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St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942) Part – 1: Early Life
Welcome to INSPIRING LIVES, a series on the lives of Saints in the catholic church from around the world. In this series we bring you those saints who are canonized by Pope John Paul II. Saints are holy people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. Each saint the Church honors responded to God's invitation to use his or her unique gifts. These saints are examples of great holiness and virtue, and they invite us to follow their paths to holiness. Their unique stories inspire us to be rooted in our faith. As Pope Francis þ wrote on 21 November 2013, ‘to be saints is not a privilege of the few, but a vocation for everyone’. God calls each one of us to be a saint.
Today we shall listen to the inspiring life of Edith Stein who became St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II on 11th October 1998 in the Vatican Basilica. Her feast is celebrated on August 9.
"We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting ... and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God." These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne, Germany on 1 May 1987.
Who was Edith Stein who became St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross? She was born in a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11 children. She was born while her family were celebrating Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish festival, the Feast of Atonement. "More than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her mother."
Edith's father, who ran a timber business, died when she was just two years old. Her mother, a very devout, hard-working, strong-willed and truly wonderful woman, now had to fend for herself and to look after the family and their large business. However, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. Edith lost her faith in God. "I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying", she said.
In 1911 Edith Stein passed her school-leaving exam with flying colours and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study German and history, though this was a mere "bread-and-butter" choice. Her real interest was in philosophy and in women's issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women's Franchise. "When I was at school and during my first years at university," she wrote later, "I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions."
Two years later, in 1913, Edith Stein transferred to Göttingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At that time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl's new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception.
Edmund’s pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: "back to things". His phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In Göttingen Edith Stein also met philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, she did not neglect her "bread-and-butter" studies and passed her degree with distinction in January 1915, though she did not follow it up with teacher training.
"I no longer have a life of my own," Edith Stein wrote at the beginning of the First World War, having done a nursing course and gone to serve in an Austrian field hospital. This was a hard time for her, during which she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theatre, and saw young people die. When the hospital was dissolved, in 1916, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg, where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude (with the utmost distinction) in 1917, after writing a thesis on "The Problem of Empathy."
During this period she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. "This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot." Towards the end of her dissertation she wrote: "There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God's grace." How could she come to such a conclusion?
Edith Stein had been good friends with Husserl's Göttingen assistant, Adolf Reinach, and his wife. When Reinach fell in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit his widow. The Reinachs had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. "This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it ... it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me - Christ in the mystery of the Cross."
Later, she wrote: "Things were in God's plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that - from God's point of view - there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God's divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God's all-seeing eyes."
In Autumn 1918 Edith Stein gave up her job as Husserl's teaching assistant. She wanted to work independently. It was not until 1930 that she saw Husserl again after her conversion, and she shared with him about her faith, as she would have liked him to become a Christian, too. Then she wrote down the amazing words: "Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust."
Edith Stein wanted to obtain a professorship, a goal that was impossible for a woman at that time. Husserl wrote the following reference: "Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship." Later, she was refused a professorship on account of her Jewishness.
Back in Breslau, Edith Stein began to write articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. However, she also read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read a book like that, but had to put it into practice.
In the summer of 1921. she spent several weeks in Bergzabern the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. "When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth." Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: "My longing for truth was a single prayer."
That was the first part of the inspiring life of Edith Stein who became St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. You can listen to the second part of her life next week.
You have been listening to INSPIRING LIVES, a weekly series based on the lives of Catholic Saints from around the world, brought to you by Vatican Radio’s English Service for South Asia.
By P.J. Joseph SJ
FRIDAY, 07 MARCH 2014