Died: August 9, 1942 in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Canonized October 11, 1998 by Pope John Paul II
A Prayer of St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross
Who are you, sweet light, that fills me
And illumines the darkness of my heart?
You lead me like a mother's hand...
You, nearer to me than I to myself
And more interior than my most interior
And still impalpable and intangible
And beyond any name:
Holy Spirit eternal love!1
A reading from the Gospel according to St. John:
The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship". Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." ~ John 4:19-24
Edith's Early Years
Quest for Truth
Called by God
Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Sr. Theresa Benedicata Takes up Her Cross
Applied To Us
Challenge of the Week
(See after teaching.)
Teaching in Detail
The twentieth century saw more people live than all other centuries of human history combined. It should be no surprise then that there were a large number of Christian saints and Christian martyrs in that century, most of whom have been canonized by Pope John Paul II, many of whom are yet to be raised to sainthood by the Church. The twentieth century saw the madness of World War II, the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, and atheist superpowers of the Soviet Union and China. The power of the state was brought to bear against the Roman Catholic Church in more ways and places than we appreciate. Genocides were recorded in Europe, Cambodia, Eastern Europe and Africa. It was a century filled with martyrs for the faith. Some are known to us. Some are only named in groups of martyrs. Others remain completely anonymous to history, the power of their sacrifice known only to God.
Points of Emphasis:
The power of contemplative prayer and the unique place of Carmel in the Church;
Importance of fidelity in the face of unfaithful culture;
Martyrdom as an effective proclamation and destroyer of evil designs.
Two of the most important saints of the twentieth century were Carmelite nuns, Saint Terese of the Child Jesus, known as the Little Flower, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known also as Edith Stein. Both were brilliant, holy women. Both broke beyond normal patterns of religious life to become universal saints for the Church. Both are deeply important to the Church in Europe.
Each of the religious orders has a peculiar reason for its existence. Usually that charism arises in certain historical circumstances in which God provides the Church with the gift of that charism for the good of the Church. Carmel is an order of religious men and women whose charism it is to pray. The form of that prayer is typically solitude and known as contemplative prayer. Because contemplatives look to God with an open spirit, awaiting the Word and ready to accept God’s Word as it is given to them to understand, they have a special identification with Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who was the one who accepted the Word of God so dramatically that she became pregnant with His Son. Carmel can claim to be ‘Mary in the Church’ as the contemplatives assume Mary’s posture of acceptance of the gift of God in prayer. One Carmelite nun describes her life as follows: “In Mary, we contemplate the ideal of the Order. We strive to imitate her in the way she humbly welcomed the Lord’s word and pondered it in her heart. We look to her as the one who was totally open to all the impulses of the Holy Spirit. Like Mary, the Carmelite bears Jesus in her heart, contemplates Him in silence, serves Him in humility and stands at the foot of His cross. In union with Mary, we live toward the perfection of charity in all that we do. Our life of prayer is lived within an atmosphere that makes it possible for us to best listen and ponder God’’s word in our hearts. It is in a spirit of silence and solitude that we live and pray. Silence nurtures a peacefulness of heart and allows us to maintain an attentiveness to the presence and gentle voice of God. The hermit aspect of our life is expressed in extended times of solitary prayer and solitary work during our day. Solitude is a means to detachment and habituates us in living in the presence of God as the source of our meaning and fulfillment.”
The tradition reaches back to Elijah of the Old Testament and to Mount Carmel itself, where legend holds that Mary prayed with the disciples after the resurrection. There are many saints of the Carmel tradition, including several who are Doctors of the Church. Sts. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila), St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, Saint Elzabeth of the Trinity and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) are but a few of the great saints of the Carmel tradition of contemplative prayer formed in the spirit of Our Lady.
