A Martyr For Reconciliation
"EDITH STEIN: HER ROAD TO SANCTITY"
1891. Edith Stein, the seventh and last child of a fairly well-to-do Jewish couple, Siegfried and Auguste Stein, is born in Breslau, Germany, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, on October 12, Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement — a day she would come to compare to Good Friday.
"My mother laid great emphasis on the occurrence, and I think more than anything else, it made her youngest child especially dear to her. The day of Atonement is the most solemn of all Jewish holy days, the day when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, taking along the sacrifices to be offered in atonement for himself and all the people, after the scapegoat, burdened with the sins of the nation, had been driven into the wilderness." Her mother, Edith says, "set an irreproachable example in her observance of the rites of Israel, and saw to it that her children strictly followed her example. Grace was said in Hebrew, and every ceremonial prescription of the Talmud was precisely carried out; a reverent fear of God formed a serious background."
1893. Edith's father, at age 48, dies of a heat stroke while away on business. Frau Stein takes charge of the family lumber company, and by intelligent and strenuous efforts keeps it operating successfully.
1895-1905. Katharina Ruben, a childhood playmate of Edith and Erna, her sister — 19 months older than Edith — recalls an incident: '"Whoever lies once is never believed, even when he speaks the truth!' I can still hear young Edith saying that; she would have been in her 4th year at most. Erna was my real friend at that time; we regarded little Edith with proper contempt."
Edith describes her early years this way: "Right from early childhood, my relatives used two qualities to describe me. They scolded me — correctly — for being vain, and they called me, 'Edith, the smart one,' with emphasis on 'smart.' Both of these hurt me very much because I thought they were saying I tended to exaggerate my own intelligence. Also, even as a little girl, I knew it was much more important to be good than to be smart."
She continues: "My oldest sister, whom I loved very much, tested her newly-acquired child-training methods on me in vain. Her last resort was to lock me in a dark room. When this danger loomed, I would lie on the floor, stiff with resistance, and it took super-human effort for my frail sister to lift me and carry me off. In my dark prison, in no way resigned to my fate, instead of screaming at the top of my lungs, I hammered at the door with both fists."
1898. By the age of seven, the age of reason," Edith reports she could "almost" indomitable personality "without a struggle." In the local elementary school, her family's judgment of her intellectual abilities is quickly confirmed. She shines in her studies.
1906-07. By age 15, Edith declares herself "without religion" and "an atheist."
1907-11. In the Oberlyceum (of Victoria School in Breslau) she continues her superb academic work. But her lively and highly motivated striving for perfection also brings criticism. A Latin teacher, while praising her, tells her to stop trying so hard. Another teacher interprets her enthusiasm and humor as "gloating at the misfortunes of others." Edith writes: "That anyone could consider me of such an attitude pained me so much that I burst into tears." She passes the Abitur [graduation] examination required for higher studies in 1911 at the age of 19.
1911-13. Attends the University of Breslau, initially planning to concentrate on psychology. She writes that "the constant exertion of all my powers gave an exhilarating feeling of living a very full life, and I saw myself as a richly endowed and highly privileged creature." But her caustically humorous comments upset others. An instructor, Hugo Hermsen, remarks as she left Breslau to move to another university: "I wish you the good fortune of finding people who will satisfy your tastes. Here you seem to have become far too critical." She describes her reaction: "The words stunned me. I was no longer accustomed to any form of censure. At home hardly anyone dared to criticize me; my friends showed me only affection and admiration. So I had been living in the naive conviction that I was perfect. I had always considered it my privilege to make remarks about everything I found negative, inexorably pointing out other persons' weaknesses, mistakes, or faults often using a ridiculing or sarcastic tone of voice. There were persons who found me 'enchantingly malicious.' So these words of farewell from a man I esteemed and loved caused me acute distress."
A short time later she describes a changed young woman: "Being right and getting the better of my opponent under any circumstances were no longer essentials for me. Though I still had as keen an eye for the human weaknesses of others, I no longer made it an instrument for striking them at their most vulnerable point, but rather, for protecting them."
1913-15. Stein goes to the University of Gottingen, to work under the world-recognized phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl and his younger colleagues, Adolf Reinach and Max Scheler. All three of them are Jewish and profoundly interested in ethical and religious
questions. Reinach and Scheler were also already Christian. Stein would closely follow Husserl's developing interest in the Christian faith over the next 25 years. (These philosophers and their circle would also intrigue the student Karol Wojtyla.)
