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Edith Stein (Sister Benedicta Teresia, O.C.D.)


by Margaret Deveraux Conway

IN AN AGE WHEN WOMEN FUNCTION ABLY IN ALL TYPES OF positions, the great Jewish Carmelite of Germany may seem lost in the shadows of her own vocation. She was, however, both singular and wonderful; a woman of true wisdom, an intellectual whose mind was turned toward God, and a martyr to one of the destructive political fungi of our day.

The facts of her life have the simplicity and chiaroscuro of a fine etching. She was born in Breslau in 1891. Her father died when she was quite small; she and her six brothers and sisters were reared by a matriarchal Jewish mother, who observed all the exacting ritual of Orthodox Jewish life with the loving fidelity of a servant of God. Her father's death, however, in a sense also took her mother from her; for the care of the lumber business fell upon Frau Stein, and Edith was chiefly the concern of her older sister Erna. She was, even as a child, bright and ambitious. When she left preparatory school her natural brilliance was such that the headmaster said of her: "Strike a stone (stein), and out gushes wisdom."

Her mother's exact conformity to ritual held no attraction for her quick mind and-especially after she entered the University of Breslau-she drifted toward atheism. Her scholastic pre-eminence was such that in due course, if she stayed on at Breslau to write her doctorate in psychology as originally planned, she would have been one of the leading atheistic professors of the school. Fortunately, a book intervened to change her destiny.

It was a learned tome by Edmund Husserl entitled-Logical Investigations. The book was a critique of the German philosophers of the nineteenth century: Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Nietzche, and others.

The bright-eyed Jewish girl, on the basis of this book, changed her field of interest and went for the summer term to the University of Gottengen, where Husserl taught. This transfer from one school to another was permissible and encouraged in the German universities of that day. Edith fully intended to return to Breslau for her degree; but events and interests kept her at Gottingen, where she wrote her doctorate under Husserl and obtained her degree in 1921. She stayed on after that to become her teacher's assistant, aiding him in preparing his new book, tutoring for his classes those candidates who were not yet prepared to understand him. To her sorrow, while she went onward to the fulness of Thomistic reason, she saw her much loved teacher, in the new book she was aiding him to prepare, revert to a modified form of subjective philosophy.

During these days in Gottingen two other impulses toward the Church were given her. It is a wry comment on the limitations of the curriculum of a secular university that the first time Edith Stein read anything avowedly Christian was during a literature class studying Gothic Old High German, when she encountered the "Our Father." During the latter part of her student days the war came to Germany. She left temporarily to serve in the hospitals of the German Red Cross. One of her tutors who, with his wife, was also a friend of hers volunteered for army service and died on the field in 1917. Edith hastened back to Gottingen to comfort Frau Reinach in what she felt would be the widow's inconsolable despair. Instead, she found her calm and resigned to her loss. Edith afterwards said: "It was then I first encountered the Cross and the divine strength it inspires in those who bear it. . . It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered, Judaism paled, and Christ streamed out at me; Christ in the mystery of the Cross. Therefore," she added simply to a priest shortly before her death, "at my clothing I could express no other desire than that of being called Sister Benedicta 'of the Cross.' " And so she was called, for her full name in Carmel was Sister Benedicta Teresia a Cruce.

Her actual conversion was occasioned by the reading of another book, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, Written by Herself. Edith read it through in one night; when dawn broke she closed it saying: "That is the truth." That very morning she bought a missal and a prayerbook. When she had mastered them she went to the pastor of the little parish church in the town where she was staying, to ask for baptism. More study, however, was required of her, and it was only on New Year's day, 1922, that the sacrament was administered. She took the name of Teresia, after the great saint. She rejoiced in Christ, but her joy was clouded in pain, the pain of telling her mother. In her eyes, to leave Judaism for Christ was to betray callously the millenia of suffering the race had endured for its fidelity to the only God. Judaism was the perfect theocracy, and to leave it rendered one a traitor as well as a blasphemer.

