The Church and the world has witnessed yet another outstanding model of faith in the life and martyrdom of the Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Edith Stein was born in 1891 to a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany. Her father died when she was not quite 2 years old, leaving her mother to care for the children and to take over the family business. The highly gifted Edith began school, but at the age of 14 suddenly broke off everything. She went to Hamburg to live with her newly-wedded sister, where she lost her faith and lived as a proclaimed atheist. Later she returned to her family home in Breslau and resumed her studies with new enthusiasm. Graduating from high school with high honors, she continued her studies in Breslau and later in Gottingen under the renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl. At the University of Freibug Edith got her Doctorate in philosophy. The topic of her Doctoral dissertation was “On the Problem of Empathy.” During these years she had also volunteered for service in the Red Cross Military Hospital as a nurse. For the next 16 years she would either teach, lecture or assist Husserl in his research; she was a brilliant woman.
Faced with the death of a friend, Edith experienced something new as she witnessed the Christian faith of his young widow; it was an experience of the power and strength that comes from the Cross. Then came the question for Edith: What shape am I going to give to my life? Where can I find God? It was “in the summer of 1921 that the Life of our Holy Mother Teresa, happened to fall into my hands” and her “long search for the true faith came to an end.” For years she had looked for truth philosophically as a scholar, but now in the reading of St. Teresa of Avila she was filled with the truth of love that is not knowledge but relationship – relationship with God and with him whom God had sent, Jesus Christ.
On January 1, 1922 Edith Stein was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. Upon receiving her first Holy Communion she testified that there began a new phase in her life. She continued her teaching and lecturing, being especially concerned for the education of young women. Edith gave much time to prayer during these years and was often found praying silently before the tabernacle. Fr. Raphael Walzer, her spiritual director, later related: “She wanted simply to be there with God, to see the great mysteries before her. Her inward self remained in the tranquility of blissful contemplation and joy before God.” He continued, “I have seldom met a person in whom so many and such praisewothy characteristics were united. At the same time, she remained entirely a woman with tender, almost motherly sensitivities. Mystically gifted, she was unpretentious with simple people, scholarly with scholars, a seeker with seekers, I would almost say, a sinner with sinners.”
The beginning of the year 1933 brought a change in the lives of many people, including Edith Stein. The anti-Semitic maneuvers of the Third Reich put an end to her work as instructor in Munster. However, this did not surprise her: a keen political observer, Edith saw that National Socialism was not only a political party, but a professed mythos, a world view. Eventually, after years of being absorbed in the writings of St. Teresa of Jesus, whose heart knew nothing more than God and the people she wanted to win for His service, Edith reached the conclusion that the hour had come when she herself had to follow Teresa’s path. On October 14, 1933, after a difficult leave-taking from her aged mother, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne and chose the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was clothed with the habit of Carmel and later made her temporary and perpetual vows, sealing her covenant with Christ. She was totally at home in her new life and gave herself with fervor to prayer. Following the wishes of her superiors she also continued her writing, both philosophical and on subjects related to religious Carmelite life. Among the greatest of the many works which she produced was Finite and Eternal Being.
In 1938, realizing the growing hostility of the Nazi government toward Jews, even Jews converted to Christianity, Sr. Teresa Benedicta asked for a transfer to the Carmel of Echt, Holland, that her Sisters in Cologne might be freed from any danger on her account. However, On August 2, 1942 she and her sister Rosa were arrested and brought to Amersfoort Camp and later, to Auschwitz where imminent death and martyrdom awaited her. During her short time in the camp she was heard to say: “Whatever may come, I am prepared for everything. Here, too, Jesus is among us.” On August 9, 1942, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was killed in a gas chamber and cremated in Auschwitz.
Like the well known Old Testament figure Queen Esther, St. Teresa Benedicta was to stand before the King, the great King and Lord of all, on behalf of her people and offer her life with faith and courage. On his first official visit to Poland, Pope St. John Paul II spoke the following: “In this place of horrible torture, which brought death to four million people, there was achieved a spiritual victory which resembles the victory of Christ, by voluntarily accepting death. In this place, where the dignity of man was so horribly trampled underfoot, we witness the triumph of one human being, the triumph brought about by faith and love!”Such was the witness and powerful example of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Holding high the Cross of Christ she leads us forward in our own pilgrimage of faith. Her feast is celebrated on August 9th.