Edith Stein walked this dark road without flinching, secure as the baby who abandons itself to its father. By that dark way of faith she reached "the highest perfection of being, which is at once knowledge, the gift of the heart, and freedom of action"(2).
Born at Breslau on 12th October 1891, on the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the youngest of seven children, she did her first studies in philosophy in her native city. Later she moved to Gottingen to follow Edmund Husserl, philosophical genius and father of phenomenology. At his school Edith was to take no further interest in religion, retaining only the moral stamp of her Jewish upbringing. Through the study of phenomenology, however, she began gradually to discover the religious world and Christianity, later becoming a Catholic. A turning point in her life was her reading of the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila. On a mysterious June night in 1921, finding herself a guest in the house of a philosopher friend, she received a profound intuition of God-Truth. All became light for her: she was baptised on January 1st 1922, receiving at the same time a vocation to Carmel.
Twelve years were to pass, however, before she entered the Carmel of Cologne. This was a period of teaching, lecture tours and study, during which she matured interiorly. Perhaps she might not have succeeded in becoming a religious but for the political situation in Germany, and had not the increasingly anti-Semitic measures there made it impossible for her to continue her teaching at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster.
Despite family opposition Edith became a Carmelite nun, taking the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was quickly to feel the weight of the "cross" on her shoulders. Following the discovery by the authorities of her non-Aryan origins, she was no longer safe behind monastery walls; so in the early hours of New Year's Day 1939 she was taken to Holland, to the Carmel of Echt. It seemed a tranquil place, yet she had a premonition that she should not escape the destiny of her people. In fact while she was writing her book on the doctrine of St John of the Cross, significantly entitled The Science of the Cross, two officials of the occupation forces came to the monastery. She had to go with them, together with her sister Rose, also a convert, who had joined her in Echt.
Before being deported to Auschwitz, Edith was able to send a message to Carmel. Then with the convoy which brought them to Auschwitz, the Stein sisters entered the shadow of death. On August 9th, 1942, the holocaust of Edith reached its consummation in the gas chambers. Pope John Paul II who already in 1987 had publicly proclaimed the sanctity of this daughter of St Teresa, and the martyrdom of this Jewess returned to the bosom of the Church, on 11th October 1998 solemnly canonized her at Rome.
This brief biographical sketch reveals three distinct stages in the life of Edith Stein, the first being her childhood, adolescence, and her philosophical studies and work as assistant to Husserl. These were thirty important years, particularly for the human and religious development which ended in her conversion. The second stage covers twelve years of intense Christian life, of interior and intellectual maturing, of patient and hidden preparation for Carmel in absolute fidelity to the grace of vocation. With her entry to the Carmel of Cologne begins the third period of her life, a time of suffering and assimilation to Christ, which brought her to the heights of the mysticism of the Cross. This stage ends in the "white house" of the extermination camp with her supreme offering of her life for the Church, and for the salvation of the Jewish people. These three stages are marked in her by a great desire for totality, by a profound longing for the Absolute, and by a constant and impassioned seeking of the Truth, of God himself. This is the reason too why every step forward in her search for the Faith included also, almost of necessity, a burning desire for the most radical form of Christianity, namely the monastic life, in order to live it to the full.
1. The Search for Truth
Despite her religious upbringing Edith quickly lost her Jewish faith, under the influence of rationalistic teaching at school. This may be noted also in other young Jews - for example, in Simone Weil and Franz Rosenberg - and ought not to be attributed simply to family difficulties. The Jewish religion was presented to them solely in the form of ethical idealism, and they believed themselves within their rights to demonstrate its defects and weaknesses. Such a critical stance led Edith to a neutral position in regard to God, and a refusal of all religious practice. In the meantime she concentrated on the search for intellectual principles and values which she considered more elevated than those of the Jewish faith. This solitary research brought about a state of increasing tension, and of unremitting efforts to find solutions to existential questions; stress which lasted all through her years of study to the moment of her conversion.
On this difficult journey she met Edmund Husserl. Reading his Logiscye Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), she found in Phenomenology a most valid and apt philosophical system which was to sustain her in her search for Truth, unfolding before her new horizons of knowledge to which she was always open. Next we find her at Gottingen to pursue her studies at the school of the great German philosopher. Soon she became his most gifted student; and when she had brilliantly completed her studies with a doctorate summa cum laude, he took her on as his assistant and collaborator.
The phenomenological method had a positive influence on her research into the essence of things, freeing her from narrow preconceptions and leading her to a state of total impartiality (Voraussetzungslosigkeit) without which she would have been incapable of opening herself to the thought of God with that absolute objectivity of judgement so characteristic of her. Nevertheless it was not the mental processes of the young phenomenologist which disclosed to her the world of Faith, that "perfectly new world" hitherto to her "completely unknown", as she writes. Neither was it the circle in which she moved, the friends and colleagues of Husserl; chiefly Max Scheler and Adolph Reinach. She writes that Max Scheler, not long a convert, "did not lead me to the Faith, but he opened to me a new sphere of phenomena which I could not ignore. Not for nothing (in the Husserl school) was it constantly repeated that we must examine all things whatsoever without presuppositions, throwing away all blinkers. Thus collapsed the barriers of rationalistic prejudice in which I had unknowingly grown up, and the world of Faith unfolded suddenly before me".(3)
This new knowledge, however, resulted in pressing questions for Edith. She wanted to clarify the religious problem, to understand what relationship there could be (or there should be) between herself and God. To interpret this relationship as an abstraction seemed to her absurd, inclined as she was to relate everything to concrete reality. Should she then imagine the relationship idealistically or romantically? That could never be for her, always striving to grasp things in their deepest essence, without which nothing had value in her eyes. Would it not be easier then to discount the existence of God? But Edith was never one to choose the easy way. In her whole life she always chose the tough ascent.
