Courage, Trust, & Strength of Character: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
On August 9, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Edith Stein, otherwise known by many as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Reading her story presents us with the picture of a woman whose life was marked by a number of unique and compelling accomplishments and events. Her time on earth coincided with major political and religious turbulence, as she lived from the year 1891 to the year 1942, yet she persevered through her trials and tribulations with a deep sense of faith and a strong commitment to her vocation. Though we are living in a much different time in 2021, we can learn many lessons from her courage, trust and strength of character.
Early Life and Education
Edith was born on October 12, 1891 to a German Jewish family living in Poland. Her father died when she was young, so Edith and her ten older siblings were raised primarily by her mother. Her family was unlike many others, as her mother Auguste emphasized the value of education and critical thinking in the home even for girls, who typically were not encouraged to pursue academic success or higher learning at the time. Although Edith’s mother clearly succeeded in planting a strong desire to learn in Edith, the same could not be said of Auguste’s ability to pass down her Jewish faith. Edith, as an adolescent, chose to reject the faith of her family and instead to live according to agnostic beliefs.
As Edith reached adolescence, her mother decided that it would be best for Edith to pursue her education in a greater capacity. In her teenage years, Edith was sent to study at the Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). After some years there and a summer studying at the University of Göttingen, Edith decided to pursue further education and obtain her doctorate, focusing on the topic of empathy. Although her studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and her decision to become a nursing assistant during that time, Edith completed her dissertation on empathy in 1916 at the University of Freiburg, obtaining summa cum laude honors at the time. She proceeded to work as a teaching assistant to her own teacher and mentor, Edmund Husserl, who is said to have helped lead many of his students to Christianity by way of his philosophical views.
Conversion, Teaching and Religious Life
After a few years of work as a teaching assistant, the Catholic faith rose in prominence in Edith’s mind. While on a summer holiday in Germany in 1921, Edith encountered the works of the mystic St. Teresa of Avila. Edith found her spiritual autobiography deeply impactful and would in later years cite it as a primary reason for her conversion to Catholicism. Edith was baptized into the Catholic faith on New Year’s Day in 1922.
Although Edith desired to enter into the religious order of the Discalced Carmelites immediately, she was persuaded by her spiritual advisors to avoid entering such a radically different life so quickly after her conversion. Edith returned to using the skills and intellect she had spent so many years developing prior to her conversion and began to teach again and accept speaking engagements. Her understanding of what it meant to live a life of faith changed around this time, as it seems that she had previously thought that to be religious, one must separate oneself from the secular world. She wrote of her new view of living out the Catholic faith: “Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to ‘get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”
Her understanding of living out her faith carried through to her academic endeavors as well. Although it seems that Edith was somewhat reluctant to return to a scholastic life, she immersed herself in it with passion after realizing that it could also be a way to live out her faith. Edith even continued her studies and academic work after finally entering the Discalced Carmelites in 1933. She took the name Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, or Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
“I Ask the Lord to Accept My Life and My Death”
By this time, the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime was pervasive. Edith’s Carmelite superiors worked to protect Edith and her sister Rosa, who was a convert to Catholicism as well as an extern sister of Carmel. The sisters were sent to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands, where Edith wrote her will (she believed that she would not survive the war, now the second through which she had lived). A desire for martyrdom was apparent, as she once wrote, “I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death … so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.”
Edith’s instincts regarding her survival were sadly not incorrect, as the arrest of all Jewish converts was ordered by the Gestapo in late July 1942. Edith and her sister were arrested and ultimately taken to Auschwitz on August 7, where they were killed in a gas chamber two days later. Edith had embraced the suffering she endured up until this point with strength and grace, emblematic of the words written about her by her friend Professor Jan Nota: “She is a witness to God’s presence in a world where God is absent.” She was beatified in 1987 and canonized some time after in 1998.
Faith and Reason
The life and work of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is highly reminiscent of a quotation from the pope who canonized her, Pope St. John Paul II. In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, or Faith and Reason, he wrote: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” As we read through the story of Edith’s life, it seems clear that she struggled at various points to align her personality, her intellect, her skills and her faith. For example, in her earlier years, her faith suffered as she dedicated herself to her academic studies, and in her later years, she lost interest in her work as she committed herself to her newfound Catholicism.
However, Edith was ultimately able to weave all of these facets of herself into a person whose life was fully spent loving and honoring God. It is deeply admirable that she was able to use her talents so well in efforts to teach others about God and His Church. In this way, she beautifully exemplified the intertwining of faith and reason, and because of this was able to arrive at the kind of self-knowledge one can only have in God. Inspired by her, may we always seek to synthesize our personalities, our talents and our diverse vocations together with our Catholic faith for the greater glory of God.