Friday, April 8, 2011

Edith Stein-- A Modern Saint

Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1881-- Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement-- in Breslau, Germany (which is Wroclaw, Poland today). She was the youngest child of a large, devout, talented Jewish family. Her father, Siegfried Stein, was an industrious and prosperous merchant trader. Her mother's name was Auguste, a strong and forceful woman who always cited these verses from the biblical book of Proverbs:

She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household...
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hand she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.

It was from her mother, apparently, that much of Edith's strength of character came. Indeed, she barely knew her father. Her last memory of him, she said, was from when she was not quite two years old. Her mother was holding her in her arms, and they both were waving good-bye to Siegfried as he left on a long journey to a distant forest, to scout out prospects for his lumber business. He never came back. Siegfried died of a stroke the very next day. Edith would never see her father again.

Her mother reminded her, too, that she had been born on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. She was, then, destined for great things. Her life was meant to signify something.

Edith was an intelligent child, but not an easy one. "During my early years," she wrote later, "I was mercurially lively, always in motion, spilling over with pranks, impertinent and precocious, and at the same time intractably stubborn and angry if anything went against my will."

She was also exceedingly gifted, and in 1897. she entered elementary school a full year early. So began the cultivation of her lifelong passion for learning and knowledge-- a passion that rivaled her family's deep Jewish faith for precedence in her life. Eventually, the life of the mind won out, and at the age of thirteen Edith suddenly stopped participating in family prayers and declared herself an atheist!

In 1911, just twenty years old, she was accepted at the University of Breslau and became one of the first women admitted to university studies in Germany. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and philology (the study of language). Two years later, she entered into more advanced study at the University of Gottingen under the noted philosopher Edmund Husserl.

Husserl had a profound influence on Stein. As a direct counter to Kantian idealism which held that everything is subjective and open to interpretation, Husserl's phenomenology insisted that both natural and transcendent reality have a knowable, objective nature. "[I wanted] to view things free of prejudice and throw off the blinders," Stein wrote of these years. The "search for truth" became her overriding passion, and under the influence of Husserl and his associates (a good number of whom were devout Catholics), her atheism began to crumble and she became open to the possibilities of faith as an important component of human living.

In 1917, Edith Stein received her Ph.D from the University of Gottingen, graduating summa cum laude, with a doctoral dissertation "On the Problem of Empathy". Shortly thereafter, Husserl invited her to come with him to Freiberg as his assistant. Edith moved there eagerly, but a few months later, word came to Freiberg that Husserl's close associate Adolf Renach has been killed in battle. Edith has greatly revered Reinach-- a man of deep "natural goodness", she had called him. On hearing the sad news, she immediately returned to Gottingen to pay condolences to Reinach's wife, Anna. But while Edith had expected to find Anna a shattered and grieving woman, instead she found a soul at peace, exuding courage and faith. Adolf was now with God, Anna told Edith, and her life would now go on as God intended it, for she had faith that the Cross of Jesus "brings healing and hope to all."

 Edith said nothing at the time, but later she wrote: "It was then that I first encountered the Cross and the divine strength which it inspires in those who bear it. It was at that moment that my unbelief was shattered."

Her search for truth continued. She described herself now as  "resting in God", on the verge of "a spiritual rebirth". One summer evening in 1921, Edith was again visiting friends in Gottingen. When they went out for the evening, Edith stayed behind. Randomly, she chose a book from their shelves; it was the autobiography of the sixteenth century mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite order.

Edith found herself simply transfixed by the words, and stayed up reading until dawn. When she finished at sunrise, she closed the book, then said to herself "This is the truth." There and then, she made the decision to convert to Catholicism. A few months later, on New Years Day 1922, Edith Stein was baptized at St. Martin's Church in nearby Berzabern. She chose Teresa as her baptismal name, in honor of the saint whose life story had brought her to her new faith. She was thirty years old.

Almost immediately, Edith made plans to become a Carmelite nun. She knew that both her conversion and her choice of the cloister would be a double blow to her elderly mother, and it was months before Edith worked up the courage to tell her family of her new religion. Their reaction was as anticipated: Frau Stein was devastated and broke into sobs. She could not understand, she said, how someone as intelligent as Edith could "turn her back" on her heritage and even "demean herself" by joining what she called "a superstitious sect".

But curiously, by embracing Christianity, Edith Stein drew closer to her Jewish roots. Once again, she began attending synagogue with her mother whenever she could-- something she had not done for years-- and felt that her new Christian faith was deepened and enlivened by the experience of her Jewish heritage. She also felt called to use her new position as a leader of the German Catholic Women's Movement to resist the growing tide of anti-Semitism in German society.

