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Edith Stein and the Transcendence of the Cross


“Anyone who seeks truth seeks God, whether or not he realizes it.” ~ Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

Today our church celebrates the Memorial of one of her modern-day Saints, the woman who would go in to become known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942). Perhaps better known as Edith Stein, she was a brilliant and precocious child who was born on the Feast of Yom Kippur, significant in that she was the child of devout Jewish parents. She too embraced her a Jewish roots, growing in her devotion to the faith traditions of her family.

Upon heading off to University in her late teens, she found herself drawn to the psychological sciences. Ultimately however they did not satisfy her quest for knowledge, truth and understanding. Edith eventually gravitated toward the study of philosophy, becoming a pupil of the renowned professor Edmund Husserl in 1913. Over time, she slowly abandoned her religious beliefs, becoming an atheist on the path to gaining her Doctorate in Philosophy. But the hand of grace would once again intercede. Edith met and befriended several Christians whose intellectual and spiritual lives intrigued her. As her admiration for them grew, her inquisitive nature once again was piqued.

At the encouragement of a classmate, Edith began to study the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th Century Carmelite Nun. Upon reading Teresa of Avila's biography, Edith's life was changed. “This is truth," she concluded, and buoyed by the power of this unshakable truth, she would spend the rest of her life in pursuit of it. She was baptized into the Catholic Church on the first day of January, 1922. Ever the philosopher and seeker of truth, she once said "Each finite creature can reflect only a fraction of the divine nature; thus, in the diversity of His creatures, God's infinity, unity and oneness appear to be broken into an effulgence of manifold rays."

On the heels of her baptism, Edith would discern a call to religious life but waited nine years to enter the Carmelite order out of respect to her Jewish mother. She would ultimately enter a Carmelite convent in 1934, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as a symbol of her acceptance of suffering. She thrived in a rigorous spiritual environment, living in an erudite world of contemplation, surrender and simplicity.

The parting she had with her mother, who did not understand her Christian conversion, weighed heavily upon Edith. Undaunted, she accepted the cross for those who could not grasp its immense purpose and value. “I felt that those who understood the cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody's behalf,”’ she would say. Her vocation, to essentially "intercede with God for everyone,” was most evident in her prayers for the Jews of Germany whose tragic fate was becoming clearer as Nazism continued to gain diabolical momentum across Europe.

Teresa was transferred to a convent in the Netherlands for safety. It was there that she grew in her desire to offer her life for the salvation of souls. After completing her final work, a study of the great Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross' epic volume entitled The Science of the Cross, Teresa Benedicta was arrested along with her sister Rosa, who had also become a Catholic, and the members of her religious community on August 7, 1942. The arrests came in retaliation against a protest letter by the Dutch Bishops, decrying the Nazi treatment of Jews. The Gestapo rounded them up and brought them in because they were wearing habits. They were sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. Within weeks Edith and her sister were both killed in the gas chamber on the 9th of August, 1942.

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When Edith Stein was canonized as Saint Teresa Benedicta while also being declared a martyr, there were some who questioned the designation, claiming that she was not a Catholic martyr. That she was instead killed for being a Jew. In fact she was put to death for being both Catholic and Jewish. Irrational hatred of such enormity as Nazism doesn’t dawdle over granularity or what they might consider mere trivialities or asterisks.

From Jew to Atheist to Catholic to Carmelite Nun to Martyr to Saint. A story for the ages no doubt, yet we know this is how our Lord works. One day Amos was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees, the next he is a prophet. One day Paul was killing Christians, the next day he was a Christian. One day Peter was a fisherman, the next day he was a fisher of men. So it goes with the Creator of all things. If God can create the entire world in six days, surely he can create a new heart in one

I leave you with a quote from Saint Teresa Benedicta which in many ways encapsulates her mission on this earth, certainly how she envisioned it. “On the question of relating to our fellow man; our neighbor’s spiritual need transcends every commandment. Everything else we do is a means to an end. But love is an end already, since God is love.”

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ~ Edith Stein ~ pray for us...

“One cannot desire freedom from the cross when one is specifically chosen for the cross.” ~ Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross / Edith Stein

“One cannot desire freedom from the cross when one is specifically chosen for the cross.” ~ Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross / Edith Stein

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