I was planning to write this week about St. Francis Xavier but today I learned about Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Oh man. What a woman! How is it possible that I had never encountered her before?
Edith was born to a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany in 1891. Her father died when she was very young and her mother raised 11 children and ran the family timber business. Edith’s mother was very devout and Edith grew to reject this, calling herself an atheist. She was incredibly intelligent and studied philosophy, eventually earning her doctorate.
One day, while living in Frankfurt for her graduate studies, Edith walked into Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman going in to kneel and pray. She wrote: “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot”.
In the summer of 1921 she spent several weeks at the home of one of her fellow philosophers and his wife. There she stumbled upon the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila and began to read. She couldn’t put it down. She read throughout the night and by dawn her life had been changed forever.
On New Year’s Day in 1922, Edith was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. She continued teaching philosophy and writing, and planned to eventually marry. She also spoke extensively about women’s issues. As Nazi influence began to spread over Germany, she felt the Lord calling her in a different direction; to unite her life with the fate of her own Jewish people. Nazi law eventually barred her from teaching and she entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne in 1933. She took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
As anti-Semitic sentiment spread, she was smuggled across the border into a Carmelite Convent in Holland. In August 1942 many Jewish Christians were arrested by the Gestapo after Dutch bishops denounced the Antisemitism and the treatment of Jews. She was transported to Auschwitz where she was killed in a gas chamber on 9th August 1942. Fiercely proud of her heritage, she wore the Star of David on her habit during the last few years of her life.
Edith can teach us so much about inter-faith dialogue, feminism, the centrality of the person and the dignity of women. I challenge you to read some of her work. Now that I’ve discovered her, you can be sure that you’ll hear much more about her on this blog! I like to think that I’ve found a kindred spirit…she’s also a patron saint of loss of parents (I know, right?)
“Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that – from God’s point of view – there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.”
St. Edith Stein, pray for us.