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St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The Latin Church observes the liturgical memorial of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known in history and professionally as Edith Stein. A woman of great import for us today.

Stein was born a Jew and was killed at Auschwitz because she was a Jew.

She was a brilliant philosopher, studying phenomenology with Husserl. One of her academic accomplishments was making a translation into German John Henry Newman’s works, which the young Ratzinger brothers read at seminary after the war. After studies and a period of teaching and research, Stein became a Carmelite nun because she read the life of St. Teresa of Avila. Leaving Germany she fled with her sisters to the Netherlands.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross died as a Christian Martyr because of retaliation against the Church in the Netherlands, which opposed Nazi racist attacks against Jews and other minorities. As one said, “She is a bridge between Jews and Christians and our faithful opposition to fascist racism then and now.”

Ora pro nobis, on this your feast, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

edith steinSaint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (in history she is known as Edith Stein). The Church honors her with the title of  Virgin and Martyr due to her vocation as a nun and one killed for belief in Christian faith.

Stein was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Poland. Her family was Jewish. By 1922, after reading the saints, in particular, Saint Teresa of Avila, and on matters in the Catholic faith, she was baptized at the Cologne Cathedral. Eleven years later she entered the Carmelite Order in Cologne before being sent to the Carmel in Echt, Holland. With her sister Rose, Teresa was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. There she died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of fifty-one. Stein was beatified in 1987 and canonized on October 11, 1998.

It is said that she made a claim about Husserl that “Whoever seeks truth seeks God, whether he knows it or not.” Professor Husserl was not one to speak about his religious faith because he wanted to maintain a separation between faith and reason. Yet, we know from experience, that faith and reason go hand-in-hand. Catholics ought to take a lesson here: a person who claims Christian faith faith can not be diffident reading the same. One can say with a degree of certainty that Stein’s philosophical research was one of a constant quest for God. Saint Teresa Benedicta’s witness is that whoever seeks truth through philosophy seeks God, because God is Truth. We therefore hold that that whoever seeks truth is, in fact, seeking God. There is a primacy of faith and reason in the Catholic mind.

Saint Teresa Benedicta

In his homily at the canonization Mass of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Pope John Paul II said:

“Because she was Jewish, Edith Stein was taken with her sister Rosa and many other Catholics and Jews to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where she died with them in the gas chambers. Today we remember them all with deep respect. A few days before her deportation, the woman religious had dismissed the question about a possible rescue: ‘Do not do it! Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.’”

The witness of this woman is poignant.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Benedicta of the Cross“Tell my Sisters, I am en route to the East.”

These last recorded words of Saint Teresa Benedicta on 6 August 1942. One of Edith Stein’s former students recognized her at the train station in Schifferstadt, as she stood at the window of a locked compartment.

The Discalced Carmelite Father General shared these words with the Order as he concluded his circular letter:

“Ad orientem. Yes, the last phase of her sacrificial ascent, toward the light, had begun. We do not know when, where, and how she reached her destination. Many rumors, including that of her murder by gas in Auschwitz, have reached us, but not one confirmed reliable report.

“We no longer seek her in this world, but with God, who has accepted her sacrifice and who gives its fruit to the people for whom he prayed, suffered, and died, in the fullest sense of the word.

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The Church’s sacred Liturgy recalls for us an important 20th century woman, scholar and convert, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She is known in history as Edith Stein who became a professed member of the Discalced Carmelite Order.

Stein made a significant impact on many people because of her extraordinary witness to Jesus Christ and His Church. This is especially true for Blessed John Paul II who himself is said to have had a “Carmelite soul,” so much so one wonders if he really did have a vocation to the Carmelite charism. When John Paul beatified Stein he said,

“We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting … and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God” (1 May 1987, Cologne).

It is well known that her intellectual mentor was the renown philosopher Edmund Husserl whose view of reality and our perception of it turns on end the Kantian method. Stein later became a collaborator with Husserl in his phenomenology. Moreover, data tells us that Husserl’s phenomenology led many Christianity. At the same time Stein met the philosopher Max Scheler who suggested that she look into the claims of Catholicism. She read Saint Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and the rest is history.

Edith Stein’s life and acceptance of the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Christian faith was a liturgical procession: born during the Feast of Tabernacles, baptized on feast of the Circumcision of the Lord; confirmed on the feast of the Purification of Mary and later entered Carmel during Jewish feasts of purification and the Church’s approach to the feast of Christ the King and then Advent of 1934. At her final profession of vows on 21 April 1938, Eastertide, Sister Teresa Benedicta wrote the words of Saint John of the Cross: “Henceforth my only vocation is to love.” Her final work was to be devoted to this author. Hers was a liturgy that gave voice to a new epiphany of being a woman of two covenants, that of Abraham and Jesus. One leads to the other. She said,  “I had given up practicing my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.”

Before her desire to enter the Carmelite monastery was realized –she needed time to better comprehend the grace of conversion– Stein was following the indications of  Benedictine Archabbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey who wanted her to speak widely on issues pertaining to women. She said of her time, “During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to ‘get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”

The rest you know. The Nazi regime hated Jews, including intelligent Jewish convert Catholic women. Sister Teresa was vigorously pursued, as well as many others ,and she tragically died. She was canonized on 11 October 1998.

John Paul named Saint Teresa Benedicta a Co-Patroness of Europe, who, “Even after she found the truth in the peace of the contemplative life, she was to live to the full the mystery of the Cross” (Apostolic Letter Spes Aedificandi).

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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