It is a principle of theology, and of life, that what we do flows from who we are. Knowing who we are is more important than anything that we might do. Pope John Paul II has asked schools to emphasize being over functioning as a way of grounding young Catholics in Jesus Christ. The contemplative is the one who simply prays, who sits before God in openness and in doing so knows who he or she is. The contemplative also knows that he or she has chosen “the better part” (Luke 10:42). Faced with the terrible designs of the Nazi’s to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross simply determined to fight Hitler with prayer. She knew the power of receiving the grace of God in prayer. The Nazi evil would only be beaten by the incarnate Jesus Christ, given to his Church in contemplative prayer. The contemplative constantly chooses being over functions, relationship with Jesus Christ over human designs. It is a radical and dramatic choice.
Edith's Early Years
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, the Day of Atonement, the youngest of eleven children of a devout and practicing Jewish family. Her mother was exceptionally hard working and assisted her father in a lumber business. Her father died suddenly at age forty-eight, leaving Frau Stein to raise their now seven children. After a precocious childhood she inexplicably became withdrawn and an introvert at age seven, experiencing a great isolation and loneliness.
She became very sensitive to the sufferings of others, at times even exhibiting bodily illness, such as fevers, as a reaction to situations in her life. The young Edith kept these sufferings brought on by her gift of extreme empathy to herself, not even confiding in her mother with whom she remained very close.
Quest for Truth
Interestingly, this strong willed, sensitive and brilliant girl did not believe in God. She continued her education and her intellect continued to shine brilliantly. Her family wanted her to become a doctor, but she wanted to teach and so declined the opportunity to attend medical school. She had a clear sense that she would serve others, but had not yet chosen her path. Her studies led her from psychology to philosophy at the University of Breslau. She read Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations and transferred to Gottingen in order to study with the man who would become known as the father of phenomenology. Phenomenology would be the school of thought which gave rise to the theological work of Pope John Paul II. During these years Edith Stein worked as something of a feminist, promoting the rights of women to work in careers that had been reserved to men and working to promote the right of women to vote. She was among the first women to be admitted to Gottingen University. Edith was drawn to Husserl’s conviction that truth could really be known and became one of his closest co-workers as a student.
It was in Gottingen that Edith first met Max Scheler, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a professor of phenomenology. His lectures were filled with the spiritual beauty of Catholicism. This caused her to question her own spiritual poverty, wondering if there might be an “Eternal”.
In addition to these lectures, the experiences of deep suffering during World War I continued to lead her to faith in Christ. Edith joined her friends who had been drafted by volunteering to serve as a battlefield nurse. Her mother’s habits of hard work had become Edith’s as she labored to assist sick and injured soldiers. She was awarded a medal of valor for her selfless service at the end of her term. The death of one of her teachers in the war and the hope displayed by his widow combined with her service on the battlefield cause Edith to consider the power of the cross of Jesus Christ as well as its mystery. She began reading the New Testament and was eventually baptized a Roman Catholic. One evening, while staying at a friend’s home, she picked up a copy of Saint Theresa of Avila’s autobiography. She could not put it down and read it in one sitting through the course of the night. When she finished she declared, “This is the truth.”2
Called by God
Edith Stein began a career as a teacher. She deepened her spiritual journey (especially by reading the translated the works of Thomas Aquinas) and continually grew in humility and grace. Edith made friends with everyone who knew her. Her tranquility was a trait noticed by many. Even as a speaker on the role of woman in society, she was not fiery. One person commented, “within her penetrating eyes lay something mysterious and solemn, and the contrast between this and her simplicity created a certain awe.”3
As she witnessed to the truths of our faith and all that it demands, she became increasingly convinced that the only real source of change and conversion was prayer and sacrifice. It would not be through argumentation and logic that hearts were won, but by the offering of oneself for others in imitation of the cross. This would be her weapon against the new insidious evil beginning to rise around her, the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.
Edith had always been proud of her Jewish heritage and declared upon becoming a Catholic Christian that “now I am living two covenants, one of the flesh and one of the spirit.”4 Her deep empathy for others caused her to suffer deeply at the beatings and injustices, which Germans were now visiting upon Jews, some of which she witnessed herself. She saw the persecution as the cross of Christ being laid upon the Jewish people.
