One of the worst times and places to be born in the history of the world was Europe around 1900. People of that generation lived through two terrible world wars and a crippling depression. Edith Stein was born in 1891 in Germany, and was Jewish, so her life was destined to be seared by suffering.
She was the youngest of seven surviving children in a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, which is now in Poland. Her father died when she was an infant, but her mother took over his lumber business and was even more successful than he was, so the family was middle class and all of the children were well educated. Auguste was an observant Jew, and raised the children in her religion. She was particularly attached to Edith, her youngest. However, most of them became secularized when they got older. When Edith was 15, she decided she did not believe in God and stopped praying. At the same time she dropped out of school. She was always a competitive and brilliant student, and so this was quite a surprise. Perhaps she was bored with the things was studying. Her decision to stop praying probably had to do with her integrity. She always wanted a unity between her heart and her mind and would never be satisfied with outwards forms of religion without inward transformation.
Her mother allowed her to quit school because she knew she was a unique child and she trusted her decision. Edith went and stayed with a married sister. After she took care of her children for six months and realized she would never be satisfied with a life that was only domestic so she went back to school and prepared for university, where she studied psychology before she switched to philosophy. Later she said, “My longing for truth was one single prayer”
She became a student of Edmund Husserl, who was the founder of phenomenology. Many of the students in her classes were Jewish, and several of them became Christian as a result of their study of philosophy. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on empathy.
When World War I started, she dropped out of university in order to become a nurse, and spent about six months working in a hospital for infectious diseases that was near the front. When the hospital closed, she went back to university.
One of the professors on the philosophy faculty who had mentored her, Adolph Reinach, was killed in the war in 1917. She was impressed by the response of his wife, Hedwig, a committed Christian who was suffering but at peace.
Later she wrote: “It was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time, I was seeing with my very eyes the Church, born from the Redeemer’s sufferings, triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth, in the mystery of the Cross.”
The key to Edith Stein’s life was her passion. It’s hard for Jews to understand why she became a Christian, and some even suggest that she thought her life would be easier. But that had nothing to do with it. She became a Christian because she fell in love.
In the summer of 1921, she stayed with a friend who had a copy of St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. Edith stayed up all night reading it, and when she finished she said, “This is true.” What she realized was true was Teresa’s experience of God working in her life and the way that it changed her and directed her life. Edith must have recognized it because she had the same experience. She knew she was loved, and like Teresa she wanted to respond to love with love. The only way to respond to the Absolute is absolutely.
She was baptized within a year of that encounter with St. Teresa.
Her best friend, another philosopher named Hedwig Conrad Martius, said Edith was in love with Hans Lipp, another student in their group. She would have married him if he wanted, but he didn’t. She kept a picture of him on her desk until Hedwig said that it didn’t seem right for someone who wanted to dedicate herself totally to God to have a picture of someone who didn’t want to marry you on her desk. Then it disappeared. Hedwig thought that Edith’s profound disappointment in this relationship contributed to her conversion and baptism.
I think it did, but not in the simplistic sense that she discovered Christ on the rebound. Falling in love awakens desire, and through that experience she learned, as all of us do, whether we marry or not, that a human being can never fulfill the deepest longings of our heart. We have to keep looking for something more.
She wanted to enter Carmel, but she thought that would be too big a blow for her mother, who was already suffering because she had been baptized. Also, her spiritual director thought she should use her academic talent to serve the church in a way she would not be able to do in a cloister.
After she got her doctorate, she wanted to teach in a university, but she found that there were no jobs for a Jewish woman. She taught at a Catholic secondary school and lived with a group of Dominican nuns, praying with them and essentially living their schedule.
Her students commented on how reserved she was. One said, “For me she was an eminent and outstanding personality, strict in our working relations, but kind, lovable, and helpful in her relationship with us. It was admirable how straight she went her way, and yet she was so mysterious in her general bearing.”
That word ‘reserved’ describes her well, because there was something she was holding back. There was tremendous passion underneath her calm exterior. Everyone described her as small, simple and modest, but there was something charismatic about her. She was the center of the circle of philosophy students who were studying together under Husserl. Her nieces and nephews said that at family gatherings she would help them put on skits an performances. She did a lot of public speaking to Catholic groups in German-speaking countries, particularly on the role of women. In 1930 she was invited to attend a meeting of philosophers in France that included Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. She was the only German who spoke fluent French, and one of the participants later wrote that she dominated the discussion.
