The Word Among Us

Lent 2020 Issue

From Seeker to Saint

St. Edith Stein’s road to the convent and the cross.

By: Anne Costa

From Seeker to Saint: St. Edith Stein’s road to the convent and the cross. by Anne Costa

If you could enter a time machine and travel through Edith Stein’s life, you would see many versions of her as time passed. In 1893, you would see a tearful two-year-old standing at her father’s funeral. Two years later, you would see a spunky four-year-old playing with her cousins in the family lumberyard. In subsequent years, you would see a sensitive child immersed in the Jewish faith and a questioning teenager who had set aside Judaism, determined to rely on herself.

Speeding forward to 1911, you would come upon Edith at university in animated conversation with fellow philosophy students, and four years later, see her at a patient’s bedside on the World War I frontline, taking the part of a patriotic young nurse’s assistant. Skip to 1933, and you could watch a more subdued Edith take the habit of a Carmelite nun as totalitarian Nazism was overtaking her native Germany.

As Edith’s life drew onward, she grew into a deep trust and tranquility that sprang from her faith in Christ Jesus. The world around her flared with messages of hatred and acts of persecution, but she persevered with words of hope and acts of love. Christ was indeed present wherever her witness of trust silently “preached” its sermon.

A Student of Christ. Edith Stein had long been a lover of learning. She had clamored to enter grade school early and caught up to the older students quickly. Although she stopped praying at age fourteen, Edith longed so deeply to understand the meaning of life that, as a young woman, her insistent questioning sometimes led her into a state of utter despair bordering on clinical depression. Despite these bouts of melancholy, Edith was well liked and respected by her friends and colleagues in the philosophy department at the University of Breslau. Warm and deep friendships there gradually influenced her to consider Christianity.

In the summer of 1921, Edith was staying with her friend and colleague Hedwig Conrad-Martius. Hedwig, formerly an atheist, had converted to Lutheranism and set a compelling example of Christian faith. One day while Hedwig was out and Edith was alone in the library, she picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila to read. In true “Edith fashion,” she finished the book in one sitting. At the end, she declared, “This is the truth!”

Edith related to Teresa on the deepest level. They shared a burning desire for self-knowledge, especially through study of the interior life. In Edith’s doctoral studies, she pursued a new branch of philosophy called phenomenology, which focused on the inner life and the way human persons perceive the world. Likewise, Teresa of Ávila delved into the realm of the human heart and soul, discovering that she could find a space to encounter God. Edith was drawn into that divine drama and found what she was looking for.

Edith swiftly found a copy of the Catechism, began meeting with a local priest, and became Catholic within a year. Her conversion was painful and puzzling to her mother, a devout Jew. The delicate balance between the demands of her conscience and respect for her mother was distressing for Edith at times. But like the Jews of the New Testament who risked family and name to become Christ’s disciples, she embraced the difficulty of her position in order to be an authentic witness.

An Instrument of God. After her conversion, Edith used her soaring intellect to help form younger minds. She took a position at a Dominican school in Speyer, Germany. The students at St. Magdalena’s flourished under her. As if making up for lost time with Jesus, Edith spent many nights quietly praying before the Blessed Sacrament. During the daytime, she worked in the classroom, showing no sign of fatigue. “It all depends,” she explained, “on having a quiet little corner where you can talk with God on a daily basis as if nothing else existed.”

Edith continued to attend to scholarly work, though now tempered by a desire to serve God in place of personal pride or ambition. Then in 1932, Edith left St. Magdalena’s to develop a theory of Catholic education at an academic institution in Muenster. She also began to receive increasing requests to lecture in Catholic circles. Most frequently, people asked her to speak about the role of women in the modern world.

Edith was “in the world, but not of it.” In fact, she said that she felt like a stranger in the world as the Third Reich began to arrest priests and nuns, obstruct religious education, and root out Catholic youth ministry. She had finally achieved precisely what she once desired—widespread academic acclaim—but now more than ever, her desire to follow in St. Teresa’s footsteps and enter the Carmelite order grew more insistent. In fact, she didn’t have long to wait.

Prepared for Persecution. In 1933, Edith watched and prayed as Hitler gained more power. Then, at a Holy Thursday Mass, as she prayed about the threat facing her fellow Jews, she pictured Jesus’ cross, being laid upon her people as a great weight of suffering. Understandably, most Jews would not relate to the image, but “those who did must accept it willingly in the name of all,” Edith thought.

She was determined to consider any suffering of body or spirit that she experienced as a spiritual offering to be made on behalf of the Jewish people. Her disappointments and difficulties were useful insofar as they turned her gaze to Christ’s saving passion as both her strength and her shared mission.

Sure enough, a “nail” was driven into Edith when she returned to work in Muenster after Easter. A new law prohibited Jews from holding public positions, so Edith could no longer teach. Far from disappointing her, Edith’s dismissal encouraged her to contact the Carmelites in Cologne. She entered the convent that year as a postulant who was clumsy but cheerful about her required housework. Five years later, at age forty-two, she became Sister Teresa Benedicta (Blessed) of the Cross. The name, which she had requested for her final vows, was an expression of her desire to join herself more intimately to Christ during this difficult time in history. Edith said that finally, she felt the peace of someone who had reached her goal.

Destined for the Cross. At the convent in Cologne, Edith’s Jewish heritage and high profile made her a target of the Nazis. Concerned for the well-being of the other sisters and her own safety, she transferred to a Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland, in 1939. She remained there for four years, eventually joined by her older sister, Rosa, who had become a Third Order Carmelite.

Edith began to anticipate an early death. That June, she wrote a final testament, declaring, “May the Lord accept my life and death for the honor and glory of his name . . . for the Jewish people . . . for the deliverance of Germany and peace throughout the world.”

When the prioress asked her to write meditations for the sisters, Edith exhorted them to keep trusting and praying:

The more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God, the more it needs souls united to God. . . . The decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. (Feast of the Epiphany, 1940)

Edith saw the prayers of herself and her sisters as playing a key role in the struggle between good and evil. In this final chapter of her life, Edith crafted her last work, The Science of the Cross, offering the teachings of another Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, to modern readers. With John, Edith was exploring the mystery that the heavier the cross we carry, the greater is Christ’s victory in it.

A Living Sacrifice. In 1942, when Edith and Rosa were told to register for deportation, they willingly complied. But their arrest at the convent on August 2 was a surprise. The sisters had only five minutes to collect themselves before they were taken to a train bound for an internment camp.

All the accounts of those last days depict a vision of Edith as peaceful, prayerful, and resolute. While mothers in the camp were withering in anguish, Edith combed the hair of their distraught children. Everyone who saw her charity wondered at her goodness. When she was transferred to Auschwitz, Edith surely understood that she was going to her death. But she wasn’t afraid because God had long since given her the grace to dedicate her life to Jesus as an act of intercession.

Edith Stein was beatified in 1987 and canonized in 1998. Pope St. John Paul II, at her beatification, honored her as “a daughter of Israel” who “as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness.” Her legacy—philosopher, seeker of truth, theologian, teacher, child of Abraham, Carmelite, and martyr—reaches to many people, both inside and out of the Church, who mourn the darkness in the world. And to all of them, she stands as a sign of the peace, strength, and humility of a soul united with Christ.

Edith remains a true witness for all of us who embrace and trust Jesus as our firm foundation as we take up our crosses of intercession for the good of others and love of him.

Anne Costa is the author of Embracing Edith Stein. More of her books are available at wau.org.

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