Today we celebrate the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, more commonly known as St. Edith Stein. Born in Germany in 1891 to a Jewish family, she was the youngest of seven children. In her teen years, she gradually separated from her childhood faith and embraced atheism. Gifted with a brilliant mind, she earned a Doctorate of Philosophy at the age of 25. At the University of Freiburg, she became a faculty member and worked as an assistant to both Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl prominent phenomenologists of the day. Although she wished to join the faculty at the university, Edith Stein was rejected for a full academic chair because she was a woman.
The Vatican website describes the turning point in her faith:
In the summer of 1921. she spent several weeks in Bergzabern (in the Palatinate) on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl’s. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.” Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer.” (source)
After converting to Catholicism in 1922, she gave up her job at the university and taught at a Dominican girls’ school. While a teacher there, she translated the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman and Thomas Aquinas’ De Veritate (On Truth) into German. Her great mind met with these great minds and her life was never the same. She abandoned her previous philosophies and embraced Catholicism.
In 1932 at the Institute for Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, she became a lecturer. Her sole desire was to lead her hearers to Christ. Anti-Semite legislation passed by the Nazi government in 1933 forced her to resign. In 1934 Edith Stein joined the Carmelite order and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Even though Edith Stein converted to Catholicism, the Nazis still considered her a Jew. She was no longer safe in Germany. Her superiors transferred her to the Netherlands for her protection. In 1942, the Dutch bishops wrote a letter condemning the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. In retaliation, the Nazis reversed their previous decision, and ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts to Catholicism. She and her sister, Rosa, who also joined the Carmelites, were sent to Auschwitz. She was put to death in the gas chamber on August 9, 1942.
Two things strike me about St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (she’ll always be St. Edith Stein to me.)
First, her great intellect led her to earnestly and without prejudice seek the Truth. So often people reject the Truth because it does not conform to their point of view. She was just the opposite. Her search led her to an unlikely place – Catholicism. So often the media portrays Christians as simpletons, blindly following the Church without thought. St. Edith Stein fully contradicts this false portrayal.
Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical, Fides et Ratio, On the relationship between Faith and Reason. Reason, thought, and intellect have a place in faith. In fact, faith must be reasonable or logic would completely defy it. He begins:
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).
The second thing that strikes me is that once she found Christ, she gave up everything to follow Him. She lived with an undivided mind and an undivided heart.
Let us pray to St. Teresa Benedicta invoking her intercession for the protection of Jewish people throughout the world and for all converts to the Faith, and actually for all of us, to live with undivided minds and hearts.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us! Anne
For more reading check out a Vatican article on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Terrific book for children (grade 4+) from the Encounter the Saints Series: St. Edith Stein
For you homeschooling moms out there, I found Elizabeth Foss’s Real Learning , an absolutely beautiful book at a time when I really needed it. She combines the philosophies of Charlotte Mason and St. Edith Stein in a moving, yet practical, way emphasizing the dignity of the human person and the child throughout. I highly recommend it.