In the 1920s, it was rare to see either Jews or women in leadership roles in the academic world. However, Edith Stein was both a woman and a Jew. She quickly became a leading philosopher in the German intellectual community. But she shocked the world, her colleagues, and her family when she abandoned her growing prestige and became a Catholic.
11 years after her conversion, Edith took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and entered a cloistered Carmelite community. “Edith Stein’s surrender to grace is all the more visible because of the dark night that enveloped the period of history where she lived and died – when millions of men and women, including Edith herself, were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime in the name of diligent ethnic cleansing,” writes Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda in her biography of the saint, Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Today’s world has muddled the meaning of the word ‘feminist’. We’ve also lost an understanding of the redemptive nature of suffering, Saint Teresa’s story provides a model for Catholics today. Teresa’s story shows how to healthily integrate work, family, and a passionate faith. Here’s a quick look at the story of the saint who traveled from atheism to sainthood (and what her life motto can teach Catholic singles today!):
Collecting ‘twigs’ of Edith Stein’s life
Creating the biography of saint can often involve collecting ideas, reflections, and memories of the saint from their journals. Scaperlanda compares this process to a bird collecting twigs to build a nest. “Her letters reveal the pain of being misunderstood and confess the recognition of her probable destiny. It is in her letters that we learn of Edith’s inmost thoughts, her anguish and concern for her mother, her thankfulness for a friend’s honest critique, her hopes and prayers for her family as they scatter all over the world,” Scaperlanda explains.
The insights from Saint Edith Stein into her interior life and the life of her family are especially valuable. Edith once said that her family was “sealed with seven seals” when describing how private they were. Yet Edith strove for authentic vulnerability. In her writing, Edith “opened her heart and allowed herself to be touched through her letters,” Scaperlanda explains.
A small, simple truth
In 1931, Edith wrote to Benedictine Sister Adelgundis Jaegerschmid of Freiburg-Guntersal. In the letter, Edith reflected on people’s comments about her lectures at Saint Magdalena’s in Speyer. Listeners urged her to fill her lectures with “clever themes”. But Edith found that the truth of her lectures rested in something deeper than that.
Instead, she believed that both her lectures and her life were grounded in a “small, simple truth that I have to express: How to go about living at the Lord’s hand.” This simple phrase quickly became Edith Stein’s signature phrase. It guided her life as a Carmelite sister and eventually as a martyr at the hands of Nazi Germany.
“For this professional and highly educated young woman, who for so many years climbed the academic ladder of recognition and prestige, all of life came down to a small, simple fact more real than anything she could touch,” writes Scaperlanda. “She believed in divine providence, and she put herself completely, wholeheartedly, into God’s hands.”
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Although we know her as Saint Edith Stein today, Edith entered the Carmelite order in 1933. She took the name ‘Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’, inspired by the Carmelite reformer Saint Teresa of Avila. There is no coincidence in her choice of name. In fact, the choice foreshadowed the beautiful merger of her recognition of her identity as a child of God and her acceptance of suffering.
“Why do we continue to reference Sister Benedicta of the Cross as Edith Stein?” Carmelite Sister Ruth Miriam Irey asked. “She was known in Germany as a writer, philosopher, speaker, and feminist – but would the world have either known or remembered Edith Stein had she not died Sister Benedicta? To the Nazis, it was the ‘Jew’ Edith Stein that was killed in Auschwitz. For the Church, it was Sister Benedicta of the Cross. ‘Of the Cross’ . . . was her identity and destiny . . . If her name was so important to her, why is it not important to us? . . . As a Catholic, she offered her life in hope that her suffering and death would be redemptive . . . If we fail to use the Cross, either in itself or in her name, for whom is Edith Stein as a martyr?”
Remembering Teresa Benedicta of the Cross today
Because Teresa was martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the Church is unable to venerate her remains. “Ultimately, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross would probably prefer that there be no memorial grave or relic in her honor,” Scaperlanda reflects. “Yet those of us who turn to her for an example of how to live a life of surrender to God’s providence still have a unique and incomparable relic of her spirit: her prolific writings as a reflection of her faith. They are her true legacy.”
When reflecting on the witness of this contemporary saint, Saint Pope John Paul II said that she is “a model to inspire us and a protectress to call upon. We give thanks to God for this gift. May the new saint be an example to us in our commitment to serve freedom, in our search for the truth. May her witness constantly strengthen the bridge of mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.”
Being a child of God when you’re in a season of singleness
“To be a child of God,” Edith Stein wrote, “means to walk at the hand of God, to do God’s will, to put all worries and all hopes in God’s hands . . . God is in us, and we in Him, that is our portion in the divine realm for which the incarnation laid the foundation.” Those living in a season of singleness can turn to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross for reassurance of God’s hand in their lives. Although life as a single Catholic can sometimes leave you feeling lonely or abandoned, Teresa reminds us that we are always in hand of God.
“That is how it ought to be, ” Teresa wrote to a friend in 1931 on the eve of her baptism. “Without any kind of human assurance, you place yourself totally in God’s hands, then all the deeper and more beautiful will be the security attained. My wish for your Baptismal Day and for all your future life is that you find the fullness of God’s peace.”