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Feastdays / Mass Memorial Readings   |    Words of Wisdom

1891 – 1942
Feastday – 9th August

St_Edith_Stein_Teresa_Benedicta_of_the_Cross

Edith was born on October 12th, 1891, into a strict Jewish family in Breslau (or Wroclaw), in what used to be part of Germany but is now in Poland.  Her father died when she was quiet young and it was left to her mother to bring up a large family and run the family business.

Edith was impressed by her mother’s deep faith in God, however she herself could not identify with the same God.  She was a very gifted child, with an intelligence beyond her years. At the age of six, she expressed a desire to go to school, thinking that the kindergarten was a humiliation to her intellectual capacities.  She felt challenged in school and enjoyed the search for knowledge.  However, on not finding the answers to her questions in school she eventually left at the age of fifteen, disillusioned by her education.

She was deeply preoccupied by the plight of man’s suffering in the world, and she was searching for the truth of man’s existence.  She was especially moved by the plight of woman in society.  While staying with her sister whose husband was a doctor, she witnessed how faithful wives had contracted sexual diseases from their unfaithful husbands.  The women had to bear the sins of the men.  She was shocked by the hypocrisy of society and the social discrimination of women.

She believed that it was the duty of man to serve humanity, but how?   Being confronted with so much contradiction in the behaviour of man toward man, she decided to search for the answers.  The desire for truth sprang from her love of her neighbour and her life thus became a search for the truth, eventually culminating in finding that God alone is the truth.

Her studies at university were her means to discovering the truth.  She studied history to understand the past behaviour of man, she studied psychology in order to understand man’s thought processes.  However, it was the study of philosophy and eventually phenomenology that gave her the analytical tools she needed to truly discover the truth.  St Thomas Aquinas wrote that philosophy was simply one of the talents a person is given to help discover the mysteries of God.  Philosophy was her path to the truth.

She went to Gottingen to study with the famous phenomenologist, Husserl.  He believed that philosophy practiced as a rigorous science would lead to the discovery of truth.  Phenomenology provided her with an investigative method of knowledge of oneself, and the world.

Although she did not believe in God, she was open to the idea of faith.  There was openness to the search for truth, which lead a lot of her colleagues in the university to convert to Christianity.  These were people that Edith respected and admired.  She could not ignore the existence of God anymore, and she began to examine faith as a concept that could allow her to understand the truth of man’s existence.

Once while visiting Frankfurt cathedral with a friend, Edith was struck by the presence of a woman who dropped into the church in the middle of the day with her shopping bags, and knelt down to pray.  This woman had come to the church as if to speak to a friend.  Edith was very impressed by this encounter thus began to identify with a God with whom one could have a personal relationship.  The truth was becoming clearer to her.

It was finally, the reading of the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila that convinced Edith that she had discovered the truth.  She devoured the entire book in one night, unable to put it down.  She was baptized a catholic the following year, at the age of 31 years.

She writes: ‘God wishes to let himself be found by those who seek him.  Hence he wishes first to be sought.’

Edith desired to know the truth, she sought and found it, and then instead of hiding it she shared it with everyone she met – her family, colleagues, students, friends.  Her life for the next 11 years until her entry into the Discalced Carmel in Cologne in 1933, was an exercise in spreading the truth.

Transmission of knowledge and the formation of the whole person became her mission.  Education was her tool to prepare the next generation to know the truth of faith. She exhausted every opportunity God gave her to spread the good news, teaching, lecturing, writing, etc.  It was only when the anti-semitic laws banning the employment of Jews in universities made it impossible for her to work, that she was finally given permission by her confessor to enter the Carmel at the age of 42 years.  She spent her last years in Carmel embracing the life of a discalced Carmelite nun following the example of St Teresa of Avila.  She continued her intellectual works and giving teachings and advice by way of her many letters.  It was only the lack of writing paper that prevented her from writing more during this time.

When the persecution of the Jews became more rigorous, she was moved with her sister, who had by now converted to Catholicism, to the Carmel in Echt, The Netherlands.  Ironically, it was a letter of the Dutch bishops to the Dutch Catholics urging them to do all in their power to protect their Jewish neighbours that aroused the anger of the Nazi authorities.  All religious of Jewish decent were rounded up and sent to Westerbork camp to await deportation to Auschwitz.  Edith and her sister were gassed on the 9th of August, 1942.

Her great love of humanity culminated in her sacrificing her life for love of her neighbour, manifested in her people, the Jews, and in atonement  

for the crimes of the Nazis. Through her death in Auschwitz, she shows us how to truly love ones neighbour, because it is only through laying down ones life for ones neighbour, that one truly shows love, as did Christ.  In this as in all things she accepted all as the will of God.

She loved the world so much that she wanted to teach humanity to live well, and living well means living in the hand of God alone, trusting simply in his love, and accepting all that comes from his hand like a child who in sweet and blissful security is carried in the arms of its father.

She shows us how submit to God’s will which is the truth, and how to allow ourselves to be used as instruments of His will and not our own.  She shows us how to search for God’s truth eagerly and intelligently.  We need to have a deep understanding of God and his word, so that when called on we will have the wisdom and the vocabulary required to defend our faith knowledgeably and without ignorance, as Edith did.

Edith writes: 'God is truth, and whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether he know it or not.'

When Edith’s teacher Husserl was dying, she was not overly preoccupied with his salvation, because she believed in the greatness of the mercy of God.  She knew how much God appreciated the effort that the search for truth involved.  It was this desire for the truth that was required, not so much the act of finding it.   The grace of God is present in those who seek the ultimate meaning of existence, even if they are without God.  In seeking the truth, Husserl, Edith believed, was unwittingly seeking to know God.   One who is seeking God, is praying.

When we celebrate the feast day of a saint, we are celebrating their deep knowledge of the truth of God.  So, celebrating the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, we are remembering a saint who has sought and found the truth, and lived it prayerfully for love of God and humanity.

As Edith wrote of herself:  '….my longing for truth was a prayer in itself.'

Pope John Paul II beatified St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on 1 May 1987, and canonized her on 11 October 1998.

For another biography of this wonderful saint click here >>>

Letter of Bl Pope John Paul II proclaiming St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - CoPatroness of Europe with SAINT BRIDGET OF SWEDEN & SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA