1. Life

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 husband’s 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 ; " That’s 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 or philosophy.

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 can’t 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 : " Don’t 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.

 

II. Message

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 STEIN’s 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 saints.

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 nation’s humanist and christian culture. In a most extraordinary way, she experienced within herself a tearing apart in the image of Christ’s 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. Christ’s love knows no boundaries ."


Jean Benoît de BEAUCHENE

 

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