Fr Billy Swan
Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was born on 12th October 1891 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jews. She was born into a wealthy Jewish family and she was the youngest of 11 children. Her father died when she was very young. At aged 14 she stopped praying and dropped out of school. She received private tuition and she was one of the first women admitted to the University of Breslau where she excelled in psychology and women’s issues.
The face Edith showed to the world was one of an atheist but in her heart she was a Jew. She went out of her way to avoid religious practice and she began searching for answers through a discipline called ‘phenomenology’ which was being taught by a well-known philosopher Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived in the human consciousness and not of anything independent of that. Edith studied this at the University of Gottingen, and received a doctorate in philosophy. Interestingly, Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II) also studied the works of the philosopher Edmund Husserl.
Even though Edith had excelled in her studies and became Edmund Husserl’s assistant, she still felt a void, a sense of hollowness inside her. Her heart and her mind weren’t being nurtured in the way that she expected and everything she studied felt very mechanical and superficial to her. This led her to question more about God and she decided to look deeper into the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faiths. Adolf and Anna Reinach were close friends of Edith’s and they had converted from Judaism to the Evangelical Church. Adolf signed up for the army and news came in one day that he had been killed. Edith went immediately to her friend Anna to be with her and to try to console her. She was very moved by Anna’s deep Christian faith and was struck by the strength that Anna carried at this most terrible time in her life. Edith said: ‘This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the Divine strength it brings to those who bear it’.
The Christian response she witnessed to the grief and suffering of World War 1 left a huge impression on her. The hope and strength that she felt herself from the cross of Christ filled her with a sense of love that she hadn’t felt before and slowly she was seeing and feeling the answers that she had been always seeking. Edith did a nursing course and she served in a field hospital in Austria where she looked after the sick and dying. Over the following 3 years Edith went through a period of deep reflection and began to read and practise the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and partook of the exercises. Then Edith stumbled across the book ‘Book of the Life’ of St. Teresa of Avila. She was so impressed by it that she couldn’t put the book down. She finished it in one night, after which she said ‘This is the truth’. Everything fell into place for her then, everything made sense to her. She felt a huge connection and a love for God that she had never felt before. In 1922 Edith was baptised and received her First Holy Communion. One month later she received the Sacrament of Confirmation. 12 years later she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany. She taught, gave lectures and studied at the nearby Institute. The anti-Semitic tide was rising fast and this made it impossible for Edith to continue her teaching work. On 1st January 1939 she was taken to Holland. She asked her superior if she could offer herself for her Jewish people, the people in the flesh of Christ himself.
The German Gestapo ordered the deportation of Catholic Jews to the east and sent all Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Edith had begun writing a book ‘The Science of the Cross’ and she was in the convent working on this when two German officials marched in and took her and her sister Rosa away. Her last words to be heard in the convent were ‘Come we are going to die with our people’. On 9th August 1942, they arrived in Auschwitz. On that same day Edith was sent to the gas chamber. When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on 1st May 1987, the church honoured a ‘daughter of Israel’, as Pope John Paul II put it, who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ, and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.
Edith Stein was canonised on 11th October 1998 by St. Pope John Paul II and on 2nd October 1999 he proclaimed her Co- Patron of Europe.
Quotes from Edith Stein
‘All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself because God is Love.’
‘Do not accept anything as love which lacks truth’.
When you seek truth, you seek God whether you know it or not’.