Edith saw philosophic studies as a search for truth. She turned away from psychology, feeling it to be "without a soul." About her encounter with Husserl's phenomenology she writes: "Everything I learned delighted me, because it consisted precisely in the task of clarification where, right from the start, you yourself forged the necessary intellectual equipment." Her atheistic prejudices begin to disappear: "We were repeatedly enjoined to observe all things without prejudice. The barriers of rationalistic prejudices with which I had unwittingly grown up fell, and the world of faith unfolded before me."
She has no certainty where her search for truth will lead her. In the beginning she is simply a dedicated student out to master her field, or fields. She weighs everything she encounters — Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and varieties of ancient and contemporary European religious attitudes. Twenty-five years later, she will come to write: "God is truth, and whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether he knows it or not."
During 1913, Max Scheler seems to be having the most dramatic influence. Edith sees him as personifying "in pure form the 'phenomenon of creative genius."' He also introduces her to a Catholic view of life in his lectures on subjects like "The Nature of the Holy." One of Edith's fellow students says Scheler "may well have been the stimulus behind the movement towards the Catholic Church undeniably taking place among Husserl's and Reinach's students. Both of us were affected by the excitement as well. For me, and I think for her too, it provided the first push along the road to conversion."
One of the first things that impressed Edith Stein about Catholicism was its teaching on marriage: "I truly hoped for a great love and a happy marriage. Somehow, without any knowledge of Catholic dogma or moral teaching, I had become imbued with the Catholic ideal of marriage. There was someone I actually met at the university whom I thought of as my future husband. But practically no one had any idea of this; to most people, I seemed cold and unapproachable."
Edith also writes of making religious inquiries to an Orthodox Jewish student around this time: "In Gottingen when I began to interest myself in religious questions, I wrote to Metis asking him for his idea of God and whether he himself believed in a personal God. The answer was brief: God is Spirit — there is nothing more to be said. To me it was as if I had been given a stone instead of bread."
But when her nearly endless hours of study and writing bring her near to total despair, it is Adolph Reinach and later his wife, Anna, both Lutherans, whose kindness and faith most tellingly influence Edith.
She describes her depression: "For the first time in my life I was confronted by something I could not conquer by sheer will power. Life seemed unbearable. Reasoning was of no avail. I could no longer cross the street without wishing I would be run over by some vehicle. And when we went on an excursion, I hoped I would fall off a cliff and not return alive."
She then turns to Reinach: "Never before could I remember meeting anybody so absolutely good-hearted. Naturally, I expected that love would be shown me by my relatives and close friends. But here was something different. It was my first glimpse into a totally new world."
Looking back, she sees conversion had already begun. She says she was "transformed almost without knowing it." But it would be another five or more years before she would find that combination of truth, love, and faith which would possess her mind and heart entirely.
1914-18 World War I. Stein writes: "My fellow students were in the service and I did not see why I should have things better than they did." Despite her mother's fears, she volunteers to serve a period as a nurse's assistant in an Austrian military hospital for contagious diseases. 1916. Edith goes to the University of Freiburg as assistant to Husserl, the "dear master." He, almost presciently, asks her to investigate "the phenomenon of empathy" for her doctoral dissertation.
1917. Reinach, in his mid-30's, is killed on the Western front.
Edith receives her Doctor of Philosophy degree, summa cum laude. In the conclusion of her dissertation, she writes: "I myself may be an infidel and yet understand that someone else may sacrifice all his earthly possessions for his faith. Thus I acquire by empathy the concept of homo religiosus, and though it is alien to my thinking, I understand him."
1918. Edith is asked to organize Reinach's papers in preparation for publication. She goes to his home, apprehensive that Anna Reinach's tragic loss must have left her depressed and inconsolable. But the widow is not without consolation; her Christian faith in redemptive suffering and resurrection sustains her in hope. Stein writes: "This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine strength it imparts to those who carry it. It was the moment when my unbelief collapsed, Judaism paled and Christ shone forth; Christ in the mystery of the Cross."
1919. On a visit to Frankfurt: "We went into the cathedral for a few moments, and as we stood there in respectful silence, a woman came in with her shopping basket and knelt down in one of the pews to say a short prayer. That was something completely new to me. In the synagogue or the Protestant churches I had visited, people only went in at the time of the service. But here was someone coming into the empty church in the middle of a day's work as if to talk with a friend. I have never been able to forget that."
1921. Edith visits her philosopher friends, Professors Hans and Hedwig Conrad-Martius, in Bavaria. Hedwig reports that she and Edith were each in the midst of a "religious crisis." One evening the Conrad-Martiuses are away and Edith is alone. She chooses a book to read from their library — it is St. Teresa of Avila's Autobiography. She reads through the evening and into the morning. She puts the book down, saying: "This is the truth."
