Monday, August 9, 2021

The Conversion of Edith Stein


For the August 9 Memorial honoring the martyrdom (in Auschwitz on this day in 1942) of that renowned “Catholic member of the Jewish people” and Carmelite nun Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (a.k.a. Edith Stein), I thought it would be good to present the brief story of her journey to Christ and the Catholic Church.

I wrote this article over six years ago and it was published in my monthly column in Magnificat in November 2015:

Edith Stein traveled a path of conversion that included many encounters before she discovered Saint Teresa of Avila on a friend’s bookshelf. She was born in 1891 in Breslau, in what was then eastern Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), into a vibrant Jewish family.

As a child, Edith was close to her mother, whose faithful Jewish piety was her first experience of religion. Edith also grew to be a brilliant student, and intellectual aspirations led her away from the simple devotions of her mother, so that at the age of 13 she “stopped praying” inwardly. But she continued to respect her mother’s convictions and accompany her to the synagogue. Her mother singing the Psalms no doubt laid the foundations within Edith’s soul of the search for ultimate truth. Thus, even as she lost belief in God, she also dedicated herself to finding truth.

She studied prodigiously and with great success in school and university, but also became frustrated with the pervasive atmosphere of scientific materialism. Then, in 1911, she first met Edmund Husserl. Husserl’s philosophical method made a powerful case for the transcendence of the human person beyond the material observations of empirical science. Husserl’s “phenomenology” convinced Edith, and others, that it was possible toknow the truth of “things in themselves.”

Edith decided to write her dissertation under Husserl’s direction. Meanwhile, something remarkable was happening: phenomenology was opening Husserl’s followers to God and religion. Many became Christians. At this time Edith Stein met Max Scheler, a Catholic convert who convinced her that religion was necessary for the fulfillment of the human person. It was because of Scheler, Edith later said, that “the world of faith unfolded before me” for the first time.

As Edith’s search for truth was moving forward intellectually, another friendship was crucial to her personal growth. Professor Adolf Reinach and his wife Anna opened their hearts and their home to Edith while she completed her dissertation and then became Husserl’s personal assistant. When Adolf Reinach was drafted into the war in 1917, he and Anna were baptized Lutheran Christians. Soon after, Adolf was killed in battle. The tragic death of the brilliant young philosopher, however, brought Edith to see something new in her friendship with Anna. Edith knew the terrible grief brought by death, but what she saw in Anna was a strength and peace sustained by her relationship with Jesus. Anna was still Protestant (she would later also become Catholic) but she was a decisive witness at this time on Edith’s path to the Church. Anna embraced her suffering through the power of the Cross, and, Edith later wrote, “that was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth.”

After this, Edith read the New Testament and came to believe in Jesus. This hidden faith in the power of the cross was thus prepared to take its definitive form on the famous night in 1921 when she read Saint Teresa’s Autobiography and discovered the fullness of the Catholic faith and the beginning of her own Carmelite vocation.

Here we have recounted only a few details from the beginning of the story of this great woman who we now honor as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose life, thought, and martyrdom have so profoundly enriched the Church. We all need to get to know her more.

My mother found in Edith Stein a great "spiritual friend" and heavenly intercessor, and now I pray that they have met in an unimaginably deeper way, and are rejoicing together in the presence of God.

The monastery was for Edith Stein the perfection of her faith through the grace of contemplative love. United with the heart of Jesus on the Cross, her hidden life was opened up by the freedom of God's love so that it might reach out in mysterious ways to accompany the suffering of countless people during the darkest days of Hitler's genocide (which claimed her own life) and beyond.

She saw clearly that "real life" meant living an inward participation in Christ's redeeming love for the world. Here above all was the continual "sharing in His death" that made her whole life an offering, and thus prepared her for the ultimate suffering of the concentration camp and the gas chamber. At the beginning of the year before she was taken to Auschwitz, surrounded already by the violence of the Nazi's stranglehold of Europe, Teresa Benedicta offered this reflection (January 6, 1941):