Sunday, 8 August 2021

Who was Edith Stein?

In October 1998, St John Paul II  declared Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to be a saint.  Saint Teresa is better known as Edith Stein.  In 1999, he added her to the list of patron saints of the European continent. Her feast day is 9th August, and it is celebrated with the Liturgical rank of Feast in the dioceses of Europe. Who was St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross?  What is her importance for us today?

Edith was the youngest child in a large and talented Jewish family.  She was born on 12th October 1891.  Her family lived in the German town of Breslau, a town which is now known as Wroclaw and is part of Poland.  She rejected her Jewish faith, and describes how from the age of 15 she lived without religious faith.  Edith was amongst the first women to study at German universities.  At Gottingen she was able to study with some of the cleverest philosophers of her generation.  Her attempts to gain a permanent university post were blocked, at first because of the fact that she was a woman but later because of growing anti-Jewish feeling.

Through her studies Edith came to meet a number of people who had embraced Christian faith.  She was led first of all to an awareness of the life of religious faith amongst those around her, then to an awareness of the redemptive power of the cross in the life of a Lutheran friend who had suffered bereavement, and finally to faith in the Catholic Church.  Her conversion came about because of her absolute dedication to the truth wherever she found it.  This dedication was an aspect of her philosophical stance, but at the decisive moments in her conversion, the philosophy was incidental.  Instead, it was the series of personal encounters, culminating in her encounter with St Teresa of Avila in reading her Life, that determined her conversion.

As a lay Catholic, Edith lived out much that was later to be emphasised in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.  She lived a life of intense personal prayer, often spending hours on her knees before the Blessed Sacrament.  She developed a tremendous love of the Liturgy, through her visits to the Benedictine Abbey of Beuron - she once described returning from Beuron to her active life as being “almost like dropping from heaven to earth”.  She used the Divine Office for her prayer - decades before it became common for lay people to do so.  For many years Edith taught at St Magdalena’s, the Dominican sisters school in Speyer.  One of her students remembered her like this: “She succeeded in setting the course not only for my studies but for all my future moral aspirations. With her you sensed you were in the presence of something pure, sublime, and noble, something that elevated you and brought you to its own level”.  In a personal apostolate of like to like, she also influenced the lives of many of the trainee teachers and Dominican novices at St Magdalena’s.  Through her collaboration with Fr Erich Pryzwara, she pursued an intellectual apostolate which gained her an international reputation as a lecturer.

Edith was eventually forced out of public life in Germany because of the rise of anti-Jewish persecution under the Nazis.  In 1933 she fulfilled her goal of entering the Carmelite order as an enclosed nun.  All Edith’s active apostolate is to be seen as directed towards this step - it was  undertaken under obedience in response to the suggestions of others, a form of obedience expressed in its fullness in Edith’s life as a religious. Her life can be summed up as one of preferring the religious life.  Edith was transferred from the convent at Cologne to that at Echt in Holland as anti-Jewish persecution in Germany increased.  That was not enough to keep her safe.  In 1942, the Catholic bishops joined other Christian leaders in Holland in a protest against the deportation of Jews by the German occupying authorities, a protest that was at first not made public.  Subsequently, a pastoral letter condemning the German actions was read in all Catholic parishes.  This led the Germans to retaliate by arresting all Catholics of Jewish descent, Edith and her sister Rosa amongst them.  Edith and Rosa were deported with others to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau where they both died immediately after arrival on 9th August 1942.

Edith’s personality combined a very warm love for others with an ability to be severely critical.  Her nephews and nieces adored her - the special aunt who appeared only rarely, no more than twice a year, with a cloud-soft voice and a gentle smile, cool and aloof.  Despite the pain caused by her conversion and entry into Carmel, her family retained a very rich love towards her which she reciprocated.  Edith could kneel for hours in prayer, without moving - and genuinely found it difficult to understand why others could not do the same.  The severe aspect of her character arose from the very high standards that Edith set for herself, rather than any antagonism towards others.  It was also expressed in her implacable opposition to the Nazis - she would have approved entirely of the action of the Dutch bishops which led to her own martyrdom.  At one of her interrogations with the German authorities, before her arrest, she replaced the expected Nazi salute with the words: “Praised be Jesus Christ!”.

Edith Stein is an example to us of the part that lay people have to play in the Church, both in her life of prayer and in her work with others in the world.  She is at the same time an example to us of the part which  religious (nuns, monks and priests) have to play in the Church.  The thread which links these together is her obedience to God’s grace, which led her from unbelief to the Catholic faith, and on to her life as a Carmelite nun.

[An appreciation of Edith Stein alongside John Henry Newman can be found here: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.]

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