The next day she buys a catechism and a missal, and buries herself in them. She goes to her first Mass at the local parish Church. After Mass she asks the priest to baptize her, but he tells her that is a long process that requires a solid knowledge of what the Church teaches. She says she is ready to be examined. He questions her and is amazed; after a few weeks of meeting, they set the day to baptize her.
January 1, 1922. Edith Stein is baptized, taking Teresa as her baptismal name. Hedwig Conrad-Martius acts as her godmother. From that day, Edith Stein's life centers on daily Mass, Communion, the Office and intense prayer. "When I was baptized I thought of it as a preparation for entrance into the [Carmelite] Order [of cloistered nuns]. But a few months later, when I saw my mother for the first time after baptism, I realized that she couldn't handle another blow for the present. Not that it would have killed her, but I couldn't have held myself responsible for the embitterment it would have caused."
February 2, 1922, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, Edith is confirmed at the Cathedral in Speyer.
She goes to Breslau for six months to break the news to her mother and family. She kneels before her mother and tells her she has been baptized. Frau Stein, for the first time ever in Edith's sight, cries uncontrollably. Edith goes to synagogue with her mother on the Day of Atonement, and prays the Psalms from her breviary. Whenever she is in Breslau during Jewish holy days, she continues to accompany her mother to synagogue. Her siblings, nieces and nephews have memories of Edith as bringing "a holiday atmosphere with her" on her visits.
1923. Mons. Joseph Schwind, Canon of the Speyer Cathedral, becomes Edith's spiritual advisor. He reinforces her reluctant decision not to enter the Carmelites, telling her that concern for her mother is right, and that she can serve God in the world as well as in the cloister. He arranges a teaching position at the Dominican convent school of St. Magdalena in Speyer — a combined high school and teacher's college. When she visits the building, the first thing she notices is the word inscribed in granite over the main door, Veritas — Truth, the Dominican motto.
1923-31. Though still a lay woman, Edith, nevertheless, lives with the nuns and shares their routine of prayer. She takes "the three vows privately." She is an exceptionally devout and dedicated teacher. Her advice to a teaching nun: "The most important thing is that teachers should really have Christ's spirit in themselves and really embody it in their lives. The children in school do not need merely what we have, but what we are." She expands on this: "The entire educational process must be carried out with love which is perceptible in every disciplinary measure and which does not instill any fear. And the most effective educational method is not the word of instruction but the living example without which all words remain useless."
Her students, 17 and older, have left accounts of her as a teacher. She would, for example, ask them to write essays on such topics as: "First carefully reflect, then dare," "Character is destiny," "I am not a book to be read and understood, I am a human being with human contradictions." They describe her friendliness: "She loved to be with her students in her free time giving in entirely to whatever games we wanted to play! Silly games... such as we at our age loved."
Her personality: "I did my test very badly, but she remained absolutely calm and friendly all the same. Her appearance was refined, delicate and womanly. One of the older pupils put it this way to me: 'You can't tell what kind of temperament she has, because she has become perfectly balanced.' Actually, she had an excitable temperament because on one occasion she left our class before the end of the period because we were unable to explain a phrase. We were left utterly dismayed.
"She set me on my way, not only in my studies but in my whole moral life. To see her praying in church, where she often knelt motionless for hours at a time, besides during the services, was an impressive sermon."
She developed her educational ideals and practices into a complete philosophy of education for women during eight years at St. Magdalena's. Her reputation among Catholics as a devout believer, keen observer, and gifted intellectual spreads across Germany.
1925. Fr. Erich Przywara, SJ, philosophy of religion specialist, urges her to translate Cardinal John Henry Newman's Letters from English into German, and St. Thomas Aquinas' Disputed Questions on Truth from Latin into German. Neither work had ever been translated into German. Though she can only find a free half hour here and there, she begins and succeeds brilliantly.
1927. Fr. Przywara suggests a lecture tour to include Germany, Switzerland and Austria. She cannot refuse because she is convinced "that religion is not something to be relegated to a quiet corner; it must be the root and basis of all life: and that, not merely for a few chosen, but for every true Christian (though of these there is still but a little flock'), That it is possible to worship God by doing scholarly research is something I learned, actually, only when I was busy with St. Thomas. Only thereafter did I decide to resume serious scholarly research. Immediately before and a good while after my conversion I was of the opinion that one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must 'go out of oneself; that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it."
Also in 1927, Canon Joseph Schwind dies. He not only had advised Edith spiritually but had introduced her to his relatives, who welcomed her as a family member. Edith writes an obituary praising his spiritual wisdom. Her last known message, delivered on her way to the concentration camp, will be to a relative of the Canon.
