By Lorraine V. Murray/National Catholic Register
Edith Stein was definitely a woman ahead of her time. In her day, women rarely went to college and certainly didn’t receive doctorates in philosophy like she did. She went into philosophy because she sought the truth, and she would eventually find the One who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”
Stein was born in Breslau, Germany in 1891 on Oct. 12, the Jewish Day of Atonement. She was the youngest of 11 children in a Jewish family, although four died in infancy. Her father died on a business trip when she was 2 years old, and her mother went to work to help support the family. When she was 15, Edith deliberately stopped praying because she no longer believed in God.
She entered the University of Breslau when she was 19 and continued on to graduate school to major in philosophy. She studied under Edmund Husserl, who is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. In 1917, a beloved philosophy professor, Adolf Reinach, died, and Edith caught a glimpse of grace when she visited his widow.
Although the woman was grieving, she still seemed hopeful and calm. Edith wondered about the source of her strength and discovered it was her Christian faith. When the woman explained that she knew her husband “now lives with God,” Edith’s interest in Christianity was piqued.
Her attraction for Christianity deepened in 1921, when she was looking for a book at a friend’s home and randomly selected the autobiography of the Carmelite saint Teresa of Avila. Mesmerized by the saint’s life story, when she completed the book, she declared: “This is the truth.”
Later, she wrote about the life-changing moments of visiting the widow and reading the book: “This was my first encounter with the Cross and with the supernatural strength it gives. My unbelief broke down and Christ appeared to me in the mystery of the Cross.”
In her lectures, Professor Stein often talked about the condition of women in the world. Many feminists denied the existence of psychological differences between men and women, other than those created by society. In her Catholic-minded approach, Stein pointed to Genesis, where God created males and females and gave them distinctive roles. She emphasized that men and women are inherently equal because they were both made in the image of God, but they are also very different. These differences, however, didn’t mean women should be excluded from any professions.
Edith Stein was received into the Catholic Church on Jan. 1, 1922, and decided she wanted to become a Carmelite nun. Her spiritual adviser suggested she wait, so she was 42 when she entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, Germany, taking as her name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. As Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, and Jewish people were being beaten and murdered, and synagogues burned, the new nun noted, “This is the shadow of the Cross falling on my people.”
Because of her Jewish heritage, Sister Teresa worried that her presence in the monastery would be dangerous for the other sisters living there. She relocated to a monastery in Echt, Holland, where her sister Rosa, also a convert to Catholicism, joined her in the summer of 1940. Unfortunately, before long, the poison of Nazism spread into Holland — and the police came for Edith and Rosa.
As they left the convent, Edith encouraged her sister by saying, “Come, let us go for our people!” Once they arrived at the Westerbork detention center, Sister Teresa began tending to mothers who were in such shock they had stopped caring for their children. She devoted herself to the little ones, and despite the horrific circumstances in the camp, she was known for her peaceful and prayerful presence.
Professor Stein wrote many books, but she said her one important message for the world was the importance of living at the hand of the Lord, that is, being completely dependent on him. In the camp, bereft of nearly everything that had once sustained her, she clung ever more tightly to Christ. In her final letter to the mother superior at Brecht, Sister Teresa wrote, “So far, I have been able to pray, gloriously.”
On Aug. 7, 1942, the Stein sisters were put on a train that took them to Auschwitz. Two days later, they were marched into the gas chambers, where they were killed. At her canonization in 1998, Pope John Paul II said:
“A young woman in search of the truth has become a saint and martyr through the silent workings of divine grace.”
In her book The Science of the Cross, Stein had written, “The Crucified demands that we should follow Him. … He who formed Himself had permitted Himself to be formed into the image of the Cross Bearer.”
This remarkable saint became a cross-bearer herself, and her life shows us the way to share in the suffering of Christ with courage and compassion.
St. Teresa Benedicta, pray for us!