Sunday, August 9, 2015

St. Edith Stein

Today is the feast day of St. Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, was a Carmelite nun who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. She is remembered for her intellectualism as well as for her unwavering faith and dedication to her fellow human beings, particularly in her last horrific days. Edith was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 11, 1998.

Right before her canonization, I was privileged to write about Edith Stein and the miracle that confirmed her sainthood for the now defunct magazine Catholic Heritage. In honor of today's feast, I'm reprinting the article I wrote back then. Never having heard of Edith Stein when I started the assignment, I soon became awestruck and inspired by this brilliant woman who viewed her martyrdom as the fulfillment of her Jewish heritage.

Read on after the prayer if you'd like to learn more about the life of this amazing woman who is now our intercessor in Heaven.

Saint Edith Stein, holy martyr, philosopher of the truth, defender of the human person against the evils of this age, enlighten our minds, illumine our hearts, fill our lives with the passion of your love for the Cross. Amen.




Melaine Ryther

(originally published in Catholic Heritage, Sept. 1998)

“Come Rosa, we go for our people.” Gently leading her sister to the waiting S.S. police car, Edith Stein headed toward Golgotha. It was a journey that had been heralded fifty years prior by a chillingly prophetic event—her birth into the world on the solemn Jewish holiday, the Day of Atonement.

Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany. The youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish household, she consistently impressed the adults around her with her razor-sharp intellect. Her father died when she was two, leaving the family’s lumber business to his widow. Although the young girl bore many of her mother’s positive traits, piety was not one of them. In fact, from the ages of 13 to 22, Edith could muster no faith in God at all.

While her ancestors found truth in the synagogue, Edith resolved to find it in the intellectual arena. She entered the University of Breslau in 1911 and began studying psychology. But she quickly became disappointed with that discipline’s inability to address deeper aspects of human existence, such as the concept of the soul.

Her search for a better method of analysis led her to philosophy, and in particular to German philosopher Edmund Husserl. After reading his ground-breaking book, Logical Investigations, Edith felt compelled to study under him directly. In 1913, she transferred to the University of Göttingen, where she became one of Husserl’s closest disciples.

With inexhaustible energy, Edith absorbed every experience she could at Göttingen. Consequently, she was not unaffected by the movement toward Christianity among many of Husserl’s followers. One recent convert was Jewish-born Max Scheler, whose Catholicism-laced lectures forced Edith to acknowledge the idea of transcedent realities. Her friendship with Lutheran scholar Adolf Reinach also challenged the young atheist’s perceptions. Reinach and his wife, Anna, extended a love toward Edith that up to that time she had only known--or expected—-from her family. The impression never left her.

The young scholar sensed a transformation happening within her. For one thing, she could no longer deny the possibility of God. But other projects—her upcoming dissertation and a tour of duty as a hospital volunteer-- kept her from pursuing the issue of faith at greater lengths.

Then, at the end of 1917, an event occurred that changed the direction of Edith’s life. Adolf Reinach was killed in battle. Expecting a bitter, grieving widow when she visited Anna, Edith found instead a woman filled with peace and hope. “That," Stein later wrote, "was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth—in the mystery of the Cross.”

Total conversion, however, still eluded her. Edith had responded to the call to faith with an intellectual eagerness, searching with her scholar’s mind for the answers to her religious questions. As she would eventually discover, her intellect alone was not enough to grasp the truths of faith.

Edith’s search ended in the summer of 1921. Needing something to read one night while staying with friends, she picked out the autobiography of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). She spent the entire night reading it, and by morning knew she had found the truth. Teresa showed through her life experiences that God does not reveal Himself to deductive reasoning, but to the heart that surrenders itself to His love.

Edith was baptized into the Church on New Year’s Day, 1922. Taking “Teresa” as her baptismal name, she knew from that moment on she would follow the Spanish mystic into the Carmelite Order. But not just yet. Edith’s mother had wept at the news of her daughter’s conversion. Announcing that she was going to become a nun would have devastated the older woman.

