St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: Daughter of Israel, Philosopher and Carmelite Martyr
Edith Stein carries the light of Christ during the horror of Auschwitz
On the occasion of St Teresa Benedicta's feast day, 9 August, the following overview of her biography is published in remembrance of its author, the late Fr Gino Concetti, OFM, a past colleague and friend who died on 28 September 2008.
Among the known and less-known victims of Nazism, Edith Stein — Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — is the most representative figure of Christian holiness, expressed in the faith and witness of her martyrdom at the notorious extermination camp of Auschwitz. This is how both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have extolled her.
At the Rite for her Beatification in the Cathedral of Cologne on 1 May 1987, Pope John Paul II said that in her the Church honours "a daughter of Israel who, during the Nazi persecution, as a Catholic, remained united with faith and love to the Crucified Lord Jesus Christ and as a Jew, to her people". He also reaffirmed her holiness and martyrdom during the Mass for her Canonization in Rome on October 1998.
Benedict XVI echoed the same sentiment with his Visit and Pilgrimage in May 2006 to the place of her martyrdom, Auschwitz: "In the face of the horror of Auschwitz there is no other response than the Cross of Christ: Love descended to the very depths of the abyss of evil to save man in his core" (General Audience, 31 May 2006; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 7 June 2006, p. 11). With her oblation, Edith sealed the truth of Christ's resurrectional power manifest in the Cross, the word she chose on becoming a Carmelite as an integral part of her name.
Edith was taken to Auschwitz by the Gestapo, who forced her from the Carmelite Monastery of Echt in Holland, together with her sister Rosa. It was 2 August 1942 and she was in chapel.
The two women, Valentino Savoldi recounts (Edith Stein, Luce nella notte di Auschwitz, Elledici-Velar, 2007) were taken with other Jewish converts to Westerbork Transit Camp in "revenge for the protests made by the Catholic Bishops of The Netherlands against the pogroms (organized violent anti-Jewish attacks) and the deportation of Jews".
In Edith a divine plan was clearly unfolding. She was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11, and was raised in the religion of her parents. At age 14, she lost her faith and abandoned prayer.
"A purely rationalistic relationship with the 'concept' of God brought Edith to reject the Father and, consequently, every religious practice. At the same time, she focused on the search for intellectual values which she claimed were loftier than those of the Jewish faith".
In 1911 she finished secondary school and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study grammar and history. Edith herself described her basic inclination: "When I was a young student at secondary school I was a radical feminist. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am in search of purely objective solutions".
In 1913, she attended the university lectures given by Edmund Husserl and became his disciple and assistant. When the First World War broke out she wrote: "I now no longer have a life of my own". She acquired a nursing diploma and worked in an Austrian military hospital. In 1916, she followed Husserl to Freiburg, and in 1917 obtained a doctorate summa cum laude.
Three signs preceded and determined her conversion. When she was 16, Edith saw a working-class woman enter the Cathedral of Frankfurt with her shopping basket. This sparked an "impulse" of faith within Edith: the Cathedral itself was empty but God was in it, waiting. This was the first sign.
The second was linked to her friendship with Adolf Reinach, Husserl's assistant in Gottingen, and his wife. When Adolf died in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit his widow, whom she thought must have been overwhelmed by grief.
Upon seeing her almost serene resignation, Edith "instantly intuited the power of faith in Christ".
She said of this experience, "For the first time I saw the Church, tangible before me, born from the Redeemer's suffering in his victory over the grip of death. It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered and Christ's light shone through".
The third sign was God's presence. Edith perceived it in 1921 while reading the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila. A new vision blossomed within her. She stated: "When I had finished the book, I said to myself: this is the truth". Later, she was to confirm: "My longing for truth was my one prayer".
Savoldi comments: "Edith's return to God can be considered as illogical Love bursting into her heart which was thirsting after truth".
On 1 January 1922, Edith began her sacramental journey by receiving Baptism. She was then confirmed on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Her desire to withdraw to a convent to become a cloistered Carmelite nun grew ever stronger but her spiritual directors prevented her from taking this step immediately. From 1923 to 1931 she taught German language and literature at the Dominican Sisters' school and teachers' training college in Speyer and also began her philosophical work Potency and Act.
In 1932, she became a lecturer at the Educational Institute at Münster. She continued to study and write and came into contact with important figures including Jacques Maritain and Martin Heidegger, whom she had previously known in Freiburg.
The Science of the Cross, on the works of St John of the Cross, stands out among her writings of these years. She developed the conviction that one "can only gain a knowledge of the Cross by experiencing it personally".
In 1933 the "dark night" of the Jewish persecution fell on Germany and, with the ascent to power of Nazism, assumed dramatic and tragic tones.
During the hour of Adoration on 30 April 1933, Edith felt definitively called to the cloistered life among the Carmelites. First, however, she went to Breslau to say a tearful goodbye to her mother and relatives.
Edith entered the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of Cologne on 14 October. She was clothed on 14 April 1934 and took the new name of Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
In 1938 she wrote: "Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God's people.... Indeed, today I know far better what it means to be the Lord's bride under the sign of the Cross".
On 21 April 1938 she took her perpetual vows with the promise: "Henceforth, my only vocation will be to love".
In November 1938 Nazi hatred toward the Jews flared up and the Carmelite Prioress in Cologne decided to send Edith Stein abroad. She left for the Netherlands on New Year's Eve 1939. Her new home was the Carmel at Echt.
On 9 June 1939, she professed in her spiritual testament: "Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death so that the Lord will be accepted by his People and that his Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world".
The Gestapo arrested her on 2 August 1942 while she was praying in the chapel and took her to the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz together with her sister Rosa. The Church, first through John Paul II then Benedict XVI, honours her as a martyr of the faith.
Savoldi ends his biography: "St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross stands as a marvellous figure invoking peace, inviting dialogue, and as a towering model for acquiring the logic of the Gospel in its fullness".
Weekly Edition in English
5 August 2009, page 9
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