Through struggles, nervous crises, misunderstandings and periods of intense suffering, Edith began to weigh up the three possible ways of living the Faith as presented by her environment Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism subjecting each to a rigorous and impartial evaluation.
Judaism: One of Edith's acquaintances, Philomena Steiger of Freiburg, remembers having seen her with the Old Testament in her hand, searching for an answer, especially in the prophetical books, to a deep inner disquiet. Also the Jewish philosopher and friend of Edith, Gertrude Koebner, remembered her serious efforts to return to the religion of her parents. After careful consideration she became convinced that Judaism did not meet her needs. Yet she was never to refute it, as did some other Jewish converts to Christianity. She remained ever respectful.
Protestantism: Not only through her friendship with Adolph Reinach and Hedwig Konrad Martius, focal point of the friends and colleagues of the Husserl circle, did Edith come in contact with Protestantism. The town of Gottingen itself had many evangelical churches and people who did not hide their Lutheran creed. In addition, Edith's predilection for the religious music of Bach undoubtedly gave her some idea of Protestant sentiment and mysticism. Far more important however was her encounter with the Christian response to grief, to the atrocities of the 1914-18 War, and her introduction to the strength of Christian hope, born of the Cross of Christ.
In 1917 she was at Freiburg, assistant to Husserl. One day she received news of the death of Adolph Reinach on the field of battle. His wife and other friends asked Edith to come and sort his papers and various philosophical writings. She hesitated at first, feeling she had no words to comfort his wife, believing her to be desperate in her grief. When she met the young widow, however, she was struck by her resigned, almost serene attitude. In this attitude Edith grasped immediately the strength of the Christian Faith. The gates of an unknown kingdom had suddenly been thrown open, the kingdom of Christian Hope. Relating this experience many years later to the Jesuit, Fr Hirschaum, she confessed: "This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the divine strength it brings to those who bear it. I saw for the first time within my reach the Church, born of the Redeemer's sufferings in his victory over the sting of death. It was at that moment that my incredulity was shattered and the light of Christ shone forth, Christ in the mystery of the Cross".
These words were spoken years later when Edith felt the full weight of the Cross bearing down on her persecuted people. Back in 1917 she had discovered from this experience that all her rationalistic and atheistic arguments were as nothing in comparison with the Christian Faith. Comparing herself with this deeply Christian woman, she realised that Christianity could offer her essential value-guides in the search for Truth. She realised the importance of faith in God, in order to free people from existential anguish, and to experience that "transcendental peace" which, in the phenomenology of Husserl, derives exclusively from the action of God in the soul. The serenity and trust of the widow Reinach had taught Edith that this "transcendental peace" is identical in the Christian Faith with the strength of the Cross of Christ, accepted in the hope of resurrection to immortal life. Only the meeting with Christ dead on the Cross can enable interior peace to be found and to sublimate suffering.
However Edith did not yet reach a decision. This was the beginning of a long period of struggle, of crises which taxed to the utmost her intelligence and will. There were dramatic moments of conflict with the past and with herself, to the extent that she felt plunged into a "silence of death". She tried at times to flee from the action of the Holy Spirit: "I can adhere to the Faith, seek it with all my strength, without the need to practise it"(4) On the other hand she is convinced: "When believers receive an order from God, whether in prayer or through the representative of God, they must obey!"(5)
Catholicism: For a span of three or four years Edith embarked on a period of intense reflection. She read numerous books on Christian spirituality, books by saints and Catholic authors, trying at a spiritual level to find a way out, but also for pedagogic and cultural reasons. One day she bought a book on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. She began by getting involved in the Exercises at a purely psychological level, but after a few pages she found this impossible. She ended up "doing" the Spiritual Exercises, though still an atheist, yet athirst for God as Fr Erich Przywara testifies, who was close to her in the 1922-30 period. However, not even Ignatius succeeded in giving her final certainty, even if his positive influence cannot be excluded insofar as he predisposed her to the ultimate decision which she was to take after reading the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila.
In June 1921 she went to Bergzabern, to the home of a friend Hedwig Konrad Martius, a regular meeting place of the Husserl past-pupils. (They no longer went to Freiburg where Husserl was teaching at the university, as they felt unable to follow his lead towards Transcendental Idealism). Edith discovered in the library the autobiography of the great Spanish mystic, the Book of the Life. Its reading had a profound effect on her: she closed the book exclaiming "This is the truth!", that "truth" she had sought so passionately for so many years.
We are told that Edith read and assimilated the whole book in a single night. That a person even so keenly intelligent as Edith should, in the space of a few hours, grasp so completely the spiritual world and the inner journey of the Saint, to the point where she (Edith) could reach immediately and decide to embrace Catholicism, seems highly improbable. It is perhaps more likely that on the night in question, she completed a previous reading of the Life with particular attention to the chapters on the experience of God. With the affirmation God is Truth as the terminal point of long suffering in the search for God, St Teresa of Avila in fact enriched Edith with the basic dimension of human existence which she had so earnestly sought. Everything is contained in the words "to walk in the truth, in the presence of Truth itself"(6). On that night Edith could finally say, with the holy Reformer of Carmel; "The truth so kindly revealed to my soul is Truth itself, without beginning or end. From this all other truths depend"(7). Her conversion to Catholicism then is the full and conscious acceptance of the one Truth, mystically experienced by Teresa, and so long and unconsciously sought by Edith.
