By Sr. Emma Haynes S.H.M.
“Full of love, you sink your gaze into mine. And bend your ear to my quiet words. And deeply fill my heart with peace. Your body mysteriously permeates mine. And your soul unites with mine: I am no longer what once I was.You come and go, but the seed That you sowed for future glory, remains behind.”
An Introduction to Her Life
Edith Stein was born into a profoundly orthodox Jewish family in Breslau on October 12, 1891. She was the youngest of eleven children. Her mother, Augusta Stein, a woman of strong faith, saw to the religious upbringing of her children. Her father died suddenly at the age of 48, when Edith was only 21 months old. Edith immediately showed signs of being intellectually gifted and from the age of six began attending school, where she proved to be a quick learner.
As the years passed, Edith’s desire to find the truth intensified. Neither her mother’s Jewish beliefs nor her intellectual knowledge satisfied her. She started studying psychology at university, with the hope of finding the meaning to human existence, but all she found was a science marked by atheism. That was when she opted for philosophy and seemed to find some of the answers to her questions in the lectures and thought of Edmund Husserl and phenomenology. Even so, she still felt something was lacking. She felt as though she had not yet found the truth. Recalling her days as a student, she says, “My longing for truth was a single prayer.”
The Leap of Faith
The Lord slowly but surely began leading her towards the Catholic faith. She owed her final leap to one of the most important saints of the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila.. During the Summer of 1921, while visiting the house of some friends of hers in Bergzabern, Edith pulled a certain book off the shelf: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Edith spent the entire night reading the book and when she finished, exclaimed, “This is the truth.” It was in this autobiography that she discovered that God is not the God of science, but the God of love.Edith felt as though her darkness had been pierced by a ray of light and found in this saint’s writings a hymn to God’s mercy that made her soul emerge from darkness and dispel the shadows of death, ushering her into light and truth. She spoke of a path that cannot be travelled without taking up the cross.
She was baptized and received her First Communion on January 1, 1922, and on February 2, made her Confirmation.
A Carmelite, At Long Last
After a long wait, on April 15, 1934, she received the habit in the Carmelite Monastery of Cologne- Lindenthal, Germany. She would take the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It was a name that resumed her entire life: Teresa blessed from the Cross. She would live her novitiate with great fervor and a delicate conscience. “All one can do is to try to live the life one has chosen with ever greater fidelity and purity in order to offer it up as an acceptable sacrifice for all those to whom one is united” (Edith Stein, Letters). The Provincial Father, Fr. Theodore of St. Francis, did not delay in expressing his hopes that Sr. Benedicta would resume the exercise of her literary and intellectual faculties.
Edith showed a profound simplicity and spiritual childhood in her early years of religious life. A year after her investiture, she confirmed her consecration to God with her first vows taken on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935, in the presence of the Mother Prioress.
Getting Down to Work
Shortly after taking her vows, her superiors asked that she finish the already-begun draft on “Potency and Act”. In reference to her intellectual work, she writes, “The scholar finds that the highest definitive truths are not discovered by human reason. Therefore, in the practical configuration of life, the simplest person enlightened from on high can surpass even the most intelligent person.”On September 14, 1936, she completed her work entitled, “Endliches und Ewiges Sein” (Finite and Eternal Being).
During the ceremony for her renewal of vows, her mother surrendered her soul to God in Breslau following a painful agony. Sr. Benedicta’s mother had never been convinced by her explanations of the religious life, however following her mother’s death she experienced a great confidence and even a spiritual proximity. Following her mother’s death, her sister Rosa was finally baptized and received her First Communion, to Sr. Benedicta’s great joy.
Love and Do What You Will
She took advantage of any opportunity to show her love for her fellow Carmelite Sisters. For some time, she was in charge of receiving visitors at the “turn”, a task she carried out with great simplicity and friendliness. A Sister remembers, “Whenever charity demanded this of her, she always showed herself willing to help. I think her motto was: ‘Ama et fac quod vis (Love and do what you will)’.”