Her own vocation was becoming clearer as the anti-Semitic persecution increased. She would root herself more deeply in the source of truth and power which she had discovered. She would continue to change herself, and the world around her by offering herself to God in a life of prayer. Edith Stein decided that she would join the Carmelite Order. She took the religious name of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’ new name was most prophetically fitting to her life. Her life of prayer was a living sacrifice for the redemption of the violence which was the holocaust. Pope John Paul II would write as he proclaimed her co-patroness of Europe along with Catherine of Siena and Bridgette of Sweden, “With Edith Stein - Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - we enter a very different historical and cultural context. For she brings us to the heart of this tormented century, pointing to the hopes which it has stirred, but also the contradictions and failures which have disfigured it. Unlike Bridget and Catherine, Edith was not from a Christian family. What we see in her is the anguish of the search and the struggle of an existential 'pilgrimage'. Even after she found the truth in the peace of the contemplative life, she was to live to the full the mystery of the Cross.”5
With Jews being deported to the east to be held, apparently, in labor camps, Sr. Theresa Benedicta attempted to stay a step ahead of the Nazis together with her sister, also a Carmelite nun, Rosa. She landed in a monastery in Holland, but when the Nazis easily overtook Holland she attempted to emigrate to Switzerland. However, the Catholic bishops of Holland had spoken out in one voice in objection to the way in which Jews were being treated. In retaliation for that protest, Jewish Catholics in Holland and France were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, and these included Edith and Rosa Stein.
Sr. Theresa Benedicata Takes up Her Cross
There was talk of a rescue at the convent shortly before her deportation. She shunned the thought of that. "Do not do it!" she said, "Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed."6 Always caring for her sister, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross said to her as they were being herded away from the convent by the SS, “Come, Rosa, we go for our people.”7 Better than most, Edith Stein understood well what was happening, what their fate was to be and the deeper meaning of this sacrifice. Witnesses on the train which carried them east to the camps testified that Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was calm and cared for the needs of others, most of whom were in a panic at what was happening to them. They were kept in boxcars for the three-day trip and treated poorly by the Nazis. One witness wrote, “What distinguished Edith Stein from the rest of the sisters was her silence. Rather than seeming fearful, to me she appeared deeply oppressed. Maybe the best way I can explain it is to say that she carried so much pain that it hurt to see her smile. She hardly ever spoke; but often she would look at her sister Rosa with a sorrow beyond words. As I write, it occurs to me that she probably understood what was awaiting them. Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta without the Christ.”8 The transport made its way to Auschwitz where all of the travelers were immediately taken to the gas chambers and then cremated in the ovens of the camp. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross died on August 9, 1942.
In the words of Pope John Paul II: “Her voice merged with the cry of all the victims of that appalling tragedy, but at the same time was joined to the cry of Christ on the Cross which gives to human suffering a mysterious and enduring fruitfulness. The image of her holiness remains forever linked to the tragedy of her violent death, alongside all those who with her suffered the same fate. And it remains as a proclamation of the Gospel of the Cross, with which she identified herself by the very choice of her name in religion. Today we look upon Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and, in her witness as an innocent victim, we recognize an imitation of the Sacrificial Lamb and a protest against every violation of the fundamental rights of the person. We also recognize in it the pledge of a renewed encounter between Jews and Christians which, following the desire expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is now entering upon a time of promise marked by openness on both sides. Today's proclamation of Edith Stein as a Co-Patroness of Europe is intended to raise on this Continent a banner of respect, tolerance and acceptance which invites all men and women to understand and appreciate each other, transcending their ethnic, cultural and religious differences in order to form a truly fraternal society.”9
Applied to us
You can discuss one or more of the life applications below, or any others you can draw from the life of the Saint.