Edith at once took the Spanish saint as her model in the new life of faith she wished to follow, with a view also to becoming a Carmelite nun. In her genuine need always to take the most radical road, the choice of Carmel seemed the only adequate response to satisfy her desire for totality. Thirty years old, full of energy and enthusiasm, she wished her faith to be an integral part of her life. Thus we may say that her journey of faith coincides with her religious vocation.
1. 1. .Endliches und ewiges Sein 58
St Teresa Benedicta
of the Cross Edith Stein II
Edith was baptised on January 1st 1922. But her entrance to Carmel was still many years away. She accepted the delay with serenity and trust in God. In a letter of 1934 she says, "If my vocation to the convent is authentic, it will enable me to bear the period of trial. If on the other hand it is an illusion of first fervour, far better to discover this outside the convent than inside, with the resulting bitter disappointment"(8). On the other hand she knew well that the Carmelite vocation was "a grace wholly undeserved", dependent entirely on the will of God. For us, "it is not possible to make plans, to take decisions...." We must "make the future a question of God's will, and abandon ourselves to him". Reconsidering her disposition of perfect conformity to the plans of God, Edith came to enjoy "a state of repose in God, of complete spiritual relaxation in which one makes no plans of any kind, one makes no resolutions, in a word one simply does nothing.... This repose in God, consequent on lack of activity for want of natural energy, is something entirely new and extraordinary. Where before there was the silence of death, there is now the feeling of being hidden.... When I surrender myself to this impulse, a new life begins little by little to fill me... The life-giving movement is due to no effort whatever on my part"(9)
Edith wrote these words (published in 1922) shortly after her conversion, which she considered to be the beginning of her preparation for the Carmelite life. She began to gain first-hand knowledge of the Religious Life when she went as teacher for some years to the Dominican Sisters at Spires, and later at the Marianum in Munster. At Spires she adapted completely to the discipline of the house. She led an exemplary life of prayer, edifying everyone by her absolute fidelity to her duties as teacher of German at the Girls' Lyceum and at the higher Institute. Soon she was entrusted with the young Dominican Sisters who were training as teachers, and also the postulants. Records stress unanimously the uncommon teaching ability of Edith, and her capacity to capture the hearts of the students. "She was a shining example to us all. She trod silently the path of duty with modesty and simplicity, ever constant, friendly and open to all those who sought her help". Fr Erich Przywara wrote of her, "At St Magdalen's in Spires she was not only the best of teachers, but had also a formative influence on the Sisters and young religious, thanks to the discernment of the Prioress. St Magdalen's owes to Edith its best personnel, who today recognise that Edith was really their mistress of novices"(10).
In her free time Edith was already the contemplative of the Teresian Carmel. The need to lose herself in silent converse with God present in the tabernacle, was in line with the concept she had of religion as a personal relationship, a "friendship" with God who is present, as she had read in the Life of St Teresa. That same characteristic line of enquiry shown in her philosophical research was evident also in the first years of her Christian life, and was decisive in her efforts to give herself completely to the Lord, cutting herself off from the "world", and "occupying oneself solely with the thought of things divine" in solitude. The early experiences at Beuron and contact with liturgical prayer accompanied her first steps to overcome the narrowness of her own convictions. She began to appreciate the value of a universal dimension, of "objective" or liturgical prayer, which in its turn has need of the individual prayer so preferred by Edith. Liturgical prayer must necessarily have a wide and central place in the Christian and ecclesial life.
The second step which Edith had to take was a return to philosophical work. Fr Przywara convinced her that philosophy neither opposes nor disturbs the life of faith. And not only that. He also deemed it necessary that Edith should study Christian philosophy where the genius of St Thomas Aquinas had predominated for centuries. He even asked her to do a translation of Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate, a difficult task for a phenomenologist without specific preparation. She produced a brilliant translation, however, placing the phenomenological method at the service of scholastic thought. But to find time for all this, she had to give up her post at the Dominican Lyceum at Spires.
This however was not the only reason. By now Edith, through her conferences, had become widely known and appreciated throughout Catholic Germany. Some professors at this stage encouraged her to seek a post at one of the Universities, but almost immediately this became impossible because of her Jewish background. Already by 1931-32, anti-Semitism had begun to make itself felt in Germany. So Edith accepted a post at the Institute of Scientific Pedagogy in Munster, taking up duty there in the spring of 1932. Before that, however, she visited Beuron to confer with the Arch-Abbot, Raphael Walzer, about her desire to enter Carmel. It was not the first time he had heard of it. From her earliest meeting with him back in 1922, she had spoken of her vocation. But each time she had received the same reply, "See that you do for the Church what she expects of you". She received similar advice from Monsignor Schwind, who had directed her at Spires for some years, "Let the Church received from you the service she awaits, in the world of teaching. You must take this into consideration".
