Edith Stein

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

“To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing” Edith Stein

Edith Stein was born into a German Jewish family on 12th October 1891. Her father died when she was two years old and her mother cared for Edith and her six siblings alone. As a teenager, Edith was drawn to literature and languages and eventually went to the University of Breslau when she was twenty to study philosophy. She believed those who pursued philosophy were on an existential search: “All who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not” Letter 259. She believed that one of the ways to draw closer to God in her life was through academic research believing that her own writings were merely a vessel for God’s love to be poured into. She went on to become the second woman in Germany to earn a doctorate in philosophy becoming a highly regarded writer and lecturer.  Her quest for seeking truth led to her eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922, a conversion she claims was deeply impacted by Teresa of Avila’s The Book of Her Life, the Spanish Carmelite reformer whom Edith revered.

Despite Edith’s academic success she could not get a professorship at any university because she was a woman, a discrimination she often reflected upon in her public lectures.  She believed it to be a cross that she must bear. The description of the cross is something that would dominate her later years when in 1933 she became a Carmelite nun, entering the Carmelite monastery St. Maria vom Frieden, Cologne taking the name Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, Teresa Benedicta of the cross.

There was a dark horizon ahead for her life as Hitler’s power and dark oppression of Jews began to grow. On New Years eve 1938 Edith was moved to the Carmel in Holland for her safety, a move she believed to be Gods will. She wrote to Pope Pius XI desperately hoping for the Church to intervene against Nazi persecution

“the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.” She never received a reply, later writing “I know that my letter was received by the Holy Father…. I have often wondered since whether my letter might have come to his mind once in a while. For in the years that followed that which I had predicted for the future in Germany came true step by step.” 

In the quietness of the Carmel in Holland she was asked to continue with her scholarly writings. Much of this time she wrote about the presence of the cross, taking much inspiration from the writings of Saint John of the Cross, her spiritual father. By early 1942 it was clear that Edith’s presence in the Carmelite convent in Holland was presenting a danger to the sisters. Edith, along with her sister, were ordered to leave their convent and travel to a camp along with thousands of other Jewish people. Afterwards a dutch official wrote in a newspaper,

“The one sister who impressed me immediately, whose warm, glowing smile has never been erased from my memory, despite the disgusting incidents I was forced to witness, is the one whom the Vatican may one day canonise… I knew here was someone truly great…. She lived in that hellhole praying, talking and walking…like a saint. She told me that ‘For now the world consists of opposites, but in the end none of these contrasts will remain. There will only be the fulness of love. How could it be otherwise?’ Then I saw her go off in the train with her sister, praying as she went, and smiling the smile of unbroken resolve that accompanied her to Auschwitz.”

“One thing alone I do, and that is love” Stanza 28 of the Spiritual Canticle. This was on her card for Edith Stein’s solemn profession. 

In August 1942, Edith Stein was killed at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Edith Stein was beatified as martyr in 1987 in Cologne, Germany by Pope John Paul II, and in October 1998, she was canonized as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Further reading:

Among a vast collection of works, these are my own personal favourites:

Finite and Eternal Being

The Science of the Cross

The collected Works of Edith Stein: The Hidden Life (essays, meditations, spiritual tasks)

The photos below are of the Carmelite monastery St. Maria vom Frieden, Cologne. I was fortunate to get a tour around the church and saw much of where Edith worked and prayed during her years here. On display is a piece of clay from Auschwitz and a small side altar in her memory. Her mortal remains were never recovered.

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