Today we celebrate the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as St. Edith Stein.
In 1891 in what is now Poland, Edith Stein was born the youngest of 11 children. Edith’s father died when she was just 2 years old, and her mother was left to raise Edith and her siblings and to run the family’s timber business. Raised in the Jewish tradition, she abandoned her faith as a teenager and turned to intellectual pursuits.
A brilliant young woman, she studied philosophy and earned a doctorate by the age of 25. At Gottingen University, Edith studied under and became a teaching assistant to the famed philosopher of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, writing her dissertation on “The Problem of Empathy.” It was during this time period that she started to turn to Christ and Catholicism – her study of reason led her to faith.
One afternoon “… she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. ‘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.’ Towards the end of her dissertation she wrote: ‘There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God’s grace.’” (source)
In 1917, Edith went to visit the widow of a friend who had died in World War I in Flanders. Her friends had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. “It was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.” (source)
Later, she wrote: “Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that – from God’s point of view – there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.” (source)
Indeed, Edith could not have seen God’s plan for her.
While visiting another friend, a Protestant convert, she picked up St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and read the entire book that night. St. Teresa’s writings convicted Edith of the Truth of Catholicism, and Edith was baptized about six months later.
For the next 13 years she studied and wrote, translating the writings of Cardinal Newman and Thomas Aquinas, and writing her own original works. She also taught at and lectured at various Catholic schools and institutions. In 1934, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, she was given permission to fulfill her heart’s desire and enter the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Four years later on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, Jewish pogroms began in Germany, and it was no longer safe for Sister Teresa to remain in home country. Her prioress transferred Sister Teresa to a convent in Holland where, the prioress and her bishop believed Teresa would be safe. Unfortunately, this was not the case. When the Dutch bishops spoke out against the German government, the Nazis invaded the convent and arrested all Jewish converts including Edith Stein and her sister Rosa. On August 7, 1942, they, along with 985 other Jews, were deported to Auschwitz where two days later they faced their death.
Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was canonized by Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987.
Rooted in study of phenomenology, “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view” (source) much of Edith Stein’s writings focus on the dignity of the human person. I find it ironic that this woman of deep faith and deep understanding in the value of each human being should die in the epitome of inhumanity. Only God can understand such a thing.
So today, let us pray for all those who seek the Truth, for converts to Catholicism, and for our Jewish brothers and sisters, that God will enfold them in His protection and care.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us! Anne
PS: My first exposure to and understanding of the writings of St. Edith Stein came after a particularly challenging homeschooling year. During that summer, I knew I had to do something different to bring greater joy into our days. I read the book, Real Learning, by Elizabeth Foss. It transformed our homeschooling, and I cannot recommend this book enough. Foss combines the philosophies of Charlotte Mason and St. Edith Stein to encourage and direct homeschooling families to an easier way of learning and living. Pick up a copy! You won’t regret it!