Such reserve about her vocation to the cloister on the part of her directors was prompted also by concern for her mother, the elderly Augusta Stein. The conversion of her daughter to Catholicism was a stunning blow to this strong woman, who had never before been seen to weep until Edith told her of the step she had taken. To tell her now of plans to enter a cloister seemed to everyone almost inhuman, a sacrifice impossible to demand from a mother. Edith was nonetheless convinced of her call to Carmel. She was ready for the supreme sacrifice of a total break with her mother, and indeed with her family too who could not be expected to understand. This readiness of Edith stemmed from continuing fidelity to the dynamic development of her baptismal grace, which coincided in her with the grace of vocation.
Her conferences and research on the ethic of the female professions reflect this fidelity. In a word, the feminine specific hold that "God alone can fully receive the gift of self from a human being, so as to fill her soul without losing anything of himself. For this reason the unconditional gift of self, which is the basic principle of the religious life, is at the same time the only possible realisation of a woman's aspirations"(11). This was Edith's goal. This gave her the strength to rise above all discussion and the judgements of her social circle. Once she had said Yes to the Lord, absolutely nothing would bring her to reverse her decision. She could not do otherwise than apply to life her outstanding logical thinking. To fulfil herself as a woman and a Christian, she could see no other way except the unconditional gift of herself to God in Carmel.
8. 8. .Letter to Ruth Kantorowicz.
St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Edith Stein III
In 1933, with the coming to power in Germany of National Socialism, the pro-Aryan measures came into force. Edith therefore could no longer teach at the Institute of Munster. She first came to know of the persecution of the Jews, victims of fanatical racism, through an American newspaper. She suffered bitterly: yet she turned down the chance of going to South America, where she had been offered a Chair. She seemed mysteriously to know that her destiny was to be that of her own people.
The final lecture of Doctor Stein took place at the Marianum of February 25, 1933. A month later she went to Beuron for Holy Week, and to speak again with Arch-Abbot Walzer of her wish to enter Carmel. In the church of St Ludger at Munster she prayed before a great Crucifix for definitive guidance: "I will not leave here", she said, "until I receive a clear answer about my entrance to Carmel". It was she herself who told this in an account of her journey to Carmel, written on December 18, 1938, and given to the Prioress some days later as a Christmas gift. "By the Final Blessing I had already received the consent of the Good Shepherd", (liturgically celebrated that year on Sunday April 30).
She had already obtained the consent of her spiritual director, Fr Raphael Walzer. He realised that a public university career was no longer possible for Edith. But in his letter of recommendation to the Carmel of Cologne he expressed some reservations: the elderly mother of the postulant, and Edith's important work on behalf of Catholic life in Germany. Still he could not but highlight "her religious maturity and her depth, which spoke for themselves... For a long time Carmel has been her ideal".
Notwithstanding her age (42), her Jewish parentage, and her conversion at the age of thirty, Doctor Stein was accepted by the community. Before entering Cologne Carmel she spent a month living in the extern quarters and joining in the Liturgical Hours from the public chapel. She had occasion also for chats in the parlour with the Prioress and the Mistress of Novices. The impression she made on the community coincides undoubtedly with the recommendation of her pastor and confessor at Munster, Dean of the Cathedral there, Doctor Adolph Donders: "Doctor Stein is a privileged soul, rich in the love of God and neighbour, full of the spirit of Sacred Scripture and the Liturgy.... She will be for all a model of profound piety and fervour in prayer, a joy for the community, full of goodness and love for her neighbour.... She has achieved much by word and pen, especially in the Association of Catholic Students and the Union of Catholic Women. Nevertheless she wishes to give up all external activity in order to meet in Carmel the 'pearl of great price' Jesus Christ, following the example of St Teresa".
The Nuns too, seeing Edith lost in prayer, were able to assess the level of interior life reached by the postulant. Edith herself recalls the significance for that same interior life of the training in liturgical prayer she received at Beuron. But she also added that the idea of becoming a Benedictine had never once entered her head, "I always had the impression that the Lord had something reserved for me which I could find only in Carmel". Thus she wrote in 1938, adding, "This made an impression!"
October 14 was the date fixed for Edith to cross the threshold of Carmel. She had previously written home to say that she had been accepted in a house of Sisters in Cologne. Her family, thinking she had got a new job, sent their congratulations. In mid-August she went to Breslau for the final farewell to her mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she was to see again only Rose, and Arno briefly when he was passing through Cologne on his way to America. In the account written by Edith for Mother Teresa Renata, she describes in detail her last meeting with her mother. It is perhaps the most moving page in Edith's earthly life, that which best shows the depth of her feelings and emotions. "What I went through was frightening", she admits. Finding herself alone in the train back to Cologne, "no exuberant joy" could fill her heart. In her own words, "Too frightening was that which I had left behind! Nevertheless I was in a state of deep calm safe in the harbour of the Divine Will".
After first Vespers of the Feast of St Teresa of Jesus, the enclosure door opened. Edith "crossed the threshold in profound peace, to enter the House of the Lord". She carried a great bouquet of white chrysanthemums, brought by some teachers who had come to see her. The community received her warmly, just like any other postulant. For many of them who had never heard her name, so well known in intellectual circles, she was simply the postulant already destined for the new foundation at Breslau. They considered her on a par with her three companions in the novitiate. She would wear a plain black dress with a short mantle, and a small black veil to cover her long hair. She was then shown to her cell, simple and austere as prescribed by the Rule, with a great Cross on the wall, a straw mattress, some blankets, a small table and chair, and on the floor a basin and jug for washing. Her books, sent ahead in six crates neatly divided in philosophical, theological and psychological categories, ended up in the library. If she wished to use them, she would have to seek the Mistress's permission.
