Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Edith Stein, Jew feminist, turned atheist became Carmelite nun:St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Selected Lenten Reflections: Wednesday
of the Fifth Week of Lent: 
St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The Fascinating Story of Edith Stein, an intellectual power house, a daughter of Israel,  trailblazing feminist turned atheist influenced by other women, became  a Carmelite nun and willingly carried her cross all the way to the gas Chamber in Auschwitz. 

Edith Stein, OCD (religious name: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross; 12 October 1891 – 9 August 1942.) A brilliant philosopher who stopped believing in God when she was 14, Edith Stein was so captivated by reading the autobiography of Teresa of Avila that she began a spiritual journey that led to her baptism in 1922. Twelve years later she imitated Saint Teresa by becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Edith Stein was born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (12 October, 1891), in what is niw Wroclaw, Poland.  More than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her mother. Being born on this day was like a foreshadowing to Edith, a future Carmelite nun.

She was the youngest of 11 children in a devout Jewish family.  When she was not yet two years old her father died suddenly, leaving Edith’s mother to raise the seven remaining children,four had died in childhood, and to manage the family business. Brought up on the Psalms and Proverbs, Edith considered her mother a living example of the strong woman of Proverbs 31. However, by her teenage years, Stein had lost her Jewish faith and regarded herself an atheist, although she continued to respect her mother’s total openness to God.  hildren. Edith lost her faith in God. "I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying," she said.

In 1911 she enrolled at the University of Breslau to study German and history, but her real interest was in philosophy and in women's issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women's Franchise. "When I was at school and during my first years at university," she wrote later, "I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions."

In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to Göttingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl, then the rock star of philosophy. Edmund Husserl was the principal founder of phenomenology, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He  made important contributions to almost all areas of philosophy and anticipated central ideas of its neighboring disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and cognitive psychology. Stein became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl's new view of reality, beyond the Kantian
way:  "I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." Husserl's phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith.

It was her study of philosophy which led her to acknowledge the existence of a transcendent reality. In G6ttingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism.  Under the influence of friends who had discovered Christianity, her atheism began to falter.

At the beginning of the First World War, having done a nursing course and gone to serve in an Austrian field hospital, she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theatre, and saw young people die. When the hospital was dissolved, in 1916, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg.During this period she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. "This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot

In 1913 Stein transferred to Göttingen. There she became an active member of the Göttingen Philosophical Society, that included Reinach, Ingarden, and Conrad-Martius. In Göttingen she also attended Scheler’s lectures, which left a deep impression. Stein approached Husserl to write a doctorate on phenomenology, and his initial reaction was to recommend instead that she sit the state teaching examination. However, encouraged by Reinach, she completed her thesis in summer 1916 and graduated summa cum laude for her dissertationDas Einfühlungsproblem in seiner historischen Entwicklung und in phänomenologischer Betrachtung (The Empathy Problem as it Developed Historically and Considered Phenomenologically), part of which was published as Zum Problem der Einfühlung (On the Problem of Empathy; Stein 1917

In November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit her friend's Adolf Reinach's widow. The Reinachs had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. "This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it ... it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me - Christ in the mystery of the Cross."

Later, she wrote: "Things were in God's plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that - from God's point of view - there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God's divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God's all-seeing eyes."

In the summer of 1921. she spent several weeks in Bergzabern on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl's. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. "When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth." Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: "My longing for truth was a single prayer."

Edith Stein wanted to obtain a professorship, a goal that was impossible for a woman at the time. Husserl wrote the following reference: "Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship." Later, she was refused a professorship on account of her Jewishness.

She was baptized on 1 January, 1922, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham. At the Feast of the Purification of Mary,another day with an Old Testament reference,she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel.

After her conversion she went straight to Breslau: "Mother," she said, "I am a Catholic." The two women cried. Hedwig Conrad Martius wrote: "Behold, two Israelites indeed, in whom is no deceit!" (cf. John 1:47).

Until Easter 1931 she taught German and history at the Dominican Sisters' school and teacher training college of St. Magdalen's Convent in Speyer. She was encouraged by Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women's issues. "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."

In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a "tool of the Lord" in everything she taught. "If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him."

In 1933 The Aryan Law of the Nazis made it impossible for Edith Stein to continue teaching. "I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine. If I can't go on here, then there are no longer any opportunities for me in Germany," she wrote; "I had become a stranger in the world." Stein met with the prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. "Human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ. It is my desire to share in it."

Stein then went to Breslau for the last time, to say good-bye to her mother and her family. Her last day at home was her birthday, 12 October, which was also the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Edith went to the synagogue with her mother. It was a hard day for the two women. "Why did you get to know Christianity ?" her mother asked, "I don't want to say anything against him. He may have been a very good person. But why did he make himself God?" Edith's mother cried.

Edith joined the Carmelite Convent of Cologne on 14 October, anow known as Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce - Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. In 1938 she wrote: "I understood the cross as the destiny of God's people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody's behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery."

By November, 9, 1938 the anti-Semitism of the Nazis became apparent to the whole world: Synagogues were burnt, and the Jewish people were subjected to terror. The prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne did her utmost to take Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce abroad. On New Year's Eve 1938 she was smuggled across the border into the Netherlands, to the Carmelite Convent in Echt in the Province of Limburg. This is where she wrote her will on 9 June 1939: "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."

Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 1942, while she was in the chapel with the other sisters. She was to report within five minutes, together with her sister Rosa, who had also converted and was serving at the Echt Convent. Her last words to be heard in Echt were addressed to Rosa: "Come, we are going for our people."  Together with many other Jewish Christians, the two women were taken to Westerbork as retaliation against a letter of protest written by the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops against the pogroms and deportations of Jews. Edith commented, "I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. ... I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress."

On August 7,  987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, her sister and many other of her people were gassed.

When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on 1 May 1987, the Church honoured "a daughter of Israel", as Pope John Paul II put it, 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."

O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me and I shall met with peace.

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