Edith Stein, today’s saint’s given name, was a highly cultured European intellectual. She obtained a doctorate in philosophy summa cum laude from a German university after being accepted as a student by a renowned philosopher. She mastered numerous languages and worked as both a nurse and interpreter during World War I. She was a naturally gifted and effective teacher. She translated various works of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman from English and a work of Saint Thomas Aquinas from the original Latin. She published a book called Potency and Act on some foundational concepts in Thomism. Her erudition opened doors to elite circles of artists, philosophers, and other creators of culture. Yet she decided, in the flower of her life, to leave the shore, to wade into the sea of God, and to dive deep for the pearl of great price. Years after converting to Catholicism, Edith took vows as a Carmelite nun, becoming Saint Teresa Blessed (or “Benedicta”) of the Cross. When she entered the convent, where her scholarship counted little, one of Mother Superior’s first questions to her was: “Can you sew?” The science of the Cross had begun.
Edith Stein was born and raised a Jew, the last of eleven children in a pious, middle class German family. But she lost a living faith as a teenager and stopped praying. After passing all of her courses with distinction, and after serving at a war hospital in Austria, she finished a doctorate on the subject of empathy. She then became a full-time assistant to her philosophical mentor. Edith had various positive experiences with individual Christians during the war years. She saw, first hand, how Christians understood their own loss and suffering in light of the Cross of Christ. On a visit to the Cathedral of Frankfurt, these experiences of others’ faith merged, rather suddenly, with a profound experience of her own. From the back of the church, Edith saw a woman with a shopping bag enter, kneel in prayer for a few moments, genuflect, and then depart. Our saint was deeply moved by the mystery of it. The woman clearly came into the church to have a short conversation with someone. Edith had never seen anyone do this in a synagogue or in a Protestant church. It struck her—Truth is a person, not a mere concept. God is living, breathing, Truth in the person of Jesus Christ.
A couple of years later, in 1921, while spending time at a friend’s home, she discovered an autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila in the home’s library and started reading it. She read all night. She read until the sun came up. In the morning she bought a Catholic Catechism and devoured that too. She had finally found the truth she couldn’t quite find in her philosophical studies. She would convert to Catholicism. On January 1, 1922, Edith Stein was baptized. She was Confirmed the next month by the local bishop in his private chapel. When she went home to tell her mother that she was now Catholic, the two could only cry in each other’s arms at the complex of emotions. After her conversion, Edith taught at a Dominican high school, engaged in scholarly work, and lectured on women’s issues with the encouragement of her bishop.
Finally, in 1933, after experiencing the dawning anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, Edith fulfilled a long-held dream and entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne. Before entering she went home to say a bittersweet goodbye to her family, and attended synagogue one last time with her mother, who felt betrayed, and who never responded to any of her daughter’s many subsequent letters. Sister Teresa Benedicta took final vows in 1938. On New Year’s Eve of that same year, she secretly transferred to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands to escape Germany’s insane anti-semitism. There, she was a model nun, devoted to Saint John of the Cross and to the Carmelite spirituality of the Cross. She prayed in front of the tabernacle for long hours and wrote for many more.
After the Dutch bishops released a letter protesting the deportation of Dutch Jews, the retaliation against the Church was swift and merciless. The Gestapo (Nazi secret police) soon pounded on the doors of all local convents to take away any Jewish converts. On August 2, 1942, Edith was praying in the chapel when the Gestapo came. She had five minutes to leave. Edith and her sister Rosa, also a convert who was helping in the convent, were taken away. They were transported by train to Auschwitz, gassed, and cremated, most likely on August 9th, along with hundreds of other Jews. Edith Stein was sharply aware of her double spiritual identity as a Jew and a Catholic. She knew she was dying, spiritually and physically, for each of her identities. Her iconic life and death, so redolent of the tensions of the twentieth century, caused Saint John Paul II to name her a co-patroness of Europe. She was beatified in Cologne in 1987 and canonized in 1998 after a miraculous healing of a little girl in the state of Massachusetts was attributed to her intercession.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, you were Jewish by blood, Catholic by baptism, and Carmelite by solemn vows. Your multiple spiritual identities, complex mind, and education found their unity in Christ. May we follow your example in finding our unity in Him as well.