Edith came and knelt before her mother and said very simply: "Mother, I am a Catholic." She expected recrimination-and met a torrent of tears. She stayed with her mother for several months, reorientating her own life, softening the blow upon her family. She joined with her mother on the Day of Atonement at the synagogue, confusing the old woman utterly because she prayed the psalms from a Catholic breviary while the rabbi read them from the Jewish religious books. And when the rabbi read out the words: "Hear, O Israel, thy God is one," Edith's mother bent to her in distress and uncomprehending love to complain: "Do you hear? Thy God is but one!" And Edith had to be silent, for it was not given to her mother to have faith in the Trinity.

Edith's first impulse was to give herself completely to God in the religious life. The priest who was directing her forbade this and sent her to fulfill her vocation in God in the very work she had been doing. She settled down to teach-for ten years in a Hochschule conducted by the Dominican nuns at Speyer, to write her philosophical works, and to learn the science of prayer in the peaceful enclosure of the convent. During that period, besides writing many articles for learned reviews, and giving lectures for various societies, she translated St. Thomas's Questions Concerning Truth into brilliant German. Towards the end of this time, she also published her own work on Potency and Act. This was in 1931.

The same year, she decided to return to the university level of teaching and obtained a position as tutorial lecturer at the German Institute for Teaching, at Muenster. Just as she was acclimating herself to her old and well loved atmosphere the campaign against the Jews in Germany became so stringent that she found herself forced to cease lecturing on February 25, 1932, after but a year's work and just at the point where she was preparing to make public her proposal for an extensive reform of higher grade teaching in Germany.

She was not too dismayed, for she felt this calamity was a dispensation from Providence to give her the opportunity to follow the vocation to Carmel that she had cherished so many years. She went to Cologne and had an interview with the Mother Superior, explaining simply that she felt that God was keeping something for her in Carmel which she could find only there. The novice mistress pointed out gently that she would have to give up her work and the acclaim of her career, to which she replied: "It is not human activity that can help us, but the Passion of Christ. It is a share in that, that I desire." Already she seemed fully cognizant that she was to honor God through her prayer in Carmel for the salvation of herself, her people, and her country. Perhaps she even had a premonition of her death.

The Carmel agreed to accept her, and she went home for a long vacation before the entry day. She found it even more painful to tell her mother of her vocation than she had of her conversion. She deferred it from day to day, until one afternoon as they sat knitting, she was asked what she planned to do with the nuns in Cologne.

"Live with them," she replied gently.

Her mother was dumbfounded, unable to do or say anything further that day. But before Edith left home, she addressed one more piteous appeal to her:

"Is it possible for a Jew to be pious?"

"Certainly. . . if one has learned nothing more."

The old woman cried out: "Why have you learned more? I don't want to say anything against Him. He may have been a very good man. But why did he have to make Himself God?"

Edith fitted into the life of prayer at Carmel, but into little else, for she was awkward in the extreme at both housework and sewing, the two chief activities of Carmelites outside of their life of prayer. The nuns, who knew nothing of her background, must have wondered why she was among them. But she was gentle and took her own imperfections humbly. Because of her mother's age, Edith had permission to write a letter to Breslau every Friday. She heard faithfully in return from her sister Rosa; but not until after her clothing, from her mother. Then the eighty-four year old woman went out alone to visit the new Carmel in Breslau. She was received courteously and kindly and allowed to discover just what her daughter was about. She never wrote directly to Edith, but thereafter she always sent her greetings and her love.