In January of 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and shortly thereafter Edith Stein requested a personal audience with Pope Pius XI to discuss formulating an encyclical meeting anti-Semitism head on. If the Holy Father were to speak out forcefully now, she wrote prophetically, then perhaps a terrible tragedy could be averted, before the anti-Jewish forces in Germany became fully institutionalized. But the Pope refused to meet with Stein. Instead, he sent along a papal blessing to her and her family. Anti-Semitic fervor in Germany reached a fever pitch, and Hitler and his henchmen laid the groundwork for the Final Solution.

On February 25, 1933, Edith Stein delivered her last lecture at the German Institute in Munster, and shortly thereafter was fired from her position because she was Jewish. Over Holy Week 1933, she travelled to Cologne, and attended services at the Carmelite convent there. She prayed for guidance:

"I told [our Lord] that it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross would consist of, that I did not yet know."

Edith was granted permission from the superiors of the Carmelites to begin study for Holy Orders. On October 15, 1933, just past her forty-second birthday, Edith Stein entered the novitiate at the Carmel of Cologne, taking the name Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

It was for Stein a time of great joy-- and of great challenge. Her family still felt betrayed. "Why now, Edith?" one of her sisters wrote. "Why now?"--with the rising wave of Nazi madness coming to full tide. The convent was hard work for her, too-- work of a different sort than she had been used to in academia. "Novitiate can be terribly trying on someone of 40," she wrote. "When it came to housework, she was always making all kinds of mistakes on account of her lack of practical experience," one of the nuns wrote later. As an intellectual and a scholar, responsible only for her own little room at the university, Edith had never needed to learn the details of domestic life. But now, she threw herself fully into the life of the convent, and savored each day.

Shortly after joining, the Carmelites asked her to write her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, in order to counter inhuman Nazi stereotypes of Jewish life. Within nine months, she had also finished her theological masterwork, Finite and Eternal Being, and then embarked on an in-depth analysis of the ancient Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius. Eventually, too, her sister, Rosa, converted to Christianity as well, and came to join her in Cologne.

 But her quiet life of scholarship and contemplation was to be shattered as were the lives of all of Germany's Jews on Kristallnacht-- November 8, 1938. The "Night of the Broken Glass" marked the commencement of Hitler's dreadful onslaught against the Jewish race. Synagogues throughout Germany were ransacked and burned. Jewish businesses were demolished. Hundreds of Jews were murdered; thousands were sent to concentration camps. The Carmelite prioress quickly decided that Germany was no longer safe for the Stein sisters, and she arranged to have them transferred to the convent at Echt in the Netherlands.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and the Second World War began. A few months later, Holland also fell under the Nazi noose, and Hitler named one of his most vile henchmen, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, as administrator over the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter, the persecution of Holland's Jews began. Edith and Rose Stein were required, along with the other Jews in the country, to wear the yellow Star of David over their nuns' habits. They were obliged to check in regularly for questioning with a member of the local Gestapo. When, at one of these meetings, the Gestapo agent greeted Edith with the traditional, "Heil Hitler!", she responded instead "Laudate Jesus Christus!" ["Praise be Jesus Christ!"] The official just stared at her in confusion and amazement.

Sensing now that the Stein sisters were in grave danger, their prioress in Holland desperately tried to get them transferred to a convent in Switzerland, one of the final neutral holdouts in Europe. But to no avail. Edith continued to work on her latest study-- a systematic analysis of the life of St. John of Cross called The Science of the Cross, It was a work she would never complete.

On July 11, 1942, a coalition of Protestant and Catholic clergymen throughout Holland sent a telegram to Seyss-Inquart, sternly stating their "outrage" at the imminent deportation of the Jews of the Netherlands. Such actions against the Jewish people, the clergy wrote, "ran counter to divine commandments of justice and charity," and must be cancelled at once. The clergy also declared that they would proclaim their protest from their pulpits on the following Sunday morning.

In response, Seyss-Inquart said that any such public proclamation would be greeted as an act of hostility against the Reich, and that protection would be removed from all the Jews of Holland, including those who had converted to Christianity. When the Catholic priests of Holland refused to back down, and issued their protests in their churches on July 26, Seyss-Inquart immediately declared that "because the bishops had interfered" all Catholic Jews were to be deported by the week's end.

On August 2, the orders of Seyss-Inquart were carried out. At five o'clock that evening, just as evening prayers were beginning, there was heavy pounding on the convent's front door. The SS had come, and before the worried sisters even knew what was happening, Edith and Rosa Stein were being led away. At first, Rosa seemed disoriented and confused. But Edith held her firmly by the arm, and said to her gently, "Come, Rosa, let us go for our people." These were to be the last recorded words of Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross.

