08 August 2013

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross


The story of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born in the world as Edith Stein, is the story of one of the most brilliant converts to enter the Church. Her subsequent martyrdom came about because of the evil of the Holocaust.

Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany on October 12, 1891. She was the youngest of eleven children, and was raised in the Jewish faith. In 1913 she began her university studies, and as too often happens, she rebelled against the faith of her childhood, and gave up on religion.  While at the university she became a student of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and later immersed herself in the philosophy of Max Scheler, a Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic in 1920. It was what seemed to be a chance reading of the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila which opened her heart to the God of love whom she had denied as a young girl. She responded to this action of the Holy Spirit by entering the Church in 1922.

For eight years after her conversion, Edith lived with the Dominicans while teaching at Saint Magdalene’s, which was a training institute for teachers, but during the time immediately following her baptism, she felt the call to religious life as a Carmelite. She set it aside for as long as she could, mostly out of respect for her mother, who was devastated by Edith’s baptism. Even after Edith’s baptism she had, in fact, continued to attend the synagogue with her mother. But by 1933 she could postpone it no longer, and she entered the Carmel of Cologne in Germany. It was at that time that she found an overwhelming attraction to the person and the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In the Little Flower she saw a life which had been utterly transformed by the love of God, and it was her deepest desire to incorporate as much as possible into her own life, this simple but profound spirituality.

When she made her first vows, she was known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was encouraged to continue her writing, in which she expanded on the theme of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross as being one and the same as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She was able to harmonize this with the importance of sacrifice in ancient Judaism, exploring more deeply the fact that Christ’s sacrifice was the culmination of all Old Testament sacrifices which had come before.

As the Nazis came to power, Edith and her sister Rosa, who had also converted to Catholicism, were transferred by their Carmelite superiors to a Carmel in Holland in 1938. This was done to preserve their safety, but when the Dutch bishops issued a letter condemning the racist policies of Nazism, the Nazis retaliated by seeking out and arresting all Jewish converts. It was on August 2, 1942, that Edith and her sister were taken from the convent by two S.S. officers, and were cast into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. On October 11, 1998, exactly fifty-six years, two months, and two days after her death at Auschwitz, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonized by Blessed John Paul II, declaring her to be a saint.

Almighty and everlasting God, who dost choose those whom the world deemeth powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of thy holy martyr St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.