But Edith had no plans for the moment to continue her intellectual work. Her first task was to learn the horarium of the House, the ceremonies, the customs and especially the wide range of womanly work of which she knew next to nothing. Working in the kitchen often required very great effort, as she had never before had to think of cooking and preparing food. An elderly nun asked if she could sew. She had indeed learned a stitch or two, but could not hope to reach the perfection of all the other Sisters. She had no shortage therefore of humiliations, accepted serenely without discouragement, convinced they were for her "a good school of humility", as she said in a letter; necessary "after so many honours received during my life".
Externally Edith seemed to the others always serene, balanced, humble, charitable, adaptable to any situation, sympathetic to the joys and sorrows of her companions her juniors by twenty years at least (two simply-professed sisters and a novice). At recreation she was vivacious, happy, with an endless fund of stories to tell; always ready too with the helping word of spiritual uplift, so enriching to the hearer. She celebrated her first Christmas in Carmel with especial, almost childish, joy. On the mystery of Christmas, she had said in a lecture of 1930 at Ludwigshafen: "Let us put our hands in those of the Divine Babe, let us say our Yes to his invitation 'Follow me', and we will be his. The way will be clear for his divine life to become incarnate in us. It is precisely this that is the light come through the darkness, a light kindled in the soul the miracle of Christmas". But she had also said that "upon the same light, shining so brilliantly in the manger, comes the shadow of the Cross. The road leads irresistible from Bethlehem to Golgotha, from the manger to the Cross".
Edith experienced profound peace, it is true, on that first Christmas; peace for which she thanked the Lord, deeming it "a grace wholly unmerited". But in her heart was the thought of her mother, unable to accept her daughter's decision. Every week, punctually on a Friday, she had as always her letter ready for her mother. But now there was never an answer. Perhaps in the long winter nights in the silence of her cell, she re-lived the anguished moments of that last day, October 12, her birthday, which she had passed with her mother. Having accompanied her to a service at the synagogue of the Rabbinical School, during the return trip on the tram she explained that the first years in the religious life were a period of trial only. But her mother replied, "If you undertake a trial, you will certainly succeed". During the evening, then, a long period of weeping from the old lady. Edith had held her in her arms, pressing the old white head to her breast, remaining like this until very late. Then she had helped her to undress, sitting long on her bed to be near her, until her mother ordered her to take some rest herself. Memories seared into the soul of Edith, and perhaps a source of disquiet to her conscience, especially because of the rising persecution of the Jews, already experienced by her family. She herself could still live in peace. But her mother? And for how long?
On February 15, 1934, the votation took place to admit Edith to the Noviciate. Some days before, she was visited by the doctor who found her in excellent health. Any objections? That Edith had brought no dowry was not considered a problem. At any rate she would go to Breslau for the foundation. The future would take care of itself.
The Clothing was fixed for April 15, Feast of the Good Shepherd, and precisely one year to the day since she received a special grace before the Crucifix at St Ludger's in Munster. Present were personalities from the world of high culture and from the Catholic organisations closest to her. Indeed such a select gathering in the chapel of the Carmel of Cologne had never before been seen! Edith wore a white bridal gown, the silk being a present from her sister Rose. No one came from her family, though she received some letters. Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer presided at the Mass, and Husserl sent a telegram. Among the guests were her friends Hedwig Konrad Martius and Peter Wust, who would later write an article for the Kölner Volkszeitung on the journey of Edith towards the Truth, that which includes the philosophy of Reason and Mysticism, a journey symbolically expressed by her new name "Sister Benedicta, she who is 'blessed' by the Truth with all the fulness of the Truth".
Edith chose this name because she felt 'blessed' by Christ who was victorious on the Cross; 'blessed' after a long journey and night-long struggle similar to that of Isaac with God on the banks of the River Jabboth; 'blessed' among the women of the Jewish people by the bridal love of Christ crucified; 'blessed' in having been chosen by God to live her "ecclesial espousal" under the sign of the Cross, in sacrifice and expiation.
Little is known of her noviciate year. In the first biography, written by her Mistress and later Prioress, Mother Teresa Renata (published in 1948 at a time when there was absolutely no thought of a future canonization), her absolute fidelity to the horarium and the community acts was noted, and her strict punctuality; qualities not at all easy for someone involved in intellectual work. The Provincial in fact had ordered that Sister Benedicta be dispensed from all other tasks, in order to give her enough time to finish her work Potency and Act, which she had been unable to complete before entering Carmel; she had brought the unfinished manuscript with her. In addition she did some translations from Latin, and worked on the Index for her translation of St Thomas's Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate; she also added a page or two to a history of her family, already begun at home. With all this she combined an intense study of the Saints of the Order, which resulted in three short works: Teresa of Avila (published 1934), St Teresa Margaret Redi (published 1934, on the occasion of her canonisation), and an article on The History and Spirit of Carmel to make the Order known published in Augsburger Postzeitung in 1935.
