The Early YearsEdith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, Yom Kippur, of Orthodox Jewish parents. A brilliant Jewish girl, but at age 14 she suddenly stopped praying and dropped out of school, angry because an anti-Semitic teacher consistently refused to put her at the head of the class even though the entire class thought she had earned it. However, eager for education, she received private tutoring and was admitted to the University of Breslau, one of the very first women admitted to full matriculation at a major university, where she majored in psychology.
The Philosophy Years
In the summer of 1913, when she was nearly 22 years old, Edith was an atheist on the surface but a Jew deep in her heart. This is fairly common among young Jews when their faith is presented to them simply as ethical idealism. They see it as a philosophy rather than a faith, and find it appropriate to probe its defects. Edith took a neutral position on God and refused all religious practice. Instead, she began to look for intellectual principles more deeply rooted in truth than those of Judaism.
Edith Stein did not find these higher principles in psychology, so she switched to the University of Göttingen to study philosophy under Edmund Husserl. His “phenomenology” sought to make philosophy a hard science by resolving the conflict between empiricism (observation) and rationalism (reason and theory). Phenomenology highlights the origin of all philosophical and scientific systems and theoretical constructs in the experiential life. Soon Edith became Husserl’s most gifted student; and when she had brilliantly completed her studies with a doctorate summa cum laude, he took her on as his assistant and collaborator.
The Old Damascus Road
Christ calls to us in ways that fill our needs. Phenomenology led Edith Stein into a state of Voraussetzungslosigkeit, total impartiality, without which she would have been incapable of opening herself to thinking of God in terms of objective analysis. She set out to understand what should be her relationship with God. She began to weigh the three alternatives within her environment: Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic.
She tried to return to the Judaism of her parents, especially by reading the Old Testament prophets. After deep exploration, Edith decided that Judaism did not fill the need in her heart. But she never tried to refute it, as some Jews who have become complete in Christ do. She was always respectful. Her exploration of Protestant religion fit in with her preference for Bach’s Christian music. More important, the Christian response to grief for the atrocities of World War I and the strength of Christian hope born of the Cross of Christ deeply impressed her.
Edith had tried to reach Christ on a rational level, but He reached her heart. She had become close to Adolf and Anna Reinach, both Jewish converts to the Evangelical Church. Adolf enlisted early in World War I and was killed in 1917. Edith went to his home to help Anna arrange his scholarly papers. She had also come to console Anna. Anna, however, was serene; her deep Christian faith led her to see the Cross in Adolf’s death. Anna’s deep faith made a deep impression on Edith, and prepared her for what was to come. Relating this experience many years later to Father Hirschaum,a Jesuit, Edith told him, “This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the divine strength it brings to those who bear it. I saw for the first time within my reach the Church, born of the Redeemer’s sufferings in his victory over the sting of death. It was at that moment that my incredulity was shattered and the light of Christ shone forth, Christ in the mystery of the Cross.” However, this was preparation. Many Jews who find Christ, myself included, experience something like what Saul of Tarsus experienced on the road to Damascus, which breaks our attachment to our old way of thinking and prepares us for the conversion itself.
During the next three or four years Edith, again like many Jews attracted to Christ, entered a period of intense reflection. She read numerous books on Catholic spirituality. One day she bought a book on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. She began by getting involved in the Exercises at a purely psychological level, but after a few pages she found this impossible. She ended up doing the Spiritual Exercises as an atheist thirsting for God. The Exercises were Christ’s preparation for what was to follow. That came in June 1921. she went to Bergzabern, to the home of a friend, Hedwig Konrad Martius, a regular meeting place of Husserl former students. Edith discovered in the library The Book of the Life, the autobiography of the great Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila, who originated the Carmelite Reform that restored and emphasized the austerity and contemplative character of primitive Carmelite life. Edith, astonishlingly, finished the entire book in a single night. Closing it, she exclaimed, “This is the truth! Her Damascus transformation was complete; all became light for her.
The Path to Carmel
Edith was baptised on January 1st 1922 and at once began to consider becoming a Carmelite nun. She had always sought the most complete path; Carmel seemed the only way to satisfy her desire for totality. Thirty years old, full of energy and enthusiasm, her faith became an integral part of her life.
Mt. Carmel is in some mysterious way associated with Jews who become Catholic. The prophet Elijah had spent most of his life on Mt. Carmel. Elijah, the rabbis taught, would return to herald the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus told us Mt 11:14 “[John the Baptist] is Elijah who is to come.” Rev. Elias Friedman, a Jew who became a Catholic priest and founded the Association of Hebrew Catholics, was a Carmelite friar. Edith Stein, when she was baptized, received a vocation to Carmel.
Twelve years passed, however, before she entered the Carmel of Cologne. During that time she taught at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster, gave lecture tours, studied, and above all matured interiorly. Here again, Christ’s ways are above ours. Edith may well have continued her brilliant academic career for the rest of her life, but the rising tide of anti-Semitic measures made it impossible for her to continue teaching. Edith became a Carmelite nun, taking the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her name, “of the Cross,” probably taken in honor of St. John of the Cross, was prophetic. The Germans discovered her Jewish origins. She was no longer safe behind monastery walls in Germany, so in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1939 she was taken to Holland, to the Carmel of Echt. It seemed tranquil, but Edith sensed that she would not escape the destiny of her people.
The Final Journey
On Sunday July 26, 1942, a protest by the Catholic Bishops of Holland against the Nazi deportation of Dutch Jews was read at every Mass in all churches. It said, “In this we are following the path indicated by our Holy Father, the Pope.” Gestapo General-Commissar Schmidt announced, “We are compelled to regard the Catholic Jews as our worst enemies and consequently see to their deportation to the East with all possible speed.” One week later, the Gestapo arrested, deported, and sent to Auschwitz all Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin. At the Carmel of Echt, while she was writing her book on the doctrine of St John of the Cross, titled The Science of the Cross, two officials of the German occupation forces came to the monastery. She had to go with them, together with her sister Rose, also a convert, who had joined her in Echt. Edith and Rose Stein were deported to Auschwitz. On August 9th, 1942, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in a white house filled with Zyklon-B gas, went to heaven.
Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on May 1, 1987 and canonized her on Oct. 11, 1998.
St. Teresa Benedicta, pray for us!