At the end of her life, Edith Stein considered herself one of the countless “hidden souls” who are part of the invisible Church and who regularly remain hidden from the whole world. She was a contemplative nun, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Order.
Yet, as Edith herself pointed out, throughout the history of humankind the visible Church has grown out of this invisible one. In the Old Testament, as the patriarchs allowed themselves to be used as God’s pliant instruments, “[God] established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development.” And every one of the events and persons who intertwined in the mystery of the Incarnation — Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the kings, Simeon, and Anna — had behind them “a solitary life with God and were prepared for their special tasks before they found themselves together in those awesome encounters and events.” To most hidden souls, their impact and affinity can remain hidden even from themselves and others for their entire lives, Edith wrote the year before her death.
But it is also possible for some of this to become visible in the external world. . . . The deeper a soul is bound to God, the more completely surrendered to grace, the stronger will be its influence on the form of the church. Conversely, the more an era is engulfed in the night of sin and estrangement from God, the more it needs souls united to God. And God does not permit a deficiency. The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. . . . Certainly the decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.
During one of the darkest periods of our human history, deeply rooted in this “estrangement from God” and “the night of sin” and death that she describes, Edith Stein chose to take on the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and to unite her soul to God fully and completely as a contemplative nun. Surely, this is no coincidence.
This is Edith Stein’s legacy.
Long before Pope John Paul II proclaimed Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross a saint in the Catholic Church in 1998, the “hidden life” of Edith Stein had become known and remembered in faith communities, mostly throughout Europe. This hidden soul and her complete trust in divine grace became slowly visible to the external world, as Catholics throughout that continent recognized the unparalleled, deliberate, and brilliant legacy left behind by the interior life of this woman of Jewish descent who fell in love with Truth and transformed her entire life because of that encounter with Jesus Christ. Her surrender to grace is all the more visible because of the dark night that enveloped the period of history in which she lived — and died — years when millions of men and women were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime in the name of diligent ethnic cleansing.
Edith Stein was passionate, purposeful, faithful, and committed. She was a brilliant philosopher who lived and thrived in the intellectual university community of 1910s Germany. She was also a young Jewish woman who shocked her intellectual community when she fell in love with Jesus Christ and became a Roman Catholic, being baptized in 1922. More shocking still, eleven years later, Edith entered the cloistered Carmelite order in Cologne, Germany, to follow a life of mystic and contemplative prayer in the cloister under the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Today, as the meaning of feminism is lost in a world of relativism, Edith Stein provides a model for a true feminist — a woman who authentically integrates faith, family, and work.
In 1942, Edith and her sister Rosa, a lay Carmelite living with her at the monastery in Echt, Holland, were forcefully taken by the Gestapo and transported by train to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were both murdered in the gas chamber on August 9. Edith Stein’s profound spirituality, however, had left a mark not only on those who had personally known her as a philosopher, a teacher, and a speaker, but also on all who learned of her through her many writings, essays, articles, letters, and stories.
“Today we live again in a time that urgently needs to be renewed at the hidden springs of God-fearing souls,” Edith wrote for the feast of the Epiphany, 1941, a meditation requested by the Echt Prioress. “Many people, too, place their last hope in these hidden springs of salvation. This is a serious warning cry: Surrender without reservation to the Lord who has called us. This is required of us so that the face of the earth may be renewed. In faithful trust, we must abandon our souls to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. . . . We may live in confident certainty that what the Spirit of God secretly effects in us bears fruits in the kingdom of God. We will see them in eternity.”
Not in spite of, but because of, Edith’s hidden life, one can easily paraphrase what G. K. Chesterton wrote of Thomas More: if there had not been that particular woman at that particular moment, the whole of history would have been different. Not only is Edith Stein the first recognized saint in the Catholic Church since the end of the apostolic age to have been born and raised in a practicing Jewish family, but, even more significant, because of her legacy of faith and philosophy, our understanding of Catholicism is richer, deeper, and more profound.
Much like the spread of the Christian message in the early Church, the story of the Discalced Carmelite nun named Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, traveled swiftly by word of mouth. And through ordeals that sound like an episode of Mission Impossible, Edith’s original manuscripts were stashed away, concealed, and even literally buried underground during the Second World War, in an effort to preserve her unique and insightful work from the Nazi death machine. It is amazing and outright miraculous that so much of Edith’s work was ultimately preserved — in spite of the gruesome persecution and physical devastation left behind by the war.
It is not hard to see, therefore, how the story of such a radical and orthodox Catholic woman could not only grab the attention of the community of believers, but also inspire them to follow the way to Christ. A short twenty years after her death, the official process of beatification and canonization for Edith Stein was set in motion. Whether through reading her numerous writings, which are now translated into several languages, or through hearing her story, it became natural to anticipate that Edith would one day be formally honored because of her faith. On May 1, 1987, she was beatified in Cologne by Pope John Paul II, in a ceremony attended by seventy thousand people, including some of her Jewish relatives and Carmelite Sisters who had known and lived with her.
Eleven years later (the same number of years that Edith waited between her baptism and her entry into Carmel) Edith Stein — the philosopher, convert to the Catholic Faith, Carmelite nun, and martyr at Auschwitz — was declared a saint in the Catholic Church. At a Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II presented “this eminent daughter of Israel and faithful daughter of the Church as a saint to the whole world.” At the liturgy attended by nearly one hundred members of the Stein family, many who remain devout Jews, the Holy Father declared, “The spiritual experience of Edith Stein is an eloquent example of this extraordinary interior renewal. A young woman in search of the truth has become a saint and martyr through the silent workings of divine grace: Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who from heaven repeats to us today all the words that marked her life: Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ ” the Pope continued, echoing the words of St. Paul to the Galatians (6:14).
Edith Stein died a follower of Jesus Christ, “offering her martyrdom for her fellow Jews,” wrote Priors General Father Camilo Maccise, O.C.D., and Father Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm., in 1998 in a circular to Carmelite men and women around the world on the occasion of Edith Stein’s canonization. “The canonization of Edith Stein is a new plea that God makes to the Church, to Carmelites in particular, on the eve of the Third Millennium. The life of this great Jewish woman, who sought the truth and followed Jesus, offers a timely message for relations between faith and science, for ecumenical dialogue, for consecrated life and for spirituality, speaking, as it does, to the members of the Church and those outside it.”
Even as we continue the process of “getting to know” Edith, as more of her theological works, letters, and philosophical essays are translated into English, it is my hope that we never lose sight of the loving teacher and friend Edith Stein, who is still remembered by many of her students and colleagues in Europe. I echo the words of Carmelite Sister Josephine Koeppel, who recommended in a published interview: “Get to know her as a person with a heart that really can be touched. First, get to know her as that. Then respect her brilliance.”
Ultimately, it is my hope and my prayer that you be inspired not simply by this holy woman’s death but by her remarkable and heroic life. “Pure spirits are like rays of light through which the eternal light communes with creation,” Edith once said. “To believe in saints, means only to sense in them God’s presence.”
Lord, God of our ancestors, You brought St. Teresa Benedicta to the fullness of the science of the Cross at the hour of her martyrdom. Fill us with that same knowledge; and, through her intercession, allow us always to seek after You, the supreme Truth; and to remain faithful until death to the covenant of love ratified in the blood of Your Son for the salvation of all. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Editor’s note: This article is from the introduction to Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
image: Statue of St. Edith Stein, Brockton by WBUR Boston / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)