Edith Stein: Catholic and Jewish martyr

Edith Stein was born to a well-off Jewish family in Breslau, Germany. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother was a very devout Jew and powerful woman. Edith early showed exceptional intelligence and, when few women pursued higher education, enrolled at the university. Along the way, she had lost her childhood Jewish faith, but her studies were to lead her to quite an unexpected rediscovery of God. . . .

By chance, she stumbled on the great modern philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl created a philosophical method, which Karol Woytyla also studied and wrote about extensively before he became pope. The method is called phenomenology, but behind this sophisticated name lay a very simple idea. When we think about the world, said Husserl, we have to be aware of all the phenomena, all the things that present themselves to us. This might seem obvious. But Husserl was trying to counteract some of the blinders that modern philosophy had acquired.

One phenomenon that Husserl’s students could not deny was religion. Human beings had always been religious and believed that God can be met even in this world. The non-religious view was, by comparison, quite narrow. So many of Husserl’s students went on to become Catholics that the philosopher joked that the Church should declared him a saint.

That influence took a while to work on Edith Stein. She immediately applied to the university where Husserl taught and was accepted. A short time later, she became Husserl’s assistant. Phenomenology opened up realities that she thought the usual psychology refused to see. God became a possibility again, but it took an encounter with a saint to make Him a reality.

Stein went for a visit with a friend. She found a copy of Saint Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography on a bookshelf. The story of the saint’s progress in Carmelite contemplation excited Edith so much that she stayed up all night reading. When she finished the book the next morning she said to herself: “That is true.”

Things moved fast. Stein decided to become a Catholic and was received into the Church. She wanted to be a Carmelite, but her spiritual advisers believed her great gifts should be used in the world. Instead, she taught for a while and lectured all over Germany, particularly on the role of Catholic women. This was also the period in which Nazism had taken over and she immediately intuited that it would mean a terrible trial for Jews and for herself personally. . . .

The Carmelites in Cologne accepted her as a novice. But her decision brought as much humility as inspiration. A middle-aged intellectual set in her ways, she made a mess of the menial tasks all novices have to perform in a cloister. Edith had always been good at everything she did; now she was one of the people who needed the indulgence and good humor of others.

Her prayer, however, became deeper and deeper. In the several books she wrote at the request of her superiors, she began to develop ideas of how the embrace of Christ’s Cross was the only truth that could counteract the modern worlds evils. The now Sister Benedicta of the Cross asked her superior if she could offer herself for her beloved Jewish people, who had been the people in the flesh of Christ himself.

Her prayer was answered. Nazi threats grew greater in Cologne and Edith was sent to the Carmel in Echt, Holland. But the Germans invaded that country and soon began rounding up Jews. When the local Catholic bishops objected, Nazi authorities ordered the arrest of Jewish converts to Catholicism in retaliation.

Edith Stein was put on a train heading East. Less than a week later she died at Auschwitz.