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
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