Teresa Blessed by the Cross: The 60th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Edith Stein

JOHN CROSBY

A man remarked on her smile which, unlike a conventional smile that serves as a mask, seemed to flow out of her depths, a smile that expressed deep inner recollection and peace, and he noticed it even as she and her sister boarded the train for Auschwitz.

St. Edith Stein
(1891-1942)

Edith Stein was born in 1891 into a devout Jewish family. In her teens she fell away from the Jewish faith that was so dear to her mother, and in fact she considered herself an atheist. It was only at age 30 that she converted to Catholicism. The years between the loss of her Jewish faith and her discovery of the Catholic faith were filled with the study of philosophy in the school of the great German philosopher Edmund Husserl. She even distinguished herself as a philosophical author and for a time worked closely with Husserl. She was in contact with many of the most important German philosophers of the early 20th century. Though her study of philosophy served to clear away many obstacles to faith, it was her encounter with St. Teresa of Avila that enabled her to break through to faith. While she was visiting a friend, she happened on the Autobiography of St. Teresa. After spending an entire night reading it, she became a believer and was received into the Church soon after.

During the years after her conversion she became known all over Europe as a Catholic intellectual of stature. She particularly caught the attention of her contemporaries with her writings on the nature of woman. But while her reputation was growing, she was deepening her own inner life, which came to involve deep mystical prayer. She eventually discerned for herself a Carmelite vocation, and in 1933 she was received into a Carmel in Cologne, Germany. She chose the name, Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, which means "Teresa blessed by the Cross." It was a prophetic choice; if you look over her life and death, you have to say that she could hardly have chosen a more meaningful religious name.

1933 was the year Hitler came to power in Germany. Being Jewish by birth Edith Stein was in danger in Hitler's Germany. As the anti-Semitism became more violent in Germany, Edith Stein looked outside Germany for a place of refuge, and in 1938 she transferred to a Carmel in Holland. But at the same time the sense was growing in her that she had to take a part in the suffering of her Jewish brothers and sisters.

She began to feel a certain kinship with the great Old Testament woman, Esther. In the Book of Esther we read of a terrible threat to the Jews then dispersed throughout the Persian Empire. A highly placed Persian official named Haman had a venomous hatred for the Jews and persuaded the Persian king, Xerxes, to have them exterminated. Esther was a young Jewish woman who had found favor with the king and had become his queen. She pleaded for her people with the king who, in response to her plea, had Haman destroyed and acted to undo the harm to the Jews that had been plotted by him. Sr. Benedicta a Cruce wrote in a letter: "I am confident that the Lord has taken my life for all Jews. I always have to think of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people for the express purpose of standing before the king for her people. I am the very poor, weak, and small Esther." Needless to say, it was for the conversion of the Jewish people to Christ that Edith Stein prayed before the King.

She was not safe for long in Holland, which was occupied in 1940 by the Germans. At first those Jews who had converted to Christianity were left alone and only non-Christian Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, but that changed after July 26, 1942. For on that Sunday the Dutch Catholic bishops had promulgated in all Catholic churches a stern protest against the deportation of the Jews. In retaliation, the Germans turned their fury on the Jews who had converted; conversion to Christianity ceased to protect Jews, and so it ceased to protect Edith Stein.

Here we have the response to those Jewish critics who have said that the Catholic Church has no business venerating Edith Stein as a Christian martyr; they say that she was arrested and subsequently killed because she was Jewish, not because she was Christian. The circumstances of her arrest show that she was condemned to death for both reasons, both because she was Jewish and because she belonged to the Christian church that had just condemned the German persecution of the Jews. The Germans wanted to strike a retaliatory blow at the Catholic Church by striking at Edith Stein. She suffered both as a Jew and as a Christian.

In the year before her arrest she had begun work on a book that she called The Science of the Cross, a study (never finished) of the theology of the Cross in the tradition of the great Carmelite master, St. John of the Cross. She had been meditating on the Cross in a particular way ever since she chose her religious name, "blessed by the Cross." She said that she was "married to the Lord in the sign of the Cross." In one letter she wrote: "I spoke to our Savior and told Him that I knew it was His Cross which was now being laid on the Jewish people. Most of them did not understand it, but those who did understand must accept it willingly in the name of all." In 1939 she asked (and received) permission from her superior to offer herself solemnly as an atoning sacrifice for breaking the reign of the anti-Christ and for establishing true peace in the world. She prayed, "ave, crux, spes unica," which means, "hail, O Cross, our only hope." She meditated on the Cross as its shadow fell over her.

But all who knew her in her last years and in her last days affirm that she was never made gloomy by her embrace of the Cross; just the contrary, one repeatedly hears of the peace she radiated, of her gentle, joyful spirit. A man who spoke with her in the Dutch camp of Westerbork, where she was held before being deported to Auschwitz, remarked on the smile which, unlike a conventional smile that serves as a mask, seemed to flow out of her depths, a smile that expressed deep inner recollection and peace, and he noticed it even as she and her sister boarded the train for Auschwitz.

It is assumed that she was gassed to death (along with her sister) immediately upon arriving in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, one week after being taken from her convent in Holland. It was a martyrdom that did not overtake her unexpectedly, but rather was the consummation of all her deepest religious aspirations.

When John Paul II went to Cologne in 1987 to beatify Edith Stein, he said in the course of his homily: "Dear brothers and sisters, today the Church of the 20th century is experiencing a great day. We bow in profound respect before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and, at the same time, a daughter of Carmel, Sr. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, a person who embodied a dramatic synthesis of our century in her rich life." And then he concluded: "Blessed be Edith Stein, Sr. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, a true worshipper of God-in spirit and in truth. She is among the blessed. Amen."

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Crosby. "Teresa Blessed by the Cross: The 60th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Edith Stein." Lay Witness (July/August 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

John Crosby is chairman of the philosophy department at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness




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