1928. The liturgical reform movement in Germany is centered in the Benedictine Abbey in Beuron. Edith goes there for a retreat during Holy Week. She briefly meets with Abbot Raphael Walzer. He will become her spiritual advisor for the remainder of her life, apparently coming to know her more profoundly than anyone else. After her death, he will refer to her as "one of the greatest women of our time, gifted with mystical graces in the true sense of the word."
She makes a Holy Week retreat at Beuron each year until she enters the cloister. She is drawn to Benedictine spirituality and her reaction to the liturgical reforms is warm, but her attachment to interior devotion is deep and unshakable even at public Mass. A Benedictine nun reports: "I was sent as a young religious to attend to community business near Speyer and was thus able to spend some time with Edith Stein. Sunday morning we attended solemn high Mass in the Cathedral together. For almost the entire liturgy, Edith Stein remained on her knees with her eyes closed and her face resting in her hands. To a young, liturgically-minded Benedictine like myself, that made no sense at all. Afterwards, I told her [so]. I don't remember what she answered."
Edith Stein would shortly write an essay, "The Prayer of the Church," in which she provided a detailed answer; she said that "true prayer" can only be "the mutual self-giving of God and the soul." When this inward, hidden union between the soul and God, "the high-priest love of Jesus living within them," is not present, all public prayer will degenerate.
Abbot Walzer speaks of Edith's sense of worship this way: "All she wanted was to be with God in church, and to have the great mystery in front of her. The almost rigid exterior she presented while praying was matched by the interior of a soul enjoying the blessed contemplation of God."
1927-33. Edith gives a series of talks to Catholic professional women urging them to look at themselves in a new way, to consider their distinctive nature, and to become significant workers in rebuilding a world that had been shattered by war, unemployment and social turmoil. Here are some selections from her lectures:
"More than anything else today, what is needed is the baptism of spirit and fire. This alone can prepare those who shape human life to take their rightful place at the front lines in the battle between Christ and Lucifer. There is no more urgent task than to be constantly armed and ready for this battle."
"Do we grasp social problems, the burning problems of today? Do they concern us also? Or are we waiting until others find some solution or until we are submerged by the billows of chaos? We must get in touch with the social ferment of the masses and understand their physical and spiritual and physical needs. Are we familiar with the work of the adversary? In the mine fields of today's society, can we justify looking backwards continuously while our adversary wages war against our views?"
"Only through knowledge of and love for God can the right persona] attitude be won, and in this attitude we find woman's unique nature purified to its intrinsic value. However, knowledge and love of God is won only by a continuous, intimate communion with Him, most surely through a liturgical life. That woman who, everywhere she goes, brings along with her the Savior and enkindles love for Him will fulfill her feminine vocation in its purest form."
"After the life-and-death struggle of a World War, the nations of Europe have collapsed alongside one another. Whether a policy of international reconciliation will gradually prevail against strong counter-currents is impossible to predict with certainty. But one thing is clear: the issue involves women. If a woman's vocation is the protection of life and the preservation of the family, she cannot remain indifferent as to whether or not governments and nations assume forms which are favorable to the growth of the family and the well-being of the young."
1929. Edith publishes "Husserl's Phenomenology and the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas" in a collection of essays celebrating the philosopher's 70th birthday. It forms part of a longer, major philosophical study she will finish nearly nine years later. She visits Husserl for the first time since her conversion and they talk long and frankly about faith in God. She writes: "I believe one must be aware of illusions." Husserl (and his wife) have already become Lutheran. She follows his religious development with intense interest, observing: "It is good that we should be able to discuss ultimate questions: [but] prayer and sacrifice are much more important than anything we can say. After every encounter in which I realize my inability to influence others directly, I become more intensely conscious of the urgent need for a personal holocaustum [sacrifice]."
1930. National Socialists become the major party in Germany's Reichstag. Edith Stein is one of the few to foresee the evil they will unleash on Germany.
December 19, 1930. She writes to a student interested in Catholicism: "I am only a tool of the Lord. I would like to lead to him anyone who comes to me."
1931-1932. Publication in successive years of her two-volume translation of St. Thomas's Quaestiones disputatae de veritate. Her work is immediately highly praised in Catholic quarters.
March, 1931. Edith leaves St. Magdelena's in Speyer, but continues to lecture and do research on St. Thomas and phenomenology. Explores university appointments in Breslau and Freiburg. Encounters anti-feminine, anti-Semitic resistance.