In the zeal that followed her baptism, Edith renounced her plans for a scholarly career and spent the next eight years teaching German at a convent school in Speyer. At the suggestion of a colleague, Edith undertook the formidable task of translating Thomas Aquinas’s writings when her teaching duties allowed. Her immersion in Aquinas not only gave her a much stronger doctrinal foundation to her faith, but also renewed her commitment to philosophy. St. Thomas, she wrote, demonstrated that “God can be served through scholarship.”

By 1927 Edith’s papers and essays had attracted the attention of several professional women’s organizations, and at their request she embarked on a series of lecture tours. Her views on women and vocations made her a champion of the German women’s movement. But her central theme remained one that extended beyond national borders. By maturing in the Christian life, Edith argued, women could become the source of healing in the world. (In 1988, Pope John Paul II reflected Edith’s pioneering work in his apostolic letter, “The Dignity and Vocation of Women.”)

In March 1931, she accepted a professorship at the Educational Institute in Münster. Alarmed by the growing anti-Jewish sentiment on campus and by Hitler’s increasing popularity, Edith requested an audience with Pope Pius XI in the spring of 1933. She believed that no less than a papal encyclical could resist the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, bureaucratic mismanagement caused her request to be denied.

More bad news soon followed. School officials informed Edith she would have to leave due to mounting racial tensions. They offered her a position in South America, but she declined. God’s providence, Edith decided, had shown itself.

In October 1933, Edith Stein entered the Carmel community at Cologne. She took as her religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in honor of her spiritual patrons and in reverence to the devotion she maintained for the Passion of Christ. By this time she had no doubt that the Cross the Third Reich was laying upon the Jewish people was hers to carry. The only uncertainty was how.

Edith spent five years in Cologne before increasingly aggressive Nazi forces made it dangerous for the Jewish Carmelite to stay longer. In 1938 the nuns arranged for Edith to transfer secretly to the Carmel convent in Echt, Holland. Her sister Rosa, who had converted after their mother’s death, joined her there as a Third Order Carmelite.

Seeing that political conditions were only getting worse, Edith asked permission of the Echt prioress to make three spiritual acts of self-oblation: one on behalf of the Jewish people, one for peace in the world, and one for the sanctification of the Carmelite order. Permission was granted.

On August 2, 1942, in response to the Dutch bishops’ stinging rebuke of Nazi atrocities, the Gestapo arrested all Jewish Catholics in Holland. The Stein sisters were given five minutes to pack. The prisoners were taken to Westerbork, a detention camp in northern Holland. A week later, they were herded onto another train and deported to “the east,” the common name for Auschwitz.

While there were no known witnesses to Edith’s final days in Auschwitz, those who spoke to her in Westerbork recalled a calm, quiet woman who busied herself comforting and caring for others. Though she wore suffering on her face, it was not her own, but that of those around her, reminding at least one survivor of “a Pieta without the Christ.”

On August 9, 1942, Edith Stein’s offering of herself for her people--Jewish, German, Carmelite--was made complete. She was fifty years old on her day of atonement.



Witnesses to Edith Stein’s last days in the Westerbork detention camp recall how she cared for the children there, feeding and washing them, and providing a mother’s comfort when their own mothers—because of sickness, depression, or insanity—were not available. Forty-five years later, Edith Stein took care of yet another, very special, little girl.

Two-year-old Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, named in honor of the woman her parents so admired, was not expected to survive an overdose of Tylenol in 1987. Even if she lived, her doctors predicted that her liver and kidneys would be irreversibly damaged.

For four days the little girl hovered near death in a Boston hospital while her parents prayed to Edith Stein for a miracle. Suddenly and inexplicably, Teresa made a full recovery. Her doctors had no explanation for it then, or later in testimony before a Vatican commission. Nor could they explain why she never needed the liver transplant she was on a waiting list for.

Teresa Benedicta McCarthy was born in 1984 on August 8th—August 9th Auschwitz time.

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1 comment:

  1. What an amazing story. You have a marvelous site. Thank you.