Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891 in Breslau, Germany.
The day of her birth was also the Yom Kippour, the great day of Atonement,
one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. Her mother never forgot
this coincidence. Her father died when she was two years old. Her mother
was to bring her up in the strictest moral rectitude, and in the faith
of her fathers. Edith kept these high moral standards learnt from her
family but she lost her faith for a while.
At the age of fifteen she made the free decision to stop praying. This
was not a straight-forward adolescent revolt ; it was rather the sign
of a deep search for Truth. Later she would say of this period : "
My search for Truth was my sole prayer. " " Consciously or unconsciously,
the search for Truth is the search for God. "
She plunged into studies of psychology, literature, philosophy. She was
one of the first women ever to be admitted to university courses in Germany.
She obtained a doctorate in Philosophy in 1925 and became the research
assistant of the great philosopher Edmund Husserl. She found herself in
the company of remarkable men, mostly Christians, and through them she
discovered, as she herself put it, " a world until then completely
unknown to me, the universe of Faith . "
One episode in particular was to make a profound impression on her. One
of her philosopher friends, Adolf Reinach died in 1917. His young widow
asked Edith to help her sort out her husbands papers. Edith dreaded
meeting this woman in her suffering. But she went all the same, and she
discovered a woman filled with inexplicable strength and dignity. She
wrote : " This was my first encounter with the Cross, with the God-given
strength it gives to those who bear it. At that very moment my disbelief
faded away and the light of Christ burned in my heart ; Christ is in the
mystery of the Cross. " Some time later she positively devoured the
" Life " of Saint Theresa of Avila in one night. In the early
morning, she announced ; " Thats the Truth ". She decided
to be baptised in spite of the painful lack of understanding on the part
of those she loved, especially her mother. She was baptised on 1st January
1922. At that time the Church celebrated the Circumcision of the Lord
on 1st January; not the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. She was confirmed
the same year on 2nd February, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in
the Temple. From then onwards, she pursued a teaching career, in Speyer
at first and then in Münster. She was increasingly in demand for
lecture tours on the subject of the condition of women, social ethics
With the advent of National Socialism in 1933, she was forbidden to teach
because of her Jewish origins. Now was the moment for her to concretise
the vocation that had been maturing in her over the years. She entered
the Carmelite convent in Cologne during the Vigil of the Feast of Saint
Theresa of Avila on 14 October 1933. She was clothed in April 1934 and
chose the name of Theresa Benedict of the Cross, which literally means
" Theresa blessed by the Cross ".
For her, entering the convent was not a withdrawal from the fate of her
people and her dear ones, but on the contrary, it was a way of fighting
at their side in the front line. She wrote : " I think the Lord has
taken my life for all(the Jews). I cant help thinking queen Esther
was snatched from her people precisely so she could defend them before
a king. I am a rather poor little Esther and quite powerless, but the
King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. "
On 9 November 1938 came the " Kristal Nacht ". In response to
an act of desperation on the part of a young Jew who had shot a councillor
of the German Embassy in Paris, wide-spread sacking and burning of synagogues
and Jewish shops took place during the night. This date marked a decisive
increase in antisemitic repression. On 31 December 1938, Sr. Theresa Benedict
was transferred to the Carmel in Echt, Holland. There she wrote her last
book " Knowledge of the Cross ". It remains unfinished.
At the beginning of 1942, the nazi authorities decided on the " final
solution ", in other words, the systematic programmed extermination
of people of the Jewish race. In July of the same year, the bishops of
the Netherlands made a public protest, in spite of threats, against the
raids and massive deportation of Jews from their country. Edith and her
sister Rosa, who had also become a Catholic, were arrested at the Echt
Carmel. When the possibility of her life being saved arose, she replied
: " Dont do it ! Why should an exception be made for me ? It
is right that I should not trade on my baptism. If I cannot share the
fate of my brothers and sisters, my life is destroyed, in a certain sense.
Edith and her sister were taken in succession to two transit camps ; then
on 7 August they were padlocked into those horrible armoured trucks going
to Auschwitz. They arrived on the 9 August and were put to death the same
day. The very last testimonies, passed on by people who had escaped from
the transit camp, reported that she was radiant and amazingly calm, comforting
her companions in distress and caring for the foresaken children.
What message do we receive from Edith STEIN through her life and words?
I think she passes on to us three secrets of holiness.
The first secret consists in persevering right till the end with our desire
and personal search for holiness, making full use of all our faculties,
all our gifts and talents in this endeavour. This means becoming ourselves,
developing our intelligence and our freedom. It can be said that the saints
are the most intensely themselves ; those who developed fully in themselves
their own uniqueness. Edith STEINs deepest driving force was her
passionate search for Truth, but truth united with love. Even when she
was still an adolescent she realised that it was " much more imprtant
to be kind than to be learned ".
The second secret is contained in the belief that holiness is not the
end result of our efforts. It progresses as we grow in the knowledge of
God. For Edith STEIN, a decisive stage was reached when she encountered
, through her widowed friend, the God who raises people from the dead,
who shows forth his splendour in the Cross. In our own case, we too will
need to discover through prayer, the true face of God who will make us
The third and final secret passed on to us by Edith STEIN is that holiness
( i.e. our baptism lived out in all its radicality) leads to a profound
solidarity with one another. In one of her prayers she says to the Lord
that " it is his Cross that has been placed on the shoulders of the
Jewish people today ", and that everyone who understands this "
must willingly agree to carry it in the name of all men and women. "
However, this solidarity was exercised in a sense with regard to the German
people as well, for she remained deeply attached to her nations
humanist and christian culture. In a most extraordinary way, she experienced
within herself a tearing apart in the image of Christs own passion.
" For he is the peace between us and has made the two into one entity
and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, by destroying
in his own person the hostility, (Eph.2 v 14) So, Edith makes it clear
to us that it is impossible to become saints on our own, each one for
himself or herself ! Solidarity is an essential key to the christian vocation.
Let us listen to the words of Edith STEIN yet once again: " Our love
for our neighbour is the measure of our love for God. For Christians,
and not only for them, nobody is a foreigner or a stranger. Christs
love knows no boundaries ."
Jean Benoît de BEAUCHENE
QUESTIONS ON LIFE