Your Will Be Done
Sr. Benedicta was always attentive to whatever God asked of her. She feared neither suffering nor the cross, because she always tried to see everything from the perspective of faith and imitate Jesus who, even when He was immersed in darkness, repeated these words to the Father: “Your will be done.” She herself writes, “One cannot believe in Christ without at the same time following Him.” She sought to imitate Christ in her voluntary solitude, silence, and loving surrender.
A Little Esther
During the years 1938 – 1942 the Lord would ask her for an increasingly deeper surrender. The persecution against the Jews intensified. Sr. Benedicta realized her own danger. She was a Carmelite, but a member of the Jewish race that Hitler was trying to exterminate at all costs. There was a possibility of fleeing to a monastery in Palestine, in Bethlehem, to avoid placing the entire community in danger. However, it was later impossible. On April 21, 1938, Easter Thursday, she took her perpetual vows. At the end of that same year, Sr. Benedicta experienced an intense call to suffer for her downtrodden people. She writes Mother Petra: “I firmly believe that the Lord has accepted my life as an offering for many. I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort.”
In the Shadow of the Cross
In November 1938, synagogues were in flames and Jews were being thrown out of their homes. No one had come to their defense. Sr. Benedicta was horrified by this suffering and exclaims, “This is the shadow of the Cross falling upon my people. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross” (Edith Stein, Letters). Mother Teresa Renata asked the Carmelite convent of Echt (Holland) to receive Sr. Benedicta and on December 31, she left her convent in Cologne headed for Holland. This was a moment of great suffering for Sr. Benedicta, however she offered it generously to the Lord and wrote, “He who lays the cross on us understands well how to make the burden sweet and light.” Shortly prior to the outbreak of World War II, she writes her Prioress, Mother Ostilia: “Dear Mother, Please may Your Reverence allow me to offer myself to the Heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of expiation for true peace, that the reign of the Antichrist may perish, if possible, without a new World War. . . . I should like to do this today, because it is the twelfth hour. I know that I am nothing, but Jesus desires it, and during these days He will call many others to do the same.” She took advantage of every minute to prepare her heart for her encounter with the Lord, entering more and more deeply into the mystery of the Cross. Horrifying news arrived from Germany and Luxemburg. Sr. Benedicta writes, “Of course, we could ask that we not undergo such an experience, but always adding with seriousness and sincerity, ‘Not my will but yours!’”. The Germans took control of Holland in 1940. All efforts were made to find a new residence for Sr. Benedicta, but to no avail.
“We are going for our people”
On August 2, at 5 pm, two SS officers arrived at the convent asking for Sr. Benedicta. She was given 5 minutes to collect all her things and follow them out of the convent. Sr. Benedicta entered the chapel one last time and asked her Sisters to pray for her. Awaiting her at the door of the cloister was her sister Rosa who had also been arrested. They knelt before the superior to receive her blessing. As they left the convent, they found the street filled with people protesting the event. An acquaintance heard Sr. Benedicta take her sister’s hand and tell her, “Come, let us offer ourselves for our people.” Her earthly destination would be Auschwitz, but her eternal destination: Heaven. Between August 8th and 10th she died in the gas chambers along with her sister Rosa. Eyewitnesses confirm that she lived the days from her arrest until her death with great peace, one that she transmitted to those around her. Before all this took place, she had written: “Certainly it is difficult to live outside the convent and without [having] the Blessed Sacrament [reserved in the house]. But God is within us after all, the entire Blessed Trinity, if we can but understand how to build within ourselves a well-locked cell and withdraw there as often as possible, then we will lack nothing anywhere in the world.”
She died with the conviction that her death was a witness to the truth, to Jesus Christ. She expressed this fact in one of her last letters written on August 6: “If our sufferings have been increased somewhat then we have received a double portion of grace and a glorious crown is being prepared for us in heaven. Rejoice with me. I am going forward unshaken, confidently and joyfully to testify to Jesus Christ.”
©HM Magazine; nº192 September-October 2016