After Edith's profession and reception of the veil in 1938, the Father Provincial of the German Carmelites ordered her to return to her writing. She rewrote and completed the enormous manuscript she had begun years before, Finite and Eternal Being. She had the joy of seeing the first volume published, but corrected proofs of the second volume were returned by the publisher with a note of regret saying that he was forbidden by law to publish the books of non-Aryans. That, together with a visit made by the local election officials to the Carmel to know why she did not vote, and the Mother Superior's admission that Sister Benedicta was registered as non-Aryan and had no voting rights, convinced the Superior that Sister Benedicta should leave the country for her own safety. The Carmel in Echt, Holland, welcomed her. There, in a short while, her sister Rosa, who had become a Catholic, joined her, living as a lay person at the convent and performing outside tasks for the nuns.

At Echt, Sister Benedicta continued to write, completing the last page of her book Sctence of the Cross on the very day she was led away to her death. Even in Echt she was not safe. When the Nazis conquered Holland, they began to put in effect there the same non-Aryan laws they had enforced in Germany. Her Sisters in Christ in Echt, fearing for Edith, as her Carmelite Sisters in Cologne had previously feared, obtained permission from a Carmel near Freiburg, Switzerland, to have her come there, but the necessary legal and official permissions dragged out painfully. Sister Benedicta had a holy indifference to the outcome, but by dint of such perseverance on everyone's part, the Swiss entry papers were obtained and all that remained was to get an exit visa from the Germans.

Tragic events intervened. The Catholic and Protestant Churches of the Netherlands had been protesting the German treatment of the Jews.

Retaliation was swift and simple. On Sunday, August 2, 1942, two S.S. men appeared at the Carmel at Echt. Thinking that they had brought the exit visa, Sister Benedicta went to meet them. When she greeted them, one of them said harshly: "Get your things together. You have five minutes to get ready. We are taking you away."

At the Superior's request, the time was extended to ten minutes and the nuns bustled about to get the few things that Sister Benedicta was allowed to take with her: a blanket, some food, a few toilet articles. Still in her habit, she left the enclosure and, with her sister Rosa, was taken to the temporary concentration camp at Amersfoort. There she joined about twelve hundred Dutch Jews including other Jewish Catholic religious. On their habits-Dominican, Franciscan, Trappist, Carmelite-the yellow star of David was hastily sewn.

Sometime on the night of the sixth of August, most of them were suddenly taken away. It is known in general that a large number of them died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz (in Silesia, near Edith's home), but where and when specific individuals died is impossible of proof. Edith's last known message, given at the railroad station in Schifferstadt to a young woman who had been her pupil was "Give my love to the Sisters . . . I am on my way to the East."

So Edith Stein disappeared, into the unknown so far as human knowledge is concerned. But behind her, as a guidepost, she leaves the simple facts of her life out of which her double adventure was built, that of a mind seeking truth and a heart seeking love. Each way was hard. In a field which few women trod, she, as she stated it, "lived at the edge of the abyss" where philosophical ideas can~so easily turn into the destructive perversions of error, and she not only found the truth, but shone in it as shines the morning star, linked through and with the Davidic star of her Hebraic heritage. And her heart found God, not in the quick onrush of young love which is the grace of her sister in Carmel, the Little Flower, but with the slow, steady, mature love that spreads its protective shade as the plane-tree by the roadside. Her mind, her hands, and her heart knew every crisis of our century and with God's grace brought all to perfection. She has undoubtedly won the reward that was promised by her great Jewish brother, the Apostle Paul, and has gone into that region where she may know as she also is known, in the triune God.

Out of such strength is a valiant woman of our century made..

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in The Magnificat. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonized in 1997. Among the available works of the saint are her Writings (Newman, 1956), selected and translated by Hilda Graef, q.v.; Endliches uns Ewiges Sein (Herder, Freiburg, 1950), Krenzeswissenschaft: studie ueber Joannes a Cruee (Nauwelaerts, Louvain, 1950); Des hl. Thomas von Aquino intersuchungen ueber die wahrheit, Quaestio l-XIII (id., 1953), and Teresia von Jesus (Kanisius verlag, Freiburg, Sehw., 1952).

Originally published in The Magnificat

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