1932. Abbot Walzer continues to stress scholarship and working in the world over entering Carmel. Edith accepts an appointment at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster — a state research institute staffed by Catholics — which gives her increased scholarly prominence in Germany. Her lectures at the Institute on "The Structure of the Human Person" impress students with their clarity, freshness and intensity. She is seen as "the most uncompromising representative among the teachers of the strictly Catholic viewpoint."
September 1932. She is invited to France for a philosophic conference of experts on "Phenomenology and Thomism." A participant, Professor Rosenmohl, writes: "She made an extraordinarily strong impression on this learned company."
Christmas 1932. She is with the Ursuline nuns in Dorsten. Reverend Mother Petra recalls: "On Christmas Eve she joined us in singing Matins, then we went to rest for an hour before midnight. When I returned to the church, I found her still kneeling motionless. She then sang the Office of Lauds with us. When I asked her later whether she had not been weary she replied: 'How could one grow weary on this night?"'
1933. In first months of the year, the Nazis assume control of the Reichstag and enact anti-Semitic laws, including one to eliminate Jews from university positions. Edith Stein gives her last lecture at the Munster Institute on February 25.
Clearly aware of the course Nazi anti-Semitism will most likely follow, Edith seeks an audience with Pope Pius XI. Rome is more over-extended than usual because 1933 is a Holy Year, and she is offered a general but not a private audience. This would not enable her to make her case, so she writes Pius a letter, which she is informed was put into his hand. She receives a blessing for herself and her family. She later wonders if her letter ever enters Pius' mind as Nazi persecutions mount.
First Friday, April, 1933. At Holy Hour in the Carmel of Cologne-Lindenthal: "I spoke to our Savior and told Him that I knew that it was His Cross that was now being laid on the Jewish people. Most did not understand it, but those who did understand must accept it willingly in the name of all. I wanted to do that, let Him only show me how. When the service was over I had an interior conviction that I had been heard. But in what the bearing of the Cross was to consist I did not yet know. I was almost relieved to find myself now involved in the common fate of my people."
April 30, 1933. "The Church of St. Ludger was celebrating with 13 hours of prayer. I went there late in the afternoon, and said to myself: I will not leave until I see clearly whether I may now enter Carmel. As the final blessing was given, I received the Good Shepherd's consent. I wrote that same evening to Father Abbot" [Walzer, her spiritual advisor].
She applies for admission to Carmel in Cologne. Nuns enthusiastically vote to accept her in June.
August, 1933. Edith makes a long farewell visit to Breslau to tell her family that she will enter the convent. The news shocks and disturbs her entire family with the exception of her sister Rosa — seven years older than Edith. On October 12, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, Edith attends synagogue with her mother.
On the way home her mother asks: "It was a beautiful sermon, wasn't it?'
"'Then it is possible for a Jew to be pious?'
'"Certainly, if one has not learned anything more...'
"Then came the despairing reply: "'Why have you learned more? I don't want to say anything against him. He may have been a very good man. But why did he make himself God?'"
That night she holds her mother in her arms and both weep until they are too exhausted to weep any more. Early the next morning she leaves for Cologne.
Two weeks later she writes to Hedwig Conrad-Martius: "The final weeks at home were very difficult. It was totally impossible to make my mother understand anything. Everything remained in all its starkness and incomprehensibility, and I was able to leave only by placing a firm confidence in God's grace. That my mother, too, has faith, and finally, that she still has great inner strength made it a little easier. The goodness and love from all my siblings was touching. Rosa is with me inwardly, all the way."
October 14, 1933. Edith Stein enters Carmel in Cologne, beginning her six-month probationary period. Another novice describes her: "She quickly lost her solemn look, which made her seem about 20 years younger, and began being more approachable instead of so distant and reserved. One of the things that most struck me about her was her devotion to prayer. At Mass she seemed to participate as if she were offering herself on the altar."
April 15, 1934. In the retreat preceding her clothing ceremony, she takes St. John of the Cross as her "retreat master." She receives the habit, hearing the prayer: "Those who follow the Lamb without stain shall walk with Him in white garments. Therefore let thy vesture be ever unspotted in token of purity of heart." She asks for the name Teresa Blessed by the Cross, later explaining both the Carmelite tradition and her own particular choice. St. Teresa, she explains, taught her nuns to put aside their family names as a sign of renunciation and to do away with "every temptation to pride in noble ancestry and emphasis on social differences." Edith adds: "probably its deepest meaning is we have a personal vocation to live a particular mystery. Since all of them [the mysteries] have an inner connection, each single one contains the entire mystery of God." Five years later (1938) she offers this explanation to Mother Petra for choosing the name she did: "I already brought my name with me into the house as a postulant. I received it exactly as I requested it. By the cross I understood the destiny of God's people which, even at that time, began to announce itself. I thought that those who recognized it as the Cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all. Certainly, today I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross. Of course, one can never comprehend it, for it is a mystery."