All this work, and other spiritual and pedagogical writings, certainly created a peculiar situation concerning the novice, Sr Benedicta. The question must be asked whether the Novice Mistress, Mother Teresa Renata, who was more or less of an age with Edith (she was just six months her senior), and who admired her intellectual gifts and the position she enjoyed in the world of science, applied impartially to Edith the methods and principles of formation in vogue at that time, as we read in her first biography. On the other hand Edith, who for so long had lived independently, managing her own affairs as she wished and indulging her own tastes, tried hard to fit in with her milieu and to accept the suggestions and promptings she found there. This explains her reply to the Provincial, when he asked if she had found any disillusionment in her new life. She replied with one word, "Carmel", meaning that she had found the reality of the common life, with the obligation of obedience, of dependence, of self-denial. The impact of her environment, painful in many ways, must have been for Edith the most testing problem of her Carmelite life, and this was to continue even after her novitiate. Some years later she wrote in the biography of Catherine Esser, foundress of the "second" Carmel of Cologne, "At forty-six years of age it was no small sacrifice for her (Catherine Esser) who had long been her own mistress, once again to become a child, to obey and submit one's own judgement to that of the superiors. She confessed much later that it had cost her bitterly".
Edith was conscious of this difficulty. She knew she must make great efforts to overcome herself, to reach interior freedom, efforts noticed also by the Sisters despite her desire to conceal them. Her companion of the noviciate, Sister Teresa Margaret, was to say twenty years later in regard to these hidden efforts, "Living by a strong spirit of faith, Edith loved very much the virtue of obedience. However, it is not easy to give an example of this, even for those who could observe her efforts every day. She obeyed and adapted so well that it was never obvious to anyone"(12). But this situation also helped the novice to mature, and stand firm in the decision taken. It did not ruffle her serenity. Witnesses of the time are unanimous in repeating that Edith was content and happy. Edith herself underlined this fact in her letters and in her conversations in the parlour.
The Professed Sister
On Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935, Sister Benedicta made her Simple Profession for three years. She prepared with a ten-day Retreat, recalling the successive Holy Weeks spent in the silence of the great Abbey at Beuron. A young postulant asked her how she felt. "Like the Spouse of the Lamb", she replied, evidently a reference to the Apocalypse, to the Lamb who would be slain, and to her own sharing in the sufferings of Christ. She had no illusions about her destiny. "They will even come here to take me away", she said to a friend come to visit her some days afer her Profession; "I cannot believe they will leave me here in peace". She was conscious of having another mission: "It is not human activity that can save us, only the Passion of Christ. To this I aspire".
Meanwhile something in her rapport with her elderly mother began to change. Rose told her that one day, without saying a word to anyone, Mrs Stein had gone to see the new Carmel of Breslau. Was it not a sign of that motherly love which wished to know something of her daughter's way of life? A brief greeting from her was also enclosed in Rose's letters from time to time. Finally one day a letter arrived, addressed to "Sister Teresa". This consolation did not last long. In 1936 came news of the grave illness of Mrs Stein. Edith suffered deeply in silence. On September 14 during the Renewal of Vows, her mother passed to a better life, strengthened by the faith of the Prophets. There was reason to thank the Lord for having spared her the sight of blazing synagogues and friends deported to extermination camps. Shortly after the funeral Edith had a visit from Rose, who came to Cologne to receive Baptism in the monastery chapel on December 24. Edith followed the ceremony from the choir with a grateful heart.
The newly-professed nun continued the same intellectual work as before. At the request of some priests she wrote an article The Prayer of the Church (published 1936). Her special task now, however, was the re-writing of her work on Potency and Act for a new book entitled Finite and Eternal Being. There followed the biography of Catherine Esser, and the brief meditation Sancta Discretio (1938), which Edith presented to Mother Teresa Renata, Prioress since 1936. The latter had just finished her book Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit. "Discretion", Edith tells her, "is an essential part of every Gift, so much so that the seven Gifts constitute its different expressions (Auswirkungen)". Taking this statement as a meeting point, Edith recommends to the Prioress a "wise Prudence" (weise Masshaltung) in the fulfilment of her office, that is, discretion. "She who must guide souls has particular need of discretion... and must not act arbitrarily".
This frank word perhaps needed to be said to her in such a difficult a time for the Church and especially for the religious life in Germany. Edith said it delicately, concerned as always to see perfection in the thought and actions of others. When it was a question of the truth, she never allowed herself to be pressurised in any way. With Mother Teresa Renata her relations were good, the difference of culture and character between the two notwithstanding. The Prioress was a tender mother to Edith.
On April 21, 1938, Good Friday that year, Sister Benedicta made her Final Profession. She was now truly the spouse of the Lamb, nailed to the Cross of Christ, closely united to his sufferings. But "He, through his Death and Cross, will lead us to the glory of the Resurrection"(13). In the contemplation of the divine Crucified she associated Mary most Holy. She saw Mary at the foot of the Cross as the prototype of all those who unite themselves to the Redeemer; Mary, our guide, who has gone before us along the way of complete self-giving to the Lord.
In 1938 the anti-Semitic measures of German Nazism took on fearful proportions. Edith did not close her eyes to the fact that, by her presence alone, she endangered her community. She toyed with the idea of going to Israel. But only after the night of November 9, when all the synagogues of Germany went up in flames, was her transfer abroad made imperative. During the night of St Sylvester a loyal friend of the Carmel drove her by car across the Dutch frontier to the Carmel of Echt. Some days earlier she had written in a letter, "I must tell you that today I understand better what it means to be the Spouse of Christ under the sign of the Cross. To understand this to its fullest depths is not possible it is a mystery".
4. In the Mystery of the Cross
Her departure from her beloved religious family was agonising. "But I was convinced that this was the Will of God, the only way to avoid greater evils". Thus she writes from Echt. Towards the end of the same year (1939) she records her appreciation at having found a safe haven of peace. Nevertheless, "the thought that we have here no lasting home is always with me. I have no other wish than that God's Will should be accomplished in me. How long I am to be here depends on him. As to what will happen then, it is not for me to concern myself. But it is necessary to pray much, in order to remain faithful come what may".