Edith Stein was a woman who relentlessly pursued the truth, and acted on her convictions. Rather than just surviving from day to day, she deeply pondered the meaning of life. Sadly, her pursuit led her for a time to be a well-known atheist philosopher. Thankfully, in the end, her pursuit led her to discover the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ who has said "I am the Truth” ~ John 14:6.
Whether they know it or not, the whole world is seeking the meaning of life - the truth about why we are here. Deep down, everyone wants fulfillment. Some people seek the meaning of life in skewed philosophies. Some people look to sin. Some people give up, conclude that there is no meaning to life, and fall into despair or hedonism.
As Catholic Christians, the purpose of life isn't hidden from us. We exist to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next. In short - we exist for a relationship with the maker of the universe, and, as part of that relationship, to become like Him. Nothing else will make us whole. We weren't made for anything less.
Pointed question - do you look to other places for fulfillment, or to that Faith that God has placed in the palm of your hand?
When Edith Stein had a conviction she acted on it. Her convictions led her to the university life where she wrapped herself in her studies and excelled as a philosopher. Her convictions led her to the convent. Her convictions gave her peace as she faced death. She was ready to choose to go to death with her people even if escape were offered to her. Many young people today fear commitment. There is a terrible lack of action based on deeply held convictions.
In the words of our pope when speaking of St. Theresa Benedicta, "The modern world boasts of the enticing door which says: everything is permitted. It ignores the narrow gate of discernment and renunciation. I am speaking especially to you, young Christians…Your life is not an endless series of open doors! Listen to your heart! Do not stay on the surface, but go to the heart o things! And when the time is right, have the courage to decide! The Lord is waiting for you to put your freedom in his good hands."10
How are your convictions of faith translating into your decisions and commitments? When you think about what you'd like to do with your life - does God come into the picture? Have you considered if he is calling you to the priesthood or religious life? Or perhaps he is calling you to a holy marriage?
From her childhood, Edith Stein was a deeply empathetic person. Her empathy, combined with her deep convictions, led her to put her life on the line as a WWI nurse. It moved her to fight for the rights of women. It moved her to comfort her sister as she was being carted off to her death. When we see the needs of others, how quickly and courageously do we respond?
Challenge of the Week
Put the challenges on card stock paper and cut them out. Have teens choose the challenge/challenges they feel comfortable with. Also, provide blank cards for them to make their own challenge. Encourage participants to keep the card in their pocket as a
Give some of your time this weekend to a local charity or social justice organization (perhaps an interfaith one)- such as a soup kitchen, thrift shop, or a pro-life organization.
Consider if God is calling you to the priesthood or religious life. Start to ask him what his plans are for you and for the grace to follow where he leads.
reminder. Cards can be chosen in silence or talked about.
Devote yourself more whole-heartedly to your studies this week, offering up your pursuit of truth through the various topics you study as a prayer to God for the peace of the world.
St. Edith was written by Jeff Silleck & Chris Stefanick
1 Accessed at http://www.praiseofglory.com/pentedithstein.htm.
2 Edith Stein: A Biography/the Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz by Waltraud Herbstrith, Bernard, Father Bonowitz
3 Edith Stein: A Biography/the Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz by Waltraud Herbstrith, Bernard, Father Bonowitz
4 Edith Stein: A Biography/the Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz by Waltraud Herbstrith, Bernard, Father Bonowitz
5 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Issued Motu Proprio, Proclaiming Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Co-Patronesses of Europe, His Holiness Pope John Paul II for Perpetual Remembrance, October 1, 1999. Accessed at www.vatican.va.
7 Edith Stein: A Biography/the Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz by Waltraud Herbstrith, Bernard, Father Bonowitz
8 Edith Stein: A Biography/the Untold Story of the Philosopher and Mystic Who Lost Her Life in the Death Camps of Auschwitz by Waltraud Herbstrith, Bernard, Father Bonowitz
9 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Issued Motu Proprio, Proclaiming Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Co-Patronesses of Europe, His Holiness Pope John Paul II for Perpetual Remembrance. October 1, 1999. Accessed at www.vatican.va.