Her mother, Edith writes, was unaware of the Clothing ceremony, but: "My siblings all wrote on the occasion: Rosa keenly regretted not being able to come. She gave me the silk for the bridal dress, which will now be made into a chasuble." This same chasuble, re-designed, was worn by John Paul II during the beatification Mass in 1987.
April 21, 1934. Edith takes temporary vows for three years, writing shortly afterwards: "Whenever something becomes reality that one has persistently prayed for a long time, it seems to me almost more overwhelming than when it is granted immediately. And I continue to stand even more in amazement before this glorious fulfillment." Though Edith writes to her mother weekly and Rosa writes to Edith regularly, months pass before Frau Stein acknowledges Edith's letters — even then only with brief and sometimes caustic greeting in Rosa's letters. Edith writes to another sister, Erna, on May 4, 1934: "Mother is writing again — after a pause of many weeks — and each time it's a small attack. She must surely speak to you in the same vein, and then you are obliged to conceal what you know. It makes me sad to see what caricatures she has thought up — not only about our faith and about life in our Order, but also about my personal motives — and to be unable to do anything about it. But I know every word would be useless and would only upset her without doing any good." Nevertheless. Edith continues to provide her mother a full account of her convent life.
Mother Prioress counsels Edith to work on her intellectual projects whenever they do not interfere with her spiritual formation.
1936. By this year, she has finished an important contribution to the understanding of the relationship between Thomas Aquinas's scholastic philosophy and Edmund Husserl's phenomenology. Also, Life in a Jewish Family — an autobiographical account of her upbringing, which she hoped would convey the ordinary humanity of Jewish family life to a Germany caught in an insane cycle of anti-Semitism — is completed. Neither work was published until long after her death.
Before dawn on September 14, 1936, Edith is about to renew her temporary vows; at that very hour in Breslau, 87-year-old Frau Stein dies. Edith tells a Carmelite sister: "As I was standing in my place in choir waiting to renew my vows, my mother was beside me. I felt her presence quite distinctly." Later Edith writes of her mother to a friend: "Her faith and trust in God remained unshaken from her earliest childhood and was her last support in her hard struggle with death. I am confident that she has found a most merciful Judge, and that she is now my most faithful helper on my own journey toward my homeland."
In December 1936, Rosa arrives in Cologne; she is prepared for baptism by Edith. It takes place .on Christmas Eve. Edith writes a poem called "Holy Night" that begins: "My Lord and God,/ You have guided me on a long, dark road,/ Stony and hard." Almost from the day of her entrance into Carmel, Sister Benedicta — as she was called — wrote meditations and biographical accounts of holy lives — even dialogues — for the many feast days and hours of reflection in the convent. Some of these are masterpieces of spiritual insight.
1937. Nazi pressure on convents, monasteries, and schools increases, eventually leading to closure of all schools taught by religious. Sister Benedicta sees events in Spain, where Communists are martyring priests and nuns, as a forewarning of what could happen in Germany. She writes: "So far we still live in deep peace, entirely unmolested within our cloister walls. But the fate of our Spanish sisters tells us, all the same, what we must be prepared for. It is a salutary warning."
April 10, 1938. Election day. Nazis enter Carmel at Cologne and demand the nuns put their votes in a container they have with them. The Prioress insists they want to go to a polling station: the Nazis force them to vote in front of them. Sister Benedicta cannot vote because she is "non-Aryan."
April 21, 1938. Sister Benedicta makes solemn profession, final vows, and on May I receives the black veil, the "symbol of sacrifice and of her total consecration to God."
April 27, 1938. Husserl dies. Edith writes to another member of the philosophic circle: "You probably have not heard that during his final weeks he detached himself from all earthly concerns and had but one longing, to be united with God."
On October 14, her brother Arno visits Carmel before leaving for the United States. Others of her family have already fled; those who remain will be trapped and die in concentration camps. She writes that she had not seen Arno for five years and "perhaps now it will be forever. Everything is disintegrating and changing." [Of the seven members of her immediate family, four will die in camps — Edith, Rosa, Elfriede, and Paul.]
Benedicta ponders a prisoner's life: "Certainly it is difficult to live outside the convent and without the Blessed Sacrament. But God is within us, after all, the entire Blessed Trinity, if we can but understand how to build within ourselves a well-locked cell and withdraw there. That, after all, is how the priests and religious in prison must help themselves."