First they were taken to the local police headquarters, then to the central deportation camp at Amersfoort; there, they joined 1200 other Catholic Jews, herded onto cattle cars on trains heading eastward. Within hours, they were at the prison camp at Drente-Westenbork. "What distinguished Edith Stein from the rest was her silence," wrote a survivor. Many mothers were on the brink of insanity and sat moaning for days, without giving any thought to their children. Edith Stein immediately set about taking care of these little ones. "Every time I think of her sitting in that barracks, the same picture comes to mind," one witness said later. "A pieta without the Christ."

On August 7, just five days later, she and the other Jews with her began their final journey-- toward Auschwitz. Two days later, in the early hours of August 9, they reached the notorious death camp in southern Poland. Almost immediately, she was stripped, examined, and led to the gas chamber. Her body was then cremated; the remains dumped into a common grave.

The official Nazi notation of he death read as follows:

Number 44074: Edith Therisia Hedwig Stein, Echt
Born-- October 12, 1891, Breslau
Died-- August 9, 1942, Auschwitz

She was just fifty years old when she died.

And yet, of course, her life lived on. Her writings were voluminous (indeed, when Pope John Paul II was asked why it had taken so many years for Edith Stein finally to be named a saint, he responded, "She has written too much!") Her studies-- of philosophy and theology, of church history, of the place of women in society and the church-- found an even more receptive audience after her death than when she was alive.

On October 11, 1998, in an impressive ceremony at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II decreed Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was a decision not without controversy. Many Jewish groups objected, saying that the Pope's action was an attempt by the Church to co opt the Holocaust, and to cover over the Church's failure adequately to protect the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. "It's outrageous," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "This is a very public slap in the face to the Jewish community. The pope is sending an extremely negative message to the Jewish community that, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the best Jews are those who convert to Catholicism."

One can sympathize with Jewish feelings. Nonetheless, one can also celebrate the profound choice of Edith Stein as a distinctly modern saint for our own times.

She left Judaism, true, and became a Roman Catholic-- a Catholic nun, at that. But she never "turned her back" on her heritage as a Jewish woman. She always declared that her Jewishness was perhaps the most fundamental aspect of her very being. The new insights she gained from Christianity drew her even closer to the faith of her ancestors; it lived again in her eyes and in her life. She was extremely loyal to her people, and sought to protect them at all costs. "Come, Rosa, we are going for our people," she told her sister. She would stand by them; she would die along with them-- not because she was a Catholic nun, but because she was a Jewish woman.

She is a modern saint to celebrate, too, because she was a woman: a fully actualized, brilliant-minded woman, who knew from an early age that she had particular gifts to offer the world, and who knew that the world would not be saved until all women were empowered to offer their gifts. She succeeded in a field where few women had dared to tread before. "There is no profession that cannot be practiced by a woman," she wrote. And, she believed, every field where women practiced was made better and more complete because they were there.

Edith Stein was a thoroughly modern woman of the twentieth century. What better intercessor and exemplar do we have for these difficult times than this powerful daughter of Abraham, this blessed elder sister of our age?


  1. I really enjoyed this, Jeff. Is there a study of Stein's work that would show how her jewish roots connect with her christianity?

  2. I thought it was very unfortunate that the pope would not meet or listen to Edith Stein. I would like to read her book "The Problem With Empathy". I relate to her as a convert to Catholicism and being proud of my Jewish background and also a person who believes that having a strong faith is essential to living well.

  3. Edith Stein was certainly a saint for both the Jews and the Christians and her example is one for the entire world. Thank you for reminding us that no matter what our faith we must fight against evil in all its forms.

  4. I'm reading her autobiography at present. Her development from a committed atheist - steeped in the anti religious, pessimistic modern philosophies so popular among the intellectuals of her time - towards the true understanding of the acting person is truly impressive. She anticipated the great struggle of our times and by balancing faith and reason resisted with equal conviction modern fatalistic determinism on the one hand and the "will to power" on the other. She is inspirational.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Indeed, she is a woman of great inspiration to us all, especially in our own times, with faith so often under assault, both by the forces of unbelief, and those who seek a narrow, rigid faith bent solely to their own purposes.

  6. I have been looking for a practical confirmation saint for almost a month now, and now i have found one! This saint lived a great life with a great purpose, and she is a model for today's catholic in today's world. Thank you so much for this.

  7. Wow, as a New Yorker, where I interfaced with many Jews, my best friend being a Jew, I will mention her to my friend and to other Jews.

  8. This is the best short account of Edith Stein that I have read in English. I am from the Catholic parish of Edith Stein in Münster. She taught at the pedagogical academy here for a year before she was forbidden to teach on account of being a Jew. It was also in Münster that she discovered her vocation to be a Carmelite.