Edith Stein was canonised on October 11th 1998. She was a Jew who studied philosophy and then became an atheist, but through the example of the deep faith of a Protestant widow and her own reading of St Teresa of Avila, she became a Carmelite nun. At Auschwitz she was put to death. Desmond O’Grady tells her story.
Edith Stein set out on a journey or truth but found that truth involved the Cross. The controversy aroused by her canonisition last October tends to obscure her spiritual itinerary.
Some Jews objected to John Paul II canonising her as a martyr who had been murdered at Auschwitz because of her Jewish blood. They saw it as a Catholic attempt to appropriate the Holocaust. They did not recognise that a Jew could convert to Christianity without betraying their Jewish heritage.
However, John Paul II made it clear that the canonisation was intended to honour Edith Stein both as a Christian and as a Jew, and during the ceremony tribute was paid to all the victims of the Holocaust.
At God’s hand
Edith Stein’s writings clarify her itinerary in which she never renounced her Jewishness. In her own words, her spiritual development consisted in learning to live ‘at God’s hand’, to ‘lay all one’s
cares and hopes in God’s hand, no longer to care about one’s self and one’s future. Thereupon rest
the freedom and joyfulness of the child of God.’
A single prayer
Born into a pious Jewish family in Breslau, which was then part of Prussia, on 12 October 1891 she turned her back on her religious heritage at the age. of fourteen:. ‘I decided. to get out of the habit of praying, I gave little thought to my future, but continued to live with the conviction that I was destined for somethin big.’ She became an atheist but later wrote, ‘my search for truth was all a single prayer.’
Studying philosophy at Gottingen she met Max Scheler who had recently returned to the Catholic Church. (Scheler’s philosophy was to influence Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II). Edith wrote that through Scheler ‘the world of faith unfolded before me.’ It made her more open to Christianity but this was not her main concern.
Nevertheless, she was struck by an incident when she went to Freiburg with some friends and entered the cathedral. They saw a woman with a shopping bag enter and pray for a moment.
‘For me,’ wrote Edith, ‘it was a completely new experience. People went to the synagogues or Protestant churches I had visited only for divine service. Here, however, people came to an empty church during their workaday activities as if for an intimate talk. I have never forgotten it.’
A widow’s faith
She was further influenced by the attitude of the widow of a philosopher-friend after his death. The widow, a Protestant, rose above despair because of her deep faith. ‘This was my first encounter with the Cross and with the divine power which it gives to those who carry it,’ Edith recounted later.
‘For the first time I saw the Church, which had been born of the redeeming sufferings of Christ, in her triumph over the sting of death; that victory was palpably before me. That was the moment in which my unbelief collapsed. Judaism waned, the Christ blazed forth: Christ in the mystery of the Cross.’
Given that the illumination came to Edith through the example of a Protestant, there is an ecumenical message in her path to sainthood.
Edith’s third decisive encounter was with St Teresa of Avila. She could not put down St Teresa’s Life which she read in one night. She closed it with the conviction that it was the truth, not the truth reached at the end of an argument but the truth of the Cross, of sharing with Christ. She asked for baptism, which. took place on January 1, 1922. She had come a long way but her journey was not finished.
In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, she wrote, ‘I spoke to the Saviour and told him that I knew it was his own Cross which was now being laid upon the Jewish people. Most of them did not understand this; however, those who did understand were obliged to take it upon themselves willingly in the name of all. This I was willing to do. He need only show me how I could do so… what the carrying of the Cross would entail was not yet known to me.’
Enters the Carmelites
She had left her university lectureship in philosophy to become a Carmelite which was a blow for her 84 year old mother. She took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
After the Nazis expressed their irrational hatred against the Jews with destruction and looting on Kristallknacht, the Night of the Broken Crystal, November 9, 1938, she transferred from her German Carmelite convent to another in Echt, Holland.
In 1940 the German army occupied Holland. Edith and her sister, Rosa, who had joined her at the convent and worked as a porteress, were forced as Jews to wear the yellow star.
Edith was writing a book on the famous Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross but commented that a true knowledge of the Cross can only be acquired when one felt its weight on one’s own shoulders. She was convinced that she had to give her life for her people.
For our people
On August 2, 1942, two SS officers appeared at the convent, to take away the Stein sisters. Come, said Edith to Rosa, taking he hand, ‘we will go for our people.’
They were taken to a staging camp at Westerbrook. A Jew who escaped has left a description of Edith in the camp. She had been incompetent at household tasks but in the camp she did even these and in a spirit which showed her profound union with Christ.
‘Sister Benedicta went around to all the women, consoling, helping, calming them like an angel. Many mothers, nearly frenzied, had neglected their children for days; they brooded in dull despair, paying no attention to their surroundings. Sister Benedicta at once took charge of the !ittle ones, washed and. combed them, and saw that they got food and care. As long as she was there she kept busywashing and cleaning and bringing about a lot of loving activity so that everyone was astounded.’
In a letter written at this time she talks of ‘being able to pray gloriously’ and said that Christ gave her deep peace even in the face of death.
Return to the East
Later the prisoners were crowded into cattle trucks and transported to Auschwitz. Edith managed to get a message to other Carmelites that ‘we are heading east’.
The East (Breslau, which is now in Poland) was where she had begun her journey, which involved a spell as an atheist and a constant search for the truth.
Even when she reached Auschwitz two days after her last message, her journey was not finished, as was shown by her canonisation in sunny St Peter’s Square last October 11th.
Presiding over the ceremony was John Paul II and this was especially fitting because his intellectual searching and life experience had brought him particularly close to Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 1999), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.