Prayer and fidelity to her own vocation were the response of Sister Benedicta to possible deportation and death. In pondering the alarming news coming daily from Germany, the premonition of martyrdom grew ever stronger in her, becoming slowly a firm conviction. Already in the last year at Cologne she had begun to feel a deep affinity with Queen Esther of the Old Testament, that strong courageous woman ready to offer her own life to save her people. Edith now could say, "I am certain that the Lord has accepted my life for all... Esther has been chosen from her people specifically to intercede for them before the King. I am a little Esther, poor and powerless, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. And this is a profound consolation".
This thought was never to leave her. In 1941 for the Feast of the Prioress, Mother Anthony, she composed a poetic work entitled Nocturnal Dialogue, of which the protagonist was Queen Esther. At the tragic moment Esther approaches the King to beg a reprieve for her people. Suddenly wrapt in a trance, she sees "a bare mountain, and on the top a Cross; and to the Cross was nailed One who bled profusely from a thousand wounds. And we, all of us, athirst, drank salvation from that copious spring". But suddenly the Cross disappeared. Her face was bathed "in a sweet and consoling light, come from the wounds of the Man just dead, there on the Cross. He himself was the Light, the Eternal Light, from distant ages awaited: Splendour of the Father, Salvation of the People". Esther portrays the particular spirituality of Edith, for whom Esther is no longer the biblical figure time-bound to the Old Testament. As the Old continues into the New (Testament), so Esther also, through the nocturnal vision of Christ Crucified and Christ Light, penetrates into the New, under the sign and the experience of the Cross. The same happened to Edith. She offered her life for the Jewish people and her offer was accepted, not as that of a Jewish woman, but because she was enlightened by faith in the immense redemptive value of the sacrifice of Christ; because she was immersed in the mystery of the Cross and sustained by the light of the Resurrection.
The Cross was at the centre of Edith's whole spiritual life. But particularly as the persecution of the Jews grew daily in intensity, at the Carmel of Echt she placed herself unconditionally at the foot of the Cross. On Passion Sunday 1939 she sought permission to offer herself "to the Sacred Heart as a victim of expiation for true peace". On June 9 she wrote her Last Testament, ending with the words: "From now on I accept the death God has reserved for me, joyfully and with perfect submission to his most holy Will. I pray the Lord to accept my life and death to his honour and praise.... as expiation for the unbelief of the Jewish people".
The theme of the Cross predominates in the writings of her last years, revealing in her a deep longing to become one with Christ Crucified, to be with him and in him a victim of expiation. This longing is revealed in her meditations for the Renewal of Vows The Espousals of the Lamb (1939), Ave Crux (1940), and her study on the central inspirational idea in the life and work of St John of the Cross, for which she chose the title Scientia Crucis (The Knowledge of the Cross).
After three years' residence at Echt, Sister Benedicta was entitled to incorporation in the new Carmel. But the superiors failed to reach a decision, for reasons not entirely clear. Uncertainty? Unconscious reluctance to accept a stranger? Would it be altogether appropriate to allow the transfer? Edith surrendered herself to the will of the superiors in a spirit of faith. "I am happy either way", she said. But she could not let the occasion pass without saying to the Prioress, "We can only acquire a 'scientia crucis' if we have the grace to taste and relish the Cross through and through. I was convinced of this from the first moment, and I said with my whole heart Ave Crux, spes unica!"
As Edith wrote these words she had particularly in mind the difficult situation of her sister Rose, who had recently reached Echt after much hardship. The superiors had turned down her request to remain on at the Carmel as an Extern Sister. The same hesitation and uncertainty also shown in regard to Rose, and most deeply felt by Sister Benedicta, confirmed her in her silent but decisive orientation towards the Cross, and that alone. "As Jesus, in his abandonment before death, delivered himself into the hands of the invisible and incomprehensible God, the soul must do likewise casting herself headlong into the pitch-darkness of faith, the only way to the incomprehensible God".
Edith wrote these words in her most original essay entitled Scientia Crucis. She undertook the work at the request of the superiors on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the birth of St John of the Cross. The essay, though unfinished, is considered a model as a phenomenological-theological study of mysticism. Born of her own intense suffering, it expresses "the highest spiritual commitment (Hingabe) to the ideal of the Order", and conveys also "total detachment from life and transcendence over the finite world, in the sublimation of all human suffering"(14). According to Edith there is in St Paul "a theology of the Cross drawn from profound experience"(15), which treats of "a living truth, real and active" in which she sees "the way of life of the Discalced Carmelites". She discovers in John of the Cross an authentic message centred on "the word of the Cross... which fills all those who open themselves to its action". Nevertheless "the Cross is not an end in itself. It stands out on high, summoning us to the heights... the triumphant symbol with which Christ strikes the gates of Heaven and throws them wide open. Then there flow from the Cross rays of divine light, which bathe all those who walk in the wake of the Crucified"(16). To arrive there however, "it is necessary to pass with him through death on the Cross, like him crucifying ourselves by a life of mortification and self-denial, abandoning ourselves to a crucifixion full of grief and heralding death, as God may arrange or permit. The more perfect that active and passive crucifixion, the more intense will be our union with the Crucified, and the richer our share in his divine life"(17).
