SAINT TERESA BENEDICTA OF THE CROSS
Also known as Edith Stein
1891 – 1942
Feast Day: August 9
Patronage: Europe, World Youth Day, loss of parents, martyrs
Symbols: carmelite habit, cross, concentration camp wire, star of David
“I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.”
Edith Stein was a brilliant scholar of philosophy who was born a Jew, declared herself an atheist, converted to Catholicism and joined the Carmelite Order taking the name Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. From her isolation she wrote meitative studies and prayed for the world. Though cloistered in the neutral country of Holland for her protection during World War II, she was not spared from being gassed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Born in Breslau, Germany on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Edith Stein was the youngest of 11 children in a traditionally Jewish family. Her father ran the family’s large timber business and when he died suddenly when Edith was two. Her mother, was forced to fend for herself and her children, took control of the floundering company and proved herself to be a brilliant businesswoman. Though opportunities in higher education had only just opened up for women in Prussia, she mother stressed the value of higher education for all of her children, male and female alike. Edith’s sisters became doctors and teachers. Edith, who was a child prodigy, reading Friedrich Schillers since she was six year old, was fascinated by philosophy. Her mother encouraged her to become a lawyer but then acknowledged that Edith probably knew best about her own career.
As a teenager, Edith became an atheist and stopped practicing her religion. In her own words she was a “radical suffragette” passionately devoted to women’s issues. She immersed herself in the study of philosophy, and in 1913 transferred to Gottingen University where she was accepted as a student by Edmund Husserl, the philosophic genius who developed Phenomenology, an early form of Psychology devoted to the individual’s view of reality. Husserl had a great influence on the intellectual and philosophical circles of his day and many of Germany’s best young minds vied to be near him. He recognized Edith Stein’s keen intelligence and appointed her as his teaching assistant. Edith was fascinated with find the truth in everything. Phenomenology stresses the importance of returning to “things”. Not viewing the world as the individual perceives it, but as it is without preconceived notions. Between 1916 and 1921 Edith Stein wrote four treatises for Husserl’s journal that are still required reading for students of this philosophy, as many feel she surpassed her mentor in explaining and exploring his theories.
During the First World War she volunteered as a nurse in an Austrian field hospital and was confronted with the spectre of young people dying and suffering on a daily basis. When a good friend – one of Husserl’s assistants – was killed in the war, Edith was paralyzed with grief. Moreover, she dreaded seeing his widow as she felt incapable of offering any solace. To her amazement, it was his widow, a devout Protestant, who comforted Edith. She writes of this time as “…my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it…” Phenomenologists did not share the prejudice against religious beliefs that is common among scientists and intellectuals. Though Husserl himself was an agnostic, a good number of his students were adapting Christian beliefs. While writing her dissertation “The Problem of Empathy”, Edith visited the Frankfurt Cathedral. To her amazement, she saw a woman come straight from the market with her groceries and enter the church to say a brief prayer. Years later she wrote, “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”
Anticipating a day when women would be allowed to become professors, Edith earned her doctorate summa cum laude in 1917. In her pursuit of absolute objectivity of judgement she read religious tracts and wrote articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. Though still an atheist, Edith tried doing Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, out of curiosity. To her own surprise, she found in herself a thirst for God. While vacationing with friends – recent Protestant converts and students of Husserl’s – Edith happened on the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. She devoured it in a single night and exclaimed, “This is the truth!” She seemed to assimilate and fully identify with the inner spiritual journey of the great Spanish mystic. Since Teresa of Avila was part Jewish herself, Edith felt her to be a kindred spirit in her search for truth. She believed that she belonged to Christ not only spiritually, but through her bloodlines as well. The study of Catholicism became her new passion and she was baptized on January 1, 1922 with the future intention of becoming a Carmelite nun in the footsteps of Teresa of. Avila. Though her mother was devastated by her daughter’s decision, she retained a close relationship with her youngest child.
Her desire to live in seclusion from the world by becoming a cloistered nun were discouraged by her spiritual directors. They insisted that she employ her true talents as a teacher and scholar. Throughout the 1920’s she worked in the Dominican Sisters’ school as a German and history teacher, positions far beneath her abilities. She also ran a teacher training course at Saint Magdalen’s Convent in Speyer. She was a popular speaker on women’s issues and she returned to her philosophical roots by translating Thomas Aquinas and then writing a study of his central concepts using her background in Phenomenolgy to base her thoughts on. All the while, Edith kept in close contact with the Benedictine Monastery of Beuron, going there to celebrate holy days and to continue her contemplative exercises.
By 1932, laws against hiring women in academia were relaxed and Edith had assumed a lecture position at the Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster. When the National Socialists took over the government in 1933, Edith suffered first hand the persecution that the Jews of Germany were experiencing. New racial laws forbid the hiring of Jewish Professors and Edith’s career ended. Her attempts to gain an audience with Pope Pius XI and her requests that he write an encyclial against the persecution of the Jews were never acknowledged. She turned down an opportunity to work in Argentina, preferring to remain in Germany. “By now it dawned on me that God had laid His hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine.”
Edith was accepted into the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. She went home to say goodbye to her family, attending synagogue for the holy days with her mother. She has said that this was the most difficult thing she had ever had to do. Her mother wept in inconsolable despair. Edith wrote to her mother every week from the convent but never received a response. She was invested in the Carmelite order in April of 1934, taking the name Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. At 42 she was almost 20 years older than the other novices. After so many worldly honors she found doing such chores as cooking and sewing for the first time in her life “a good school for humility”.
She discovered that by entering the Carmelite Order she was not escaping the world but using the time spent in isolation and prayer to intercede for the world. She particularly concentrated on the plight of the Jews in Germany, “I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort.”
After her Final Profession in 1938, Edith was again researching and writing full time. Her mother had died in 1936 and one of her older sisters, Rose had joined her in the convent. When the mass deportations of Jews began, her superiors transferred Edith and Rose to a convent in Echt, in the neutral country of Holland. Edith spent these years writing meditative studies on the cross and its meaning. Her last work was an essay on Saint John of the Cross, the father of the Discalced Carmelite Order. It was his words, “Henceforth, my only vocation is love.” that she had quoted at her induction into the convent.
In January of 1942 Holland fell under Nazi occupation and both Edith and Rose were forced to wear the star of David on their habits. On July 26, 1942 every Catholic church in Holland read a Pastoral letter from Archbishop Jong condemning the Nazi deportations of the Jews. Reprisals were immediately taken. The SS began arresting all Catholics of Jewish origin and deporting them to death camps. On August 2 two SS officers came to the convent and demanded the Stein sisters accompany them. Edith’s last known words were, “Come, let us go for the sake of our people.” Forced into cattle cars with thousands of others, it took them four days to reach their final destination, Auschwitz. They died in the gas chambers on August 9, 1942.
Because of her great notoriety as a scholar, there are numerous photographs of Edith Stein throughout her career. In art she is depicted as a nun with the Star of David on her habit. In recent years a debate has questioned the church’s usage of “martyr” to categorize her since she was not killed for being a Christian but for being born a Jew. But since she was deported and executed as a response to the Church in Holland’s stance against Nazi genocide, the term “martyr” is an apt one.
Prayer for the Intercession of Saint Teresa Benedicta
Lord, God of our fathers, You brought Saint Teresa Benedicta
to the fullness of the science of the cross at the hour of her martyrdom.
Fill us with the same knowledge, and, through her intercession,
allow us always to seek after you, the supreme truth,
and to remain faithful until death to the covenant of love
ratified in the blood of your Son for the salvation of all men and women.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Excerpted from the book “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua