Edith Stein was once labeled by her family as “sealed with seven seals” because of her private nature. And she refused to discuss the impetus for her conversion to Catholicism, noting it as a private, secret matter. And yet, in a very real and honest way, Edith opened up her heart and allowed herself to be touched through her writing, especially through her memoirs and through her letters.
Although Edith herself observed a rational and logical reason for writing the book that eventually became Life in a Jewish Family, Edith’s honesty about herself and those around her in the narrative exposes her to readers in a manner that, perhaps, Edith herself never did otherwise.
Edith’s letters, much in the same way, serve as a kind of epistolary journal in which she shares with her friends, family members, and former colleagues a piece of her heart that was not often exposed. It is here that we hear her courage, feel her frustration, and find her humor. Her letters reveal the pain of being misunderstood and confess the recognition of her probable destiny.
Edith’s letters also reveal and illustrate her character traits. She was courageous, honest, direct, faithful, dedicated, realistic, spiritual, and above all, prayerful.
In a letter written in April of 1931 — her final year of teaching at St. Magdalena’s in Speyer — Edith remarked with earnest honesty that, although people continually demanded “clever themes” of her as a lecturer, her platform came down to “a small, simple truth that I have to express: How to go about living at the Lord’s hand” (Self-Portrait, 87).
This is Edith Stein’s signature phrase.
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. She believed in divine providence, and she put herself completely, wholeheartedly, into God’s hands. “To be a child of God,” Edith noted, “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 in us, and we in Him, that is our portion in the divine realm for which the incarnation laid the foundation” (Daybook, 118, 121).
For this reason, it is critical that as we remember Edith Stein and learn from her life and her writings, we also meditate on her name. “Why do we continue to refer to Sr. Benedicta of the Cross as Edith Stein?” asks Carmelite Sister Ruth Miriam Irey. “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 as Sr. Benedicta? To the Nazis, it was the ‘Jew’ Edith Stein that was killed at Auschwitz. For the Church it was Sr. Benedicta of the Cross. ‘Of the Cross’ . . . was her identity and destiny. . . . If her name was so important to her, why is it not as important to us? . . . As a Catholic, she offered her life in the 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 a martyr?” (“Sister Bene-dicta,” 27). As Sister Ruth Miriam concludes, “Edith Stein was murdered because she was a Jew. However, Sr. Benedict of the Cross also died because she was . . . [a] Catholic who chose to offer her life and share in the fate of her people in atonement as a victim of peace. Sr. Benedicta allowed the form of the Cross to form her. In her life and works, she reflected the life of Christ and showed how these two elements melt into the most complete unity under the sign of the Cross” (ibid., 29).
There are no coincidences. Certainly, Edith’s choice of a subtitle for her Carmelite name, “of the Cross,” had unmeasurable significance for this mystic, contemplative woman. But it was also a great grace — a mysterious preparation — that it was the work of John of the Cross that occupied Edith for the final months of her life. “I tried to make a copy of the sketch our Holy Father John made on a piece of paper about 5 cm. in size, after the vision he had at the Monastery of the Incarnation. The reproduction of it in P. Bruno’s book is not exactly sharp, and I am anything but an artist. But I made it with great reverence and love,” she wrote in a letter a few months before her death. “Because of the work I am doing [The Science of the Cross] I live almost constantly immersed in thoughts about our Holy Father John. That is a great grace” (Self-Portrait, 339). And in December 1941, she wrote, “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: Ave, Crux, spes unica! (Hail Cross, our only hope!)” (ibid., 341).
“Only those who are saved, only children of
grace, can in fact be bearers of Christ’s cross,” Edith once wrote. “Only in
union with the divine Head does human suffering take on expiatory power. To
suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to
walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with
Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this
world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels — this
is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth” (Hidden Life, 93).
Edith Stein teaches us “that love for Christ undergoes suffering,” Pope John Paul II noted at her canonization. “The mystery of the Cross gradually enveloped her whole life, spurring her to the point of making the supreme sacrifice. As a bride on the Cross, Sr. Teresa Benedicta did not only write profound pages about the ‘Science of the Cross,’ but was thoroughly trained in the school of the Cross. . . . Faith and the Cross proved inseparable to her. Having matured in the school of the Cross, she found the roots to which the tree of her own life was attached. She understood that it was very important for her ‘to be a daughter of the chosen people and to belong to Christ not only spiritually, but also through blood.’ ”
The depth of the divine mystery became perceptible to Edith in the silence of contemplation, the Pope noted. Gradually, “as she grew in the knowledge of God, worshiping him in spirit and truth, she experienced ever more clearly her specific vocation to ascend the Cross with Christ, to embrace it with serenity and trust, to love it by following in the footsteps of her beloved Spouse.”
Perhaps one of Edith’s greatest legacies to the body of believers is her own devotion to prayer. Edith understood every person’s need for still, quiet prayer. “We need those hours in which we listen silently and let the divine word work within us,” she wrote (Daybook, 121). After her baptism but before entering the Carmelites, even with her busy teaching and speaking schedule, Edith sought constant opportunities to pray. It is precisely people with many obligations and who are fully involved, she argued, who need such communion with God in inner stillness.
Edith the scholar, the philosopher, the theologian, the spiritual giant, the feminist, and finally, the martyr, teaches us that we do not need to be in a church to be still with God in prayer. We can — and need to — catch our breath spiritually anywhere, constantly. We, too, are “in via,” “on the way,” she wrote from within the convent’s walls, “for Carmel is a high mountain that one must climb from its very base. But it is a tremendous grace to go this way.”
Of her personal vocation to contemplative prayer, Edith added, “Whoever enters Carmel is not lost to his own, but is theirs fully for the first time; it is our vocation to stand before God for all.” She went on, “And, believe me, in the hours of prayer I always remember especially those who would like to be in my position. Please help me that I may become worthy to live in the inner sanctum of the church and to represent those who must labor outside” (Self-Portrait, 154, 177–178).
Her death at Auschwitz prevents us from honoring her remains, her individuality, in the same manner we remember and honor countless other holy men and women. Ultimately, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross would probably prefer that there be no memorial grave or relic in her honor. Yet those of us who turn to her for an example on 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. As Edith wrote in 1931 to a friend on the eve of her baptism, “That is how it ought to be; that, 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 of your future life is that you may find the fullness of God’s peace” (ibid., 105).
It is precisely this spiritual awareness that makes Edith Stein “a model to inspire us and a protectress to call upon. We give thanks to God for this gift,” Pope John Paul II proclaimed at her canonization. “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.”
Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, pray for us!
“To God, the Father” by Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
(This poem is assumed to have been written in 1939, possibly for a memorial service for the dead [see Selected Writings, 81].)
Bless the mind deeply troubled
Of the sufferers,
The heavy loneliness of profound souls
The restlessness of human beings,
The sorrow which no soul ever confides To a sister soul.
And bless the passage of moths at night,
Who do not shun specters on paths unknown.
Bless the distress of men
Who die within the hour,
Grant them, loving God, a peaceful, blessed end.
Bless all the hearts, the clouded ones,
Lord, above all, Bring healing to the sick.
To those in torture, peace.
Teach those who had to carry their beloved to the grave, to forget.
Leave none in agony of guilt on all the earth.
Bless the joyous ones, O Lord, and keep them under
My mourning clothes You never yet removed.
At times my tired shoulders bear a heavy burden.
But give me strength, and I’ll bear it
In penitence to the grave.
Then bless my sleep, the sleep of all the dead.
Remember what Your son suffered for me in
agony of death.
Your great mercy for all human needs
Gives rest to all the dead in Your eternal peace.
This article is from a chapter in Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.