Her conviction that "the shadow of the Cross which is falling on" her people intensifies. She trusts "in the Lord's having accepted my life for all of them. I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from her people precisely that she might represent them before the king. I am a very poor and powerless Esther, but the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful."
Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. The Nazis carry out a campaign of terror against Jews throughout Germany. Benedicta suggests she be transferred out of Germany to a Carmel in Palestine for the safety of the nuns in Cologne. It is impossible to get permission to enter Palestine. But it is possible to obtain a resident permit for Holland.
On the night of December 31, 1938, a German layman drives Edith across the border to Echt, Holland — to a Carmel which was founded by sisters from Cologne in 1875, when Bismarck's anti-Catholic persecution forced religious to flee Germany. The nuns there joyously welcome Sister Benedicta. Passion Sunday, March 26, 1939. Benedicta writes to her Prioress offering herself "as a sacrifice of propitiation for true peace, that the dominion of the Antichrist may collapse, if possible, without a new world war. It is the twelfth hour. I know that I am a nothing, but Jesus desires it, and surely he will call many others to do likewise in these days."
June 9, 1939. She expands on her willingness to offer herself to God: "Even now I joyfully accept the death which God has destined for me, in total submission to His most holy will. I beg the Lord to accept my life and my death for His honor and glorification, for all desires of the most holy hearts of Jesus and Mary and the Holy Church, and especially for the preservation, sanctification and perfection of our Holy Order, particularly the Carmel in Cologne and in Echt, for the atonement of the unbelief of the Jewish people and for this: that the Lord may be accepted by His own people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and for world peace, and finally for my relatives both living and dead, and all those whom God has given me: that none of them may perish."
To a former colleague dying of cancer she writes: "I believe that such suffering, when it is accepted with a willing heart and carried to the end, is reckoned before God as a true martyrdom."
September 1, 1939. Germany begins World War II: in 1940 sends its army into the Netherlands.
In October 1939, Rosa Stein reaches Echt after a harrowing journey from Breslau through Belgium to the Netherlands.
On the evening of July 9, 1940 the local bishop visits the Carmel in Echt, telling the nuns they are now in the front lines of the war against evil. They must bolster one another and pray untiringly. His house had already been invaded by eight men searching for evidence of anti-Nazis leanings. Benedicta reports him saying: "First Bolshevism had come from the east to fight against God, then National Socialism came with the fight against the Church." He urges Edith and Rosa to go into hiding. They choose to stay with the nuns.
1940-41. News of relatives in Germany, of Jews throughout Europe, and of the sufferings of war, drive Sister Benedicta deeper into prayer, meditation, and spiritual writing. She takes a major role in the spiritual life of Carmel, consoles and advises many outside the convent, studies and writes religious texts. There is often a practical dimension to her work, such as advising one nun how to balance "harmoniously, Christian freedom and monastic prescriptions," that is, how to balance individual freedom and the Rules and Constitutions of religious orders; and asking others how their convents handle "extern sisters" and "third order members," with an eye toward drawing up clear regulations for Echt.
In the winter of 1940, she is concentrating on what will be her final book — a study of St. John of the Cross. She writes: "For several weeks I have been responsible for the subject matter for meditation [in Carmel], and, in preparation for the feast [of St John of the Cross, November 24], am now taking short excerpts from the Ascent of Mount Carmel. That was also my meditation material for my retreat before Clothing. Then each year I would go one step further in the volumes of holy Father John, but that does not mean I kept up with it. I am still way down at the foot of the mount."
She increasingly mentions looking forward to the next world to make sense out of this one. She tells a brother-in-law, now in America, that her "great desire" is to view the present turmoil from the vantage point of eternity: "For one realizes ever more clearly how blind we are toward everything."
Her cloistered life remains the great consolation. In May, 1941 she speaks of how "wonderful is the story of the souls in Carmel. They are hidden deep in the Divine Heart. And what we believe we understand about our own soul is, after all, only a fleeting reflection of what will remain God's secret until the day all will be made manifest. My great joy consists in the hope of that future clarity. Faith in the secret history must always strengthen us when what we actually perceive (about ourselves or about others) might discourage us." On the first Monday of October 1941, Benedicta and Rosa report to the Police Commissioner in Maastricht to register as "non-Aryan" aliens. A few days later she writes: "A scientia crucis [knowledge of the Cross] can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically. I have been convinced of that from the first moment and have said, from my heart: 'Hail, Holy Cross our only hope!'"
1941 brings further efforts to find Benedicta and Rosa a place beyond German authority. An invitation from Spain gets nowhere, one from Le Paquier in Switzerland, the only Carmelite cloister in the country, is at first turned down because they have no room for Rosa. Later, a place is found for Rosa in a convent a mile away. Efforts begin to obtain papers from the Swiss government to enter Switzerland.
