI? Thousands died within hours in attempts to move their side of a front an absurd handful of feet.
No matter how cruel we become, can anything top the brutal control mechanisms of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Dong? Millions died on more than one occasion when either man issued decrees of societal re-structuring.
And though we live in a cold and vicious world, we only practice the art of inhumanity which was mastered by the Nazi's. Though even in America we kill more innocents in our abortion clinics, we do it behind tinted windows and in unmarked buildings. We've yet to reach the unashamed efficiency of herding and facing those who we slaughter in broad daylight.
But how often do we look back on that world and instead focus on those who overcame? How often do we frame the story of WWII in light of Europe's liberation? Or of the Soviet Union in context of its peaceful defeat in 1989? Do we wallow in the blood and filth of Verdun or the Somme, or do we instead concentrate on the profound impact those killing fields had on western thought, literature, and socio-political development? It is this drive - the drive to see light in the darkest darkness - which demonstrates the most meaningful evidence that we are children of God. We do not want to live in the evil world we create, so we are constantly searching for the smallest speck of light and often allow that to grow until it is what we see, rather than the darkness which frames it.
This is why the early 20th century gave us figures who are not just beacons, but legends, heroes, and saints. Some are all four. Dietrich Von Hildebrand. Dorothy Day. Mother Teresa. Padre Pio. Karol Wojtyla. Edith Stein.
The last two are especially important as we try to take the flames which burned in that darkness and hold them as torches as we journey into the next. John Paul II survived the Nazis and the Soviets. He witnessed the noble and the wretched among his occupiers and his own people, yet he was given enormous grace which kept him always under the heart of Mary, and allowed his mind to understand his world through the lens of the cross. With this unique, unprecedented, and humble understanding of people, their inner mechanisms, and the world their actions create, he was able to wander among the hearts and minds of his fellow man unnoticed. Then, in turn, he bestowed the fruits of his wanderings to us and future generations. His shepherdship, teaching, and example is given to us as a gift by the Blessed Mother, who protected him and presented him to the world just as she did her own Son.
Edith Stein did not survive. But those that commit to Carmel do not aspire for that sort of survival. They desire to go where they have nothing, where they know nothing, and where their self is emptied completely so that their house is ready for the Lord. Like Karol Wojtyla, this woman was a part of the reassessment of western thought in the wake of the horrors of WWI and the depression and pestilence that followed. She was immersed in the academic world where her friends quixotically attempted to redefine being as "just being", or "being there", or even "being in the moment". Every stab her colleagues took found something that was perhaps closer, but still elusive. But the school of thought they laid the foundations for could be seen as nothing less than an indictment of enlightenment thinking. And as modern physics painted increasingly chaotic and shaky pictures of what we experience as "reality", those who looked long and hard at those pictures were sent in every direction away from pursuits of idyllic truths. The darkness brought many of them to the conclusion that there was no truth. The darkness taught Edith Stein a different lesson.
However there is also a nocturnal light that reveals a new world deep in the interior and at the same time illumines the outer world from within so that this outer is given back to us as entirely transformed... Night, however, the cosmic as well as the mystic, is something shapeless and something comprehensive whose fullness of meaning can only be indicated but not exhausted. An entire world-view and grasp of existence is resolved therin. And precisely here what they have in common is to be found: the fact of the character of this worldview and grasp of existence. Something intangible here and something intangible there and yet clearly one overlays the other and can be used to access the other, not by arbitrary choice and systematic comparison, but in symbolic experience that strikes upon primitive connections and thus find a necessary figuration for what is conceptually unutterable.
Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross
So really, she did survive. According to her understanding, the death of this world is merely a primitively accessible symbol of the 2nd death which is to be avoided. A tangible, yet intangible scarecrow. If the entire realm of experienced phenomena are to be understood as illusion (which is bolstered by quantum theory) her understanding is the most plausible one for those who believe in God and an ultimate purpose and destiny for humanity. She lived her life to the most bitter end as a witness to us all to reject this 2nd death above all things - to turn away from sin and embrace the Gospel.
St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - pray for us.