The month of August features many wonderful saints whom are celebrated on the liturgical calendar. I think St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who is honored on August 9th, is one of the most powerful, compelling saints of our time. She is a beautiful testimony to the reality of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ to us moderns who can be so skeptical of the truth and fearful of giving our lives over to He who is Truth. As such, I would like to share her story.
‘If I Forget You, Jerusalem, Let My Right Hand Wither’: Judaism, Atheism, Searching for Truth
Edith Stein was born in 1891 in Breslau, Germany, which is in modern day Poland, the youngest of seven children, into an Orthodox Jewish family. Her family was exceedingly faithful in prayer, synagogue attendance, and living the Jewish faith of their ancestors. However, by age 13, she abandoned her Jewish faith and proclaimed to everyone that she was an atheist. She had been educated by people who subscribed to rationalism: the belief that only that which can be scientifically observed can be proven. She concluded that Judaism could not be proven, therefore, she must reject it.
As a teenager, it became evident that she was tremendously bright. She was already very interested in politics, in particular calling for women to have the right to vote. At age 14, she dropped out of school because an anti-Semitic teacher didn’t give her a deserved top ranking. She completed her studies with private tutoring and entered the University of Breslau at age 20, one of the first women admitted to a major university in Germany. She eventually transferred to the University of Gottingen, Germany to study a new approach in philosophy, called ‘phenomenology’ which attempted to elevate the study of psychology by integrating observation, theory, and human reason.
She studied under the man who had developed this new approach of ‘phenomenology’, Edmund Husserl, and became his number one protégé and eventually collaborator. She sought out phenomenology because she wanted to discover a way to think deeply rooted in truth, and felt that this approach, which emphasized observing everything without prejudice or emotional blinders, would be the best way to discover truth. Later in life she would write that she was seeking truth, and that when anyone seeks truth they are seeking after God, whether they are aware of it or not.
‘In The Fullness of Time’: Discovering the Truth of Jesus Christ
She eventually finished her doctorate at the University of Freiburg with highest honors at age 25. That puts her right in the middle of the tumultuous years of World War I. At that time she was already beginning to explore Judaism, Protestantism, and Catholicism. In fact, a number of her Jewish friends had already become Christians, mostly Lutheran. In 1917 (age 26) she went to visit one of her close Jewish Christian friends, who had just lost her husband in the war, to offer her condolences. To her amazement, the woman was not overcome with sorrow but possessed a calmness that she could not grasp. Later she would write, ‘It was then that I first encountered the Cross and the divine strength which it inspires in those who bear it.’
That event shattered her atheism, and even her original Judaism was overshadowed by the mystery of Christ’s redemptive suffering and victory over death. The next few years were a time of both hesitation and intense exploration for something that would fill her heart as well as satisfy her mind. She began to read the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, initially simply as a psychologist but over time she began to truly pray them as someone thirsting for God.
One evening she was visiting some friends and discovered the autobiography of the great Carmelite mystic from the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila, The Life. She read the whole thing in one night and joyfully realized: ‘That is the truth I’ve been searching for!’ The next morning she bought a Catholic catechism and a missal for Mass and very soon went to Mass for the first time. After Mass she asked the priest to baptize her. He asked her where she had received her instruction in order to be qualified to be baptized and she simply smiled and told him he could question her about her understanding of the faith. She was baptized six months later at age 30, which left her mother, whom she had grown closer to over the years, devastated.
Authentic Womanhood: Lived & Taught by Edith Stein
By this time she was an extremely well-renowned philosopher and writer but decided to take a teaching position at a Dominican school in Speyer, Germany. She was a pretty tough teacher but at the same time helpful to her students in their studies as well as their personal lives, especially reaching out to girls who were lonely or homesick. She also helped the poor of Speyer, very much under the radar.
She wrote about women both as professionals in society and as persons having dignity equal in God’s eyes to men, focusing on the ethics of the female professions and on the supernatural vocation of women. She also trained Dominican nuns preparing to be teachers. She thoroughly immersed herself in the study of Catholic philosophy, and her translations and commentaries led to public lectures, so she continued to maintain a rather high profile.
‘Open Wide the Portals of My Heart’: Edith Stein’s Call to Religious Life
Soon after her baptism, she had felt called to be a Carmelite nun, but since she was so well-known and had such great influence her spiritual directors persuaded her to postpone entering the convent since she was doing such a great deal of good in her teaching. Furthermore, they also knew that would absolutely crush her mother. In those years of teaching, writing, lecturing, etc. she still deepened her life of prayer by reading Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and immersing herself in the liturgical life of the Church.
