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Edith Stein

by Eugenio Zolli


In a previously unpublished essay, Eugenio Zolli, writes of the heroism of Edith Stein.

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Sursum Corda!



Publisher & Date

Foundation for Catholic Reform, Summer 1997

A brief martyrology will serve to give an idea of the power of salvation unto blessedness that is Christianity, in the faith of Christ.

Edith Stein, philosopher and Carmelite nun, was an Israelite, a native of Silesia. In her early years her father died, leaving her poor in worldly goods but rich in qualities of mind and heart. In her quest for the highest truth, she immersed herself in the study of Catholic philosophy and liturgy. She was enriched still more by her intense charity for suffering humanity. She wrote scientific books that were widely appreciated, took part in International Congresses where her words, so winning and warm, sounded in Catholic gatherings, especially on occasions of spiritual manifestations of feminine youth in Germany. While she was teaching at the University of Munster, she entered the Carmel of Cologne. This eminent Carmelite and philosopher had to flee to the Carmel of Holland during the persecution of her race. At Echt, the Gestapo overtook her; she was taken East and gassed, or according to another report, thrown into a salt pit.

This nun, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote: "In order to be an image of God, the spirit must turn to what is eternal, hold it in spirit, keep it in memory, and by loving it, embrace it in the will." The first step in her conversion was the reading of the life of St. Teresa of Avila, without interruption. When she reached the end, she said: "This is the truth!" It was the year 1921; she was baptized in 1922.

Quoting from one of her letters: "As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbor's soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love."

From St. Thomas, she learned that science can be the worship of God. The deeper one enters into the depths of God, so much more must one leave oneself to carry to the world the Divine Life. An eminent prelate once met her and said: "It seemed to me I was seeing one of those representations of the 'Ecclesia orans" of the catacombs."

Sister Teresa Benedicta knew the great art of praying, and what she has said on this point may add a beautiful page to the monograph of Heiler on prayer. Apropos of the distinction that is made between subjective piety and the objective prayer of the Church in the liturgy, she wrote: "Every true prayer is a prayer of the Church; by means of that prayer the Church prays, since it is the Holy Spirit living in the Church, Who in every single soul 'prays in us with unspeakable groanings' (Rom. 8:26). And it is true prayer, because 'no one can say: Lord Jesus, except by the Holy Spirit' (I Cor. 12:3). The limitless loving devotion to God, and the gift God makes of Himself to you, are the highest elevation of which the heart is capable; it is the highest degree of prayer. The souls that have reached this point are truly the heart of the Church."

Hearing, in a casual conversation, about the persecution of the Jews, she wrote: "I understood at once that God's hand lay heavy on His people, and that the lot of that people was mine also."

During a sermon in a Holy Hour devotion, Sister Teresa spoke to God, saying that she knew his Holy Cross was now resting on the Hebrew people, that all ought to choose to carry the Cross; that she wanted to carry it. At the end of her prayer she felt sure she had been heard, but knew not what this carrying of the Cross of Jesus would be for her. "It is not human activity that avails, but the Passion of Christ. I wish to share it."

It is easy to understand how, to some of her relatives, her entrance into Carmel seemed to mean a further separation from Hebraism; for her it meant a preparation for carrying the Cross of Christ which lay so heavily on the Hebrew people.

Her mother, 84 years old, asked her: "Is there not a Hebrew piety?" "Certainly," answered Edith, "for those who have not known any other." She devoted the last period of her life to studying the mystical doctrines of St. John of the Cross.

A companion of Sister Teresa writes of her and her sister Rosa, a Tertiary of Carmel: "Both were attached to the people from whom they came, and like Judith and Esther, by fasting and prayer, they sought to save Israel. They threw themselves into the arms of Divine Justice, asking for mercy on behalf of the persecuted and their persecutors." After the deportation of the two sisters by the SS, a holy picture was found in their room with an inscription on the back by Rosa, offering her life for the conversion of the Jews.

Her former companion wrote of Sister Teresa in the concentration camp: "In the midst of cries of desperation, she moved among the women, offering comfort, help and peace, like an angel. Many mothers, almost insane, staring into space during the whole day, oblivious of their children, were overcome by despair. Sister Teresa took care of the little ones, washed them, combed their hair, fed them and nursed them. During the entire time she spent in the camp, she continued her work of charity, which filled everybody with admiration."

A note was sent to Sister Teresa from her Superior; it said: "One can acquire a knowledge of the Cross only when one feels the Cross deeply."

"Of that I was convinced from the first moment, and from my heart I said, Hail Holy Cross, my only Hope," she replied. The last acts in the life of this noble woman were beatings and death. Thus lived, wrote, worked, loved and died Edith Stein, a converted Hebrew.

This account was taken from a lost manuscript chapter by Eugenio Zolli, former chief rabbi of Rome, who became a Catholic after World War II.

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