Since the days of the Early Church there has been only one Jewish-born Christian canonized. Her name is Edith Stein.
She was born was born in what was then the German city of Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland), the last of seven surviving children. Suffering appeared early. Before she was two, her fifty-year old father died of sunstroke. She was a very bright girl.
Maybe because she was the youngest and fatherless, Edith grew up to be a headstrong, stubborn child. Later on, she slipped into a depression and found herself “wishing to be run over by some vehicle” in the street. Then as a teenager she decided to quit praying. She did this “deliberately and consciously”. Soon after she announced that she wanted to drop out of school. This was in 1906 when she was fourteen and a half years old, in the 9th grade. She became an atheist.
When she was twenty, she entered the University of Breslau, one of the first women students to attend a College. She did not like psychology because it had no soul! She enjoyed philosophy. She was a seeker! When two years later she transferred herself to the University of Gottingen, she came under the influence of Edmund Husserl, a famous German philosopher. World War I broke out. She stopped her studies in 1915 to go and help out in the front, as a nurse.
When she returned from the battle ground, she was still searching for truth. She was once stunned to see the intense piety of a woman praying at the Cathedral in Frankfurt. Later, she writes that faith is a seizure by God and that presupposes becoming seized. Her resistances finally fell on August 1921 through a chance reading of the Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. “When I closed the book, I said to myself, ‘That is the truth!’ She had read through the night until sunrise. The Pope comments “In that night she found truth not the truth of philosophy, but rather the truth in person, the loving person of God.” She was baptized soon after.
The moment she was baptized, she wanted to become a nun. Her spiritual directors said no because they felt she could do more good as a layperson involved in education. She delved into Saint Thomas and Cardinal Newman. She started teaching at the Girls school run by the Dominican Sisters in Speyer. She was asked to speak in different centers; in fact she practically became in the intellectual leader of the Catholic Women’s movement in Europe.
We are in the late 1930s. In Germany, Hitler was rising in power. This simply meant adversity and hardships on the Jews. “I had indeed already heard of severe measures being taken against the Jews. But now on a sudden it was luminously clear to me that once again, God’s hand lay heavy on his people, and that the destiny of this people was my own.”
Confiscation of goods, pogroms, hassles… Edith Stein was seeing and living all this. And her heart ached. She wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI asking him to issue an Encyclical denouncing this blatant anti Semitism. Above all, she realized that the only way she can help really her people is to spend her life in prayer of expiation for the sins being shed. Many speak a lot. Few do something. Carmel was the place for her because Carmel excels as an Order because of its joyous reception of the Crucified Christ.
Her decision was met by a silent ‘desperate resistance’ of her 84 year old mother. The last day with her family was Edith’s forty-second birthday. At breakfast her mother would not eat, she started to cry. When Edith left, mother wept aloud.
In Carmel, she was “completely at home in heart and mind.” She was awkward in manual duties. She wrote extensively, mainly short studies on saintly Carmelite women. Her joy however became more and more subdued as she learnt of what was happening outside the cloister walls.
To avoid useless trouble, on the last day of 1938, a friend drove her to the Carmel of Echt, Holland. Edith was suffering, her face often “betrubt” sad, as one sister noted. The war broke out in September 1939.
Three years later, on August 2nd 1942 the Gestapo came to the Convent and arrested her. “Come, let us go for our people”, Edith told her sister Rosa who was crying. It was a Sunday. First, Amersfoort Camp, then, the next day to Camp Westerbork. Four days later, during the night of August 6th-7th she was deported to Auschwitz. It was First Friday.
They did not stay long in Auschwitz. Rosa and Edith did not even enter the camp. They walked about fifteen minutes through a grove where they were told to disrobe and leave their things. They were brought to a white cottage, formerly a farmer’s home, where the doors and windows were boarded up for the gassing with Zyklon. They were gassed and burned. When she opened her eyes again, she was with her risen Lord.
Every great love is a crucified love. Otherwise it is not love. How true!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.