St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Born: October 12, 1891 in Kohlenstrasse, Germany
Martyred: August 9, 1942 in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
Feast Day: August 9
Patronage: One of the 6 patron saints of Europe, also patron against the death of parents
“This is the truth.” These words were all that Edith Stein could say in response to spending an entire night reading the life of St. Teresa of Avila. They were, in her own way, a response to the question that Pontius Pilate made to Christ: “Quid est Veritas?” Though the Lord offered no reply, countless saints throughout the centuries have answered this question.
What Edith discovered in the life and mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila was a radical encounter with Christ who desired at the Last Supper that His apostles and that all peoples “be sanctified in the truth” (Jn 17:17). It is only being united to Christ and His mystical body, the Church, that truth is fully encountered, not as an abstract idea or intellectual concept, but as a transformative encounter with the God from whom all things come and to whom all things shall return.
For so much of her life, Edith had sought truth through her own devices and in her own intellectual prowess. Born to a Jewish family at the end of the 19th century, a time in which many such families were emancipated from the European ghettos and entered various facets of society, the melancholic and brilliant Edith Stein was able to take advantage of her people’s new-found liberty to pursue that truth for which she hungered. Despite her mother’s devout faith, Edith was an avowed atheist as a teenager and sought worldly knowledge in her quest for truth.
With women being more and more accepted into universities at the turn of the 20th century, Edith enrolled into the University of Breslau as a student of psychology and philosophy. It was there that she met the renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl and his philosophical school known as Phenomenology and, soon after, became his personal secretary and star student.
It was there in her pursuit of truth – in the rigours of academia that so often shun the intimate relationship between the truth of faith in God with the truth of human reason – that Edith met the Lord, most profoundly and much to her surprise but eventual delight, in the mystery of His Cross.
Her encounter with the life of St. Teresa of Avila combined with her newly discovered love for the Catholic Church (her friends recalled how she would go to Mass with them and stare attentively at the priest, praying along with him as she had mastered Latin and did not require the use of a German/Latin missal) led Edith to realize that her vocation did not lie in marriage or the university but united to Christ as His virginal bride among the Discalced Carmelites.
Considerably older and less accustomed to the mortified life of the Sisters of Carmel, Edith was cautiously admitted into the monastery after much opposition from her family who accused her of joining Carmel to escape the rising Nazi persecutions. Yet Edith never saw Carmel as a place of refugee, rather it was the beginning of her encounter with the Cross: “I spoke to our Saviour and told Him that I knew it was His Cross which was now being laid on the Jewish people. Most of them did not understand it, but those who did understand must accept it willingly in the name of all.”[i] Fittingly, Edith choose as her religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and, as her vocation as a Carmelite nun matured, it became more and more evident that the Cross, or what Sr. Teresa called “the science of the Cross” would be foremost in her identification with Christ as a woman called to enter into His suffering for the salvation of others….
After the “Kristallnacht” or the Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938 erupted across Germany (in which synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses destroyed and deportations to undisclosed “work” camps began), Sr. Teresa could no longer remain in Our Lady Queen of Peace Carmel in Cologne and was moved to the Carmel of Echt, Holland. It was here that she was given permission to write on philosophical and theological topics. But more than ever, her whole being was drawn to the Cross and her participation in it for she knew with deeper clarity that “the bridal union of the soul with God for which it is created is purchased through the cross, perfected with the cross, and sealed for all eternity with the cross.”[ii]
On August 9th, 1942, Edith encountered the Cross for the final time. In response to the Dutch Bishops’ denunciation of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination of the Jewish people, Hitler ordered the final solution of Dutch Jewry including Dutch Catholics of Jewish descent, resulting in almost 80% of their people being murdered. Among them were Sr. Teresa and her biological sister Rosa. As they were being taken from the Echt Carmel, Sr. Teresa was heard telling Rosa “Come, let us go for our people.”
It was in the death camp of Auschwitz that Edith gave her life for Christ and her people. Her death was not in vain; she was not just another victim of the Nazi killing menace. She believed with all her heart that those who believe in Christ, who find Him to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, can encounter the darkest evil and still proclaim “Ave Crux, Spes Unica”! Hail the Cross, our one hope! She dared to believe that death does not have the final say – salvation awaits those washed clean in the blood of the lamb!
Why do I love St. Edith Stein so much? I never had a biological sister and Edith was the first woman I ever encountered that I could affectionately call my sister in Christ. Her courage to follow the Lord in the midst of misunderstanding from her family, her unwillingness to be silent in the midst of the persecution of her people, her humility to forgo a promising academic career to live the hidden and forgotten life of a Carmelite nun, her brilliance that shone through her many theological, philosophical and mystical works, and above all her all-consuming love for Christ and desire to embrace the Cross to the bitter end have made her among the most inspirational women in my life.
I love her very much and know that she loves me. I know that she prays for me to be a holy priest, to die everyday to my sins and self-love, and to join her in heaven. She would probably kick my butt if she were alive today as she watches me go about my priestly ministry with so many faults. Nonetheless, I trust in her sisterly intercession at all times.
As a final tribute to her, I would like to share a poem she wrote about a conversation she had with Queen Esther that so beautifully tells the story of our Salvation in the Cross of Jesus Christ after His descent into hell:
Like all who faithfully have served the Lord
As their ancestors did, we have waited there in peace,
Still far from the light, so always in longing.
But there came a day when, through all of creation,
There occurred a fissure. All the elements seemed
To be in revolt, night enveloped the world at noon.
But in the midst of the night there stood
as if illuminated by lightning, a barren mountain
and on the mountain a cross on which someone hung
Bleeding from a thousand wounds; a thirst came over us
To drink ourselves well from this fountain of wounds.
The cross vanished into night, yet our night
Was suddenly penetrated by a new light,
Of which we had never had any idea: a sweet, blessed light.
It streamed from the wounds of that man
Who had just died on the cross, now he stood in our midst.
He himself was the light,
The eternal light, that we had longed for from of old,
The Father’s reflection and the salvation of the people.
He spread his arms wide and spoke
With a voice full of heavenly timbre:
Come to me all you have faithfully served
The Father and lived in hope
Of the redeemer; see he is with you,
He fetches you home to his Father’s kingdom.
What happened then, there are no words to describe.
All of us who had awaited blessedness,
We were now at our goal-in the heart of Jesus.[iii]
– Fr. Nathan Siray
[i] Freda Mary Oben, Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint (New York: Alba House, 1988), 26-27.
[ii] Edith Stein. The Science of the Cross: A Study of St. John of the Cross (Chicago: Regnery Co., 1960), 241.
[iii] Edith Stein. The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts (Washington DC: ICS Publishers, 1992), 131-132.