Now a word about prayer. Human beings are naturally drawn to prayer, which can be seen every day at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, at a mosque in Mecca, at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, or at a Christian chapel anywhere in America. But it is not so natural to pray for one's enemy. In the midst of Hitler's Nazi regime, two German individuals with very different backgrounds and faiths show us how not to be overcome with evil, how not to let evil canker our prayers and our souls.
Edith Stein was a woman of Jewish birth who became an atheist by age fourteen, earned a doctorate degree, later converted to Catholicism at age thirty, then wrote a number of theological treatises including "The Prayer of the Church." At age forty-two, Edith entered the Carmel of Cologne as a nun, and four years later fled to the Carmel at Echt (Holland) to escape Nazi persecution of Jews. While in Holland she wrote: "The thought that we have . . . no lasting home is always with me. I have no other wish than that God's Will should be accomplished in me. How long I am to be here depends on Him. As to what will happen then, it is not for me to concern myself. But it is necessary to pray much, in order to remain faithful come what may." At age fifty-one she was arrested, transported to Auschwitz, and executed in August 1942 for faithfulness to her Jewish heritage and opposition to the Nazi cause. Edith—now beatified and known to Catholics as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—was seen peacefully praying and actively serving her fellowman in the concentration camp until her last moments.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and participant in the Nazi resistance movement. Bonhoeffer wrote: "I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner." He was arrested in 1943 and hanged at age thirty-nine in April 1945 at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The prison doctor noted that Pastor Bonhoeffer said a short prayer before going to the gallows. The doctor stated, "I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
Even in the midst of great trial and persecution, Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and untold others down through the ages of time have remained true to Paul's admonition of "continuing instant in prayer."
I close with a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, undoubtedly the basic source for Paul's message to the Romans, for we hear so much of the one echoing in the other.
Matthew 5:48 concludes with that wonderfully staggering injunction from Jesus which seems so far beyond our reach—"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Surely this is the ultimate in spirituality and religiosity—to strive to approach the perfection of God.