Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, co-patroness of Europe and martyr of Auschwitz, was one of the most remarkable women of the modern Church. Born into a devout Jewish family, she lost her faith in God as a teenager and sought the truth in academic life.
At a time when women weren’t supposed to do philosophy, she became one of Germany’s most brilliant young thinkers, working under the guidance of Edmund Husserl (whose philosophical method “phenomenology” would play a crucial role in the thought of Pope John Paul II).
Staying one night with Lutheran friends, Edith Stein borrowed a copy of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila from their library and literally couldn’t put it down. As night gave way to day, she finished the book, said to herself, “This is the truth,” and immediately set out to become a Catholic. Her mother was heartbroken. But Frau Stein would later say, of Edith’s sitting beside her in the synagogue and reciting the psalms in Latin, “I have never seen anyone pray the way Edith prayed.” After several years as an active laywoman, rising intellectual, and pioneer feminist, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne where she devoted herself to contemplative prayer and philosophical work.
After the Nazi Kristallnacht, it was thought safer to move Sister Teresa Benedicta to a Carmel in Holland; it was from that convent that she made the final trip to Auschwitz, when the Nazis rounded up Jewish Catholics in retaliation for the Dutch bishops’ public protest against Nazi anti-Semitism. As far as we know, Edith Stein died on August 9, 1942; August 9 is her feast day in Europe (and should be in the United States, too).
Having long been fascinated by this brilliant, courageous, and warmly human mystic and scholar, I wanted to visit the Carmel of Cologne when I went to that city last October for the launch of the German edition of my biography of the Pope, Witness to Hope. A friend had prepared the way with a phone call, so after attending the evening Mass at the Carmelites’ church, I presented myself at the convent and asked to speak to the superior.
Sister Ancilla of the Maternity of Mary came to meet me in one of small parlors outside the cloister. She couldn’t have been more gracious, but when it became clear that the name “Weigel” didn’t necessarily indicate fluent German, she sent for Sister Verena of the Body of Christ, whose excellent English made conversation much easier. We talked of many things, but chiefly of Edith Stein.
Only one of the Cologne Carmelites, now 92, knew Sister Teresa Benedicta personally, but her presence was almost palpable in the house (which holds her archives), as it is in many parts of Catholic Cologne. Everyone spoke, as if it were the most normal thing imaginable, of the drama of Edith Stein’s last moments in Cologne: on December 30, 1938, Sister Teresa Benedicta spent the night in solitary vigil before the convent’s statue of Our Lady of Peace, reputed to be wonder-working, before setting out on what would become her personal Way of the Cross.
After about forty minutes, the superior, Sister Ancilla, excused herself and said she’d be right back. Sister Verena and I kept talking, and when Sister Ancilla returned, she had a surprise that left me speechless.
In a book about the saint’s life in the Carmel of Cologne, Sister Ancilla showed me the photo of Edith Stein in a wedding dress on the day of her “enclosure:” the day of her solemn vows. Sister Ancilla then turned the pages to show me the white chasuble that the Pope had worn when beatifying Edith Stein in Cologne in 1987 it had been made from the material in the wedding dress. But some material had been left over and cut into small pieces for preservation in reliquaries. It was one of these reliquaries that Sister Ancilla entrusted to me; I keep it now in my study, beside the portrait of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross that has watched over my work for years.
In the Carmel of Cologne, the “communion of saints” is a living reality.
George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.