1942. The situation is grave, but not hopeless. There are interrogations in Maastricht at the end of January and at Amsterdam at the end of March. On April 7, 1942 Benedicta writes to a friend in Speyer: "Humanly speaking, my sister Rosa and I are in a somewhat precarious situation. But so far as we know there will be no change before the end of the war. We are leaving everything confidently to Providence, and calmly going about our duties."
July 15, 1942. The Germans begin twice-weekly deportation of Netherlands Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Large numbers of Jews are seized. Jews who have become Christian are temporarily exempted.
At the same time, all negotiations between Echt and Le Paquier in Switzerland are settled.
On July 24, Benedicta writes to a Swiss friend who had pushed the arrangement through on that end: "We will now see if it is possible to get permission to leave the Netherlands. But it will probably take much time — months I suppose."
July 26, 1942. A strong denunciation of the Nazi deportations of Jews is ordered to be read in all Catholic churches by Dutch bishops. A postwar report on this action explained that the Nazis had told Christian churches that baptized Jews would be exempted from deportation if the churches refrained "from further action on behalf of the rest of the Jews."
July 27, 1942. Top Nazi occupation officers meet in The Hague. The record of their meeting contains this paragraph: "Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week. No appeals for clemency shall be considered."
During the evening of August 2, Gestapo agents enter the Echt Carmel and demand that Edith and Rosa Stein leave with them in five minutes. The Mother Prioress' protestations and pleas have no effect. In haste and near-panic, the two women pack small bags, bid tearful farewells, and leave. Edith momentarily kneels before the Tabernacle, asks all for prayers and Mother Prioress for her blessing. She takes Rosa's hand as they move into the street and says: "Come, Rosa, we're going for our people."
Benedicta and Rosa, along with several hundred other baptized Jews, are taken to assembly stations and then moved to the main transit-point in the North at Westerbork. During the following days. Sister Benedicta is able to scratch off three notes which are smuggled out of the Westerbork camp:
On Tuesday, August 4, she writes: "everything possible" is being done "to enable us to be freed or at least that we may remain here." She asks the Prioress to get in touch with the Swiss Consul in Amsterdam, and encloses a message to send to him. She concludes: "Of course, so far there has been no Mass and Communion; maybe that will come later. Now we have a chance to experience a little how to live purely from within."
On Wednesday, August 5: "A Red Cross nurse intends to speak with the Consul. Here, every petition of fully baptized Jewish Catholics has been forbidden. A transport will leave Friday. There are so many persons here who need some consolation and they expect it from the Sisters."
On Thursday, August 6: "Early tomorrow a transport leaves (Silesia or Czechoslovakia??). What is most necessary: woolen stockings, two blankets. For Rosa all the warm underwear; [she] has no toothbrush, no Cross and no rosary. I would like the next volume of the breviary (so far I have been able to pray gloriously). Our identity cards, registration cards, and ration cards. I habit and aprons, I small veil."
Eyewitness reports describe Benedicta as calm and kind up to the time she and Rosa are sealed in a freight car headed East. The train passed through many cities Edith Stein knew very well, including the city of her very happy childhood, Breslau, on its way to Auschwitz. As it passed through Schifferstadt, the stationmaster heard a woman call through an opening in the box car, asking him if he knew the family of Dean Schwind — the nephew of Sister Benedicta's first spiritual director. The stationmaster answered that he and "the dean had been classmates and that the dean himself had been on the platform just a few minutes before." The report goes on: "the woman asked him to convey Edith Stein's greetings to the dean and his family, and let them know she was on her way to the East."
August 9, 1942. Official records give this as the date that Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and her sister, Rosa, died in Auschwitz.
The following volumes were used in compiling this article: Edith Stein, by Sister Teresia de Spiritu Sancto, O.C.D., trans. Cecily Hastings and Donald Nicholl, N.Y.: Sheed and Ward, 1952; Writings of Edith Stein, trans. Hilda Graef, The Newman Press, Westminster, MD., 1956; Edith Stein: A Biography, by Waltraud Herbstrith, trans. Father Barnard Bonowitz, OCSO, Harper and Row, Cambridge, 1971; and three volumes from: The Collected Works of Edith Stein: Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D. C. Vol. 1, Life in a Jewish Family, by Edith Stein, ed. Dr. L. Gerber and Romaeus Leuven, O.C.D., trans. Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D., ICS, 1986; Vol 2, Essays On Women, trans, Freda M. Oben, Ph.D.; Vol. 5, Self-Portrait in Letters: 1916-1942, translated by Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D., ICS, 1993.
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