Reflection: The Life of St Edith Stein
Exploring the riches of femininity, the mission of women
In a time when people have been discussing the Christian roots of Europe and a European Constitution with no mention of its indestructible Christian roots, we meet the figure of Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). She was an eminent European personality in her life, her thought and her work.
More than five years have passed since 1 October 1999, when John Paul II, just one year after her canonization, proclaimed Edith Stein "Co-Patroness of Europe", together with St Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden, in his Apostolic Letter Spes Aedificandi in the form of a Motu Proprio.
This is what the Pope wrote concerning Edith Stein: "Teresa Benedicta of the Cross... not only lived in various countries of Europe, but by her entire life as thinker, mystic and martyr, built a kind of bridge between her Jewish roots and her commitment to Christ, taking part in the dialogue with contemporary philosophical thought with sound intuition, and in the end forcefully proclaiming by her martyrdom the ways of God and man.... She has thus become the symbol of a human, cultural and religious pilgrimage which embodies the deepest
tragedy and the deepest hopes of the Continent of Europe....
"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. Thus may Europe grow! May it grow as a Europe of the spirit, in continuity with the best of its history, of which holiness is the highest expression" (Apostolic Letter Spes Aedificandi, 1 October 1999, nn. 3, 9, 10; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 6 October 1999, pp. 8, 10).
'In love with the truth'
St Edith Stein was an intellectual in love with the truth who sought new paths for philosophy and theology, so that she said: "The thirst for the truth is my one prayer: God is truth. Anyone who seeks the truth seeks God, whether or not he is aware of it".
St Edith Stein was a Jewish woman, an eminent daughter of Israel, the Biblical people.
St Edith Stein was a woman convert to Carmel, who in the solitude, of the monastery sought the secret of perfection, conformity to and uniformity with the Cross, that was to make her cry: "Ave, Crux, spes unica".
St Edith Stein was a woman martyr who died for Christ and for his people in the gas chambers of the extermination camp at Auschwitz.
We are obviously speaking of a great figure of our time.
Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the youngest of seven children born to Siegfried and Augusta Courant, wood merchants. Her father died when she was very young so that all the burden of responsibility fell on the shoulders of her mother, Augusta, who dedicated herself entirely to raising her children.
Life in the Stein family was always very simple. Little Edith grew up with an exceptional intelligence, always eager to learn, especially foreign languages.
Having completed her secondary schooling, she enrolled at the University of Breslau where she specialized in philosophy. Later, on 17 April 1913, having been deeply impressed by Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), one of the first works by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, she went to Göttingen to pursue her studies and take the courses of her teacher Husserl, founder of the school of phenomenology. It was with him that she discussed the dissertation for her degree, "Zum Problem der Einführung" (The Problem of Empathy).
'Stepping stones to faith'
Meeting the widow of Adolf Reinach, a friend and colleague, and reading the life of St Teresa of Avila, especially her work, The Interior Castle, were important stepping stones to faith and to her conversion to Catholicism.
She was baptized on 1 January 1922, and on 14 October 1933, entered the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, taking the names of Teresa and Benedicta of the Cross: Teresa in memory of the "holy mother" of Avila, who brought about her conversion to Christianity;
Benedicta, because she felt chosen by Jesus among Jewish women to follow him by embracing the Cross.
The persecution of the Jews forced her to seek refuge in the Carmelite convent of Echt in The Netherlands, but even there she was not out of reach of human folly.
On 2 August 1942 the Gestapo arrested her, together with her sister Rosa, and she was deported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
She died in the gas chamber on 9 August 1942.
In a note left to the Mother Prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, Edith Stein wrote: "One can only gain a scientia crucis if one has thoroughly experienced the Cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: 'Ave, Crux, spes unica!"'.
On 1 May 1987 she was beatified, on 11 October 1998 she was canonized, and on 1 October 1999 she was declared Co-Patroness of Europe. Pope John Paul II was responsible for these three acts.
Impact of St Edith Stein
The thought of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross helps men and women of the third millennium in many ways to interpret the implications of social, intellectual and religious life.
St Edith Stein's outstanding merit was her ability to sum up the history of Western philosophy. Indeed, her philosophy is like a great intellectual framework that enlightens people and helps them find their way, on condition that they allow all the dimensions of reality — scientific, religious and social — to exist autonomously without claiming to replace
Her reflections on the role of women were especially important and she gave lectures on this topic throughout Europe. Truly penetrating are the pages in which she explores the human and religious aspects of the riches of femininity and the mission of women.
She was a great expert in Medieval thought, especially of Augustine and Thomas, who laid the foundations for reflection on the transcendence of God and for theological development.
Her theological works are outstanding, including her comment on "The Dark Night" of St John of the Cross in her book Scientia Crucis.
The Pope said of her: "As a bride of the Cross, Sr Teresa Benedicta did not only write profound passages on 'the Science of the Cross', but followed the way of the school of the Cross to its very end".
St Edith Stein is a splendid example of a woman of faith and European and world culture. It is only right that her witness of life, her message and her thought continue to be spread around the world.