At age 41, she was appointed lecturer at the Institute of Scientific Pedagogy at Munster, Germany. A year or two later in 1933, the Nazi regime forced her to resign and she was no longer permitted to lecture publicly. Now was the time, her spiritual director said, for her to enter the Carmelite order, which she then did in Cologne, Germany later that year. She had had opportunities to flee to London or South America, but she chose instead the extremely probable path of suffering and very consciously chose to offer her life both for her fellow Jews and their persecutors.
Her mother, age 84 at the time, was completely wrecked by her decision to enter the Carmelites, especially since she knew she would never see her daughter again, since Carmelite convents are cloistered. Her mother ended up dying three years later, having responded to Edith’s letters only after a silence of two years. When she entered the Carmelites she took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
She had never really cooked, sewed, or done much housework and the like before entering the convent but saw all these things that make up much of convent life as a great school of humility that she needed to counteract the countless honors she had received. She was very cheerful and full of laughter in the convent but living the simple life of the community was a great sacrifice since she was now well into her 40s and had to learn the radical obedience and self-denial that comes in living the religious life.
Her superiors did allow her to continue to write (mostly booklets and pamphlets), but also completing two books, one of which was her most famous work, Finite and Eternal Being. Her writings influenced several friends and former students to become Catholic or enter religious life. Her sister Rosa, who had believed the Catholic faith for years, was herself baptized soon after their mother died.
‘Can You Drink the Cup of Suffering I Must Drink?’: Edith Stein’s Sacrifice of Love
The Nazi regime became even stronger in the next few years, so in 1938 the Carmelites secretly sent Teresa from Cologne to a convent in the Netherlands. They sent her away because they feared for her life but she herself knew she needed to leave because her religious sisters would be in danger if they were discovered to be sheltering her as a Jew. While in the Netherlands, she gave spiritual direction to novices (those women who were initially discerning the community) and worked on her final book, The Science of the Cross.
Two years later, her sister Rosa came to live at the convent, but outside the cloister, as the doorkeeper. She wanted to become a Carmelite as well but the Nazis invaded and took over the Netherlands in 1940, which prevented her entering the community. The Nazis began to harass Dutch Jews, much to the protests of all the Christian churches, and subsequently threatened to round up Jewish converts to Christianity. Teresa’s superiors realized the imminent danger she was in and tried to send her to a convent in Switzerland. However, that convent could not also take Rosa, so Teresa asked to stay until a way could be found to house both of them. As it was, neither of them could leave without permits from the government anyway.
Then on July 1, 1942 the Nazis issued a decree stating that all Catholic children of Jewish descent were forbidden Catholic education, which essentially meant they were forbidden education since no other schools were open to them at all. The Archbishop of Utrecht protested, also condemning the deportation of Jews from Holland. In response to his protest the Nazis arrested all priests and members of Dutch religious orders of Jewish descent, including Teresa and Rosa. As the Nazis came for them, Teresa said to her sister, ‘Come, let us go for the sake of our people.’
They were taken away to a Dutch transit camp for a few days, where Teresa prayed, consoled other people, and cared for the children of distraught and terrified mothers, in all of this spreading peace to everyone she encountered. She and Rosa were eventually transported across Germany with hundreds of other people over a four-day period finally arriving at the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland. They endured the horrible conditions of the cattle cars: hot, crowded, no place to go to bathroom, reeking of those who had died during the ordeal, with many others going insane.
When they finally arrived at Auschwitz, the sisters, as well as many others, were forced to remove all of their clothes, given soap and towels and told to walk the long distance to the ‘showers’ to be ‘disinfected.’ The showers were in fact death chambers where the Nazis infused poisonous gas. Teresa and her sister Rosa died together, naked before the world but clothed in glory before God.
‘I Am the Resurrection and the Life’: The Fullness of Truth
Edith Stein relentlessly pursued the truth and in doing so discovered that the God of the universe is the One who has gone to the Cross in the act of Perfect Love. She received that deep love of God in the depths of her soul every time she received the Eucharist and she then lived that Cross-like Eucharistic love profoundly, still caring for others while she was going to her death. And she offered up her body and blood as a sacrifice of love for God and her people, being a sign to the world that she and all of us are made for more and that through the Cross of Christ every evil has been defeated and the Love of God conquers all.
You too, are called to find your meaning, purpose, happiness in Christ, who comes ever so close to you in the Eucharist. And then you, too, are called to live a life of cruciform love, pouring out your self for God and others in love, and in doing so finding your true self and lasting happiness.
Director of Evangelization and Catechesis