In 1933, she was visiting a couple who did not realize she was Jewish and told her about all the terrible things they had heard were happening to Jews. She wrote,
“True, I had heard of rigorous measures against the Jews before. But now a light dawned in my brain that once again God had put a heavy hand upon his people and that the fate of this people would also be mine. I did not allow the man who sat opposite to me to notice what was going on inside me. Apparently he did not know about my Jewish descent. In similar cases I would usually enlighten the others immediately. This time I did not do it–it would have seemed like a breach of hospitality.”
In 1932 she had a chance to go to South America to teach, which would have taken her out reach of the Nazis. She decided not to go because she did not want to abandon her mother. In 1933, it was apparent she would not be able to continue teaching because of the measures being taken against the Jews in Germany. She decided to enter Carmel, but did not feel any joy because her mother was so devastated. She knew it was the right thing to do, but
She wrote in a letter to her friend Hedwig: “I have been wanting to write to you to beg you for prayers for my dear mother. . .now she is very depressed most of the time. She refuses visitors except from her nearest relatives, and she is constantly brooding, wondering why her youngest has “forsaken” her. What I tried so often to tell her, she refused to hear. As it is, when I write I must take care to be completely “harmless.” And one longs so much to give her a little light on her journey. I can only pray that the Lord himself will enlighten her.“
In Carmel, her passion culminated in her love for Christ and the Cross. A Benedictine monk who knew her when she was teaching at Speyer visited her after she entered the Carmel and said had attained an even higher relationship of her heart and her mind. She had been engaged in a great struggle of the mind, now she was simply living out the truth that she had discovered.
She took the name Teresa Benedicta “of the Cross” “By the cross I understood the destiny of God’s people which, even at that time, began to announce itself. I thought that those who recognized it as the cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all. Certainly, today I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross. Of course, one can never comprehend it, for it is a mystery.”
As the Nazis grew stronger and more destructive, she became more determined to offer her life for the Jewish people and for the world. She wrote a letter to her prioress asking to make a formal commitment of her life.
“Dear Mother, will you please allow me to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace, that the dominion of the Antichrist may collapse, if possible, without a new world war, and that a new order may be established. I know that I am nothing, but Jesus desires it, and surely he will call many others to do likewise these days.”
In spite of the dark clouds that shadowed her life, she was never morose. The nuns she lived with remembered her humor and laughter. She wrote: ‘Because being one with Christ is our sanctity, becoming one with him our happiness on earth, the love of the Cross in no way contradicts being a joyful child of God. Helping Christ carry his cross fills one with a strong and pure joy.’
After Krystallnacht, the night of Nov. 10, 1938 when the Nazis incited violence against the Jews in Germany and arrested thousands of them, the nuns knew it was not save for Sr. Teresa Benedicta to stay in Germany. She made a dramatic escape in the middle of the night and was driven to a Carmel in Echt, in the Netherlands. However, the Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and her life was in danger again. In 1941, she wrote to her superior, “Now I would like to do nothing more at all about the matter of my stability. I put it in your hands. I am satisfied with everything. A knowledge of the cross can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically. I have been convinced of that from the first moment and have said, from my heart, “Ave, Crux, spes unica.” (Hail Cross our only hope.)
In July of 1942, the Dutch bishops issued a pastoral letter condemning the Nazis for racism. In retaliation, they rounded up all baptized Jews and took them to concentration camps. Edith and her sister Rosa, who was an extern sister at the Carmel in Echt, were both arrested. When the police came, Edith said, “Come Rosa, we go for our people.”
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is honored by the Church as a martyr. Her martyrdom consisted in accepting death, in choosing not to run away, either physically or psychologically. A Dutch official at Westerbork, a camp the group stopped at on the way to Auschwitz, was so impressed by her sense of faith and calm,[ he offered her an escape plan. She vehemently refused his assistance, stating, “If somebody intervened at this point and took away her chance to share in the fate of her brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation.” And by doing this, she made her death an offering of her love for her people and for her Christ. So it was a fitting end to her life–her desire had become perfectly purified.