On this foundation she lays down a way to mystical experience using modern concepts of the philosophy of the person, but developed in the light of Christian metaphysics. The transcendent God can reveal himself as Person to the soul, giving himself to her with infinite love, caressing her in the deepest recesses of her being. But God also reveals himself through his powerful action in the destinies of souls, bringing about "the rebirth of man through the action of sanctifying grace". How? Through the night of faith, as Divine Darkness. The ways of the knowledge of God, to which she dedicates a brief study of the symbolical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, follow the road of negation theology and the mystical experience of darkness. To Edith also God revealed himself only "in the impenetrability of his mysteries", welcomed in faith, hope and love. "That which we catch a glimpse of is but a fleeting reflection of that which the divine mystery hides, until the day of future brightness. That faith in a secret history should strengthen us, and give us peace", she wrote in a letter of 1941.
There is no doubt that Edith lived her last months in the Night of Faith, under the guidance of St John of the Cross. In contemplating the life of the Mystical Doctor of Carmel and immersing herself in his final sufferings, she discovered in his death that sublime conformity to Christ "reached on the heights of Golgotha"(18). A few months after penning these lines, she too reached the final station of her Way of the Cross. Snatched from her monastery, she went to meet the Cross on the Golgotha of Auschwitch.
From January 1942 Edith knew that her very presence in the Carmel of Echt could have serious consequences for the community. Holland was now occupied by the Nazi forces, with a highly efficient web of SS. Centres. Both Edith and Rose were summoned to Maastricht for questioning. They were also obliged to wear the Yellow Star, the Jewish identification tag. Edith tried all means to obtain a visa for Switzerland, in order to join the Carmel of Le Pâquier. The desired reply did not come. What to do next? Wait at least to have the necessary documents? Set out then?
We must realise that Echt Carmel, situated in a small Dutch town, knew little or nothing of the political situation and the anti-Semitism of the time. Furthermore, to reach Switzerland, Edith would have had to leave the town dressed in a religious habit, without money in her pocket, wearing on her breast the Yellow Star, and pass through Germany with considerable danger. She would have had no one to assist or defend her. Perhaps it could have been arranged for her to leave Holland secretly, in secular dress. However, in her sense of rectitude, her sincerity and absolute truthfulness, she felt disinclined to flee in this manner. Moreover she had already a mysterious intuition that God's plan for her was about to be fulfilled. The hour of sacrifice had in fact come.
What caused the sudden explosion of hate, and the plan to exterminate the Dutch Jews, was the Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Jong of Utrecht, read in all the churches of Holland on July 26, 1942. It voiced the Church's protest against the deportation of Jews. The reaction of the SS. was immediate. All baptised Jews, priests and religious sisters of Jewish origin, were arrested and sent to the concentration camp. Among them were Edith and Rose. Two SS. officials arrived at the monastery of Echt, giving Sister Benedicta only five minutes to get ready. Taking the hand of Rose, who was waiting for her at the door, she said, "Come, let us go for the sake of our people". She meant the Jewish people.
In the night of August 2-3, the sisters arrived at Amersfort dispersal camp. Then during the night of August 3-4 the Jewish prisoners with many others were moved to Westerbork camp, set in a district completely uninhabited in the north of Holland. From here Edith was able to send a note to the Prioress of Echt Carmel, through the mother of a religious sister who had arrived at the camp with luggage for her daughter. Dated August 6, the note was a brief request for woollen stocking and two blankets, and some woollen clothes for Rose. Particularly relevant was the final sentence, "Tomorrow a convoy is to leave for Silesia or Czechoslovakia??" A graphological study of this final letter reveals two things: "on the one hand a continual slant or fall, ever more accentuated; on the other a continual recovery, to the point that the diagrams remain intact, manifesting an indestructible physiognomy. The graphologist, accustomed to studying the graphic wave, saw there an unspeakable suffering and at the same time a substratum of power and dynamism, clearly discernible in spite of everything"(19).
This analysis bears out the eye-witness accounts of Edith during her last five days at the camp. She freely accepted her destiny and lived it to the full, offering herself as victim for her people. In a short essay Das mystische Sühneleiden (Mystical Expiation) she had stressed: "The Saviour is not alone on the Cross... Every man, down through the ages, who has patiently borne a hard lot by remembering the sufferings of the Saviour, or who freely took upon himself a role of expiation; that man has thereby lightened the enormous load of the sins of humanity, and has helped the Saviour to bear its weight. And what is more, Christ the Head accomplishes his redemptive work through those members of his Mystical Body who join hands with him, body and soul, in his saving work. The suffering of reparation, accepted freely, is what joins us most of all to the Lord".
In this frame of mind, Edith carried out to the bitter end her mission in the Church, courageously and with an extraordinary strength. Today there is no longer any doubt that the Stein sisters, shortly after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were killed in the gas chamber. Edith was fifty- one years old, Rose fifty-nine. An eye-witness, Ludwig Schlutter, who spoke briefly with Edith shortly before their departure from Westerbork, remembered her firm words: "Whatever happens, I am prepared for everything. Jesus is also here with us". Jesus was indeed with those anguished Jews as they choked to death from the poisonous fumes, in the underground bunker of Auschwitz. "A death nobly faced with greatness of soul, in circumstances savage beyond compare"(20)
12. 12. .E. Stein, Eine Heilige?
[ St. Therese of Lisieux the "Little
Flower" I St.
Teresa of Avila I St. John of the Cross