Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

August 9, 2010

Woman Warrior of the Month: Edith Stein

Dear Readers,
Happy feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross! As you know this past week of August we celebrated with the Edith Stein Novena, which follows her last nine days in this world before the Nazis murdered her and many, many more Hebrew Catholics in retaliation of the Dutch Bishops denouncing the Nazis and the slaughter of the Jews. The novena, taken from the Association of Hebrew Catholic Website, and as the association's president David Moss explains, the novena is especially prayed during the time of August 1-9 - the time from her arrest to her death. David Moss writes,

The novena was composed by Elias Friedman, O.C.D., founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC), who recommends it to all devotees of Saint Edith. The most suitable time to observe it would be from August 1 to August 9, in annual remembrance of the days spent by our saintly martyr in the death train, accompanied by her sister, Rosa, and many other Hebrew Catholics, on the way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

We present the Novena to the public, hoping thus to further devotion to our holy Carmelite and as a model for Hebrew Catholic’s to imitate. Edith Stein offered herself, like Jesus, our Lord and Messiah, as a victim of expiation for the redemption of her people and of mankind.

May our efforts hasten the day when all Israel shall proclaim:

Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord

(Baruch haba beShem Adonai)

Also, a little more about what inspired this novena prayer from author Elias Friedman:
An attempt has been made to draw a parallel between the last week in the life of Saint Edith Stein and the last week in the life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. There is more in the parallel than pure analogy; Jesus himself, repeated his passion in the soul and body of Saint Edith. It is what gives to her suffering its full redemptive value. Through Jesus, our Saint sanctified the Shoah, turning the Catastrophe into a true Holocaust unto the Lord. Tragic as the story is, it should be understood as the sine qua non for the ingrafting of the Jewish People into the Church, their own olive-tree.

Now, about our Saint. I have spending lots and lots of time reading everything I can about her and by her especially since my break with Peter. I felt that I wanted to reconnect with strong women to help me recover my own strength, and learn that feminine way to practice the virtue of fortitude. Let me tell you something about St. Edith, in case you have already seen, she is THE woman warrior.

Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany on October 12, 1891 to Siegfried and Auguste Stein. Before she reached the age of two, her father passed away, leaving her mother with 7 children and a lumber business to run. And her mother did run that business. In her unfinished autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, Edith says that all who knew her described her mother as the most capable merchant in town. Edith wrote this book in the 1930's as an antidote to the rising anti-Semitism in her beloved Germany. This book, which I've not quite finished reading, chronicles her very normal, very real family life from her birth until 1916, which as far as she had written before the Nazis took her off to the death camps. She shows great affection for her family and reveals her own spiritual journey to the Church, which was a highly intellectual one.

Edith was known as an extremely intelligent and gifted child. She loved school and did quite well in school. She says that although her mother was quite religious and did observe the basic tenants of Judaism, Edith and her siblings were not very religious and often ridiculed their mother's piety. Frau Stein did not let that deter her. But as a young teenager, Edith self-consciously decided that she did not believe in God. It was not until she went on to receive her doctorate that Edith would find herself attracted to the Catholic faith.

Edith studied for her doctorate under the famed phenomenological Edmund Husserl. She became great friends with many very renowned scholars of phenomenology and several times had come into contact with Dietrich von Hildebrand (although they did not know one another well). It was also here that she began to be more open to the Christian faith, as most of her friends were Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. She was a brilliant student, and all her friends and family teased her for her great passion to study with Husserl. She writes that on one New Year's Eve before she left to study in Goettingen for her doctorate, her sisters and friends wrote a little verse about her: "Many a maiden dreams of 'busserl' [kisses in German], Edith, though, of naught but Husserl. In Goettingen she soon will see Husserl as real as real can be." (Life in a Jewish Family, p. 220). I admit, I had to laugh at this little anecdote. To me it not only shows her passion for the intellectual pursuit of truth, but it just shows her humanness.

It was while she was studying in Goettingen during 1913-1914 that Edith says she started to learn how "to respect questions of faith and people who had faith." (Life in a Jewish Family, p. 316). She said that she even attended some Protestant liturgies, but that the sermons, which mixed politics and religion, often turned her off to the faith. It would be about another 10 years before Edith found God in the Catholic faith.

Edith loved Goettingen and Husserl's classes. She was paving the way for women intellectuals, who, even in an intellectual powerhouse like Germany, were not common. She dearly loved Germany, loved its history, loved being a Germany citizen, but she was also keenly distressed at its tempestuous political situation in the during WWI and in the decades the followed. Edith even took a leave of absence from school during WWI and served as a nurse for wounded soldiers. To the end, she loved her German identity.

Edith finished her doctorate in 1917 and stayed on for several years helping her "Master" Husserl to edit his works. She finally began to consider seriously the possibility of becoming a Christian in 1918, and for two years discerned whether to be a Catholic or a Lutheran. She knew this would cost her many of her friendship among her Jewish acquaintance, and she especially knew that her mother would be heartbroken. And God works in funny ways. While she was visiting a Protestant friend in 1921, she randomly found a copy of Teresa of Avila's book The Book of Her Life. She felt that the saints words in the book fulfilled the desires of her heart, and on January 1. 1922, Edith Stein became a Catholic. She also felt at this time that to join the Carmelites was her calling, but she waited until 1935, so that she would not add insult to injury for her heartbroken mother.

Although her family was far from pleased by her decision, Edith remarks that they all respected her because they knew that Edith ardently sought truth with her whole being. Dr. Fraulein Stein, as she was called, longed to be a philosopher and also loved to teach. Josephine Koeppel says of her:
Edith earned the international reputation she had in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria by her careful attention to contemporary topics of her own day which were forerunners of our own vital issues. Her lectures on women's roles. . . incorporated all the facets of her remarkable erudition. . . . To enable others to lead and teach is an inestimable talent, and this was one Edith Stein's greatest gifts." (Life in a Jewish Family, Chronology, p. 419)
In 1933, Edith entered Carmel in Cologne, Germany. Her mother was sorrowful, but embraced her daughter for the last time. She made her final vows in 1938 and took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, which means "Teresa Blessed of the Cross" (or by the Cross in some translations.) Her name reflects her beloved spiritual sister and fellow Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, and her fate of sharing in the Cross of Christ in a very tangible, visible way. After her mother's death, her sister Rosa followed Edith's example, became a Catholic and joined her as a Third Order Carmelite. As a Carmelite, she continued her work as a philosopher and a seeker of truth. Many great treatises and theological meditations were written in this period. But in 1938, the threat of the Nazis was so great that the nuns removed Edith and Rosa to their Carmel in Echt. It was here, as we know, that Edith and her sister were brutally taken in 1942 to their deaths in Auschwitz.

But on the journey to her death, Edith made an impression on her fellow Jewish Catholics. Lucie Bromberg-Rosenthal, who shared a barrack with Edith, remembers this time:
The great difference between Edith Stein and the other sisters lay in her silence. My personal impression is that she was grief-stricken. She was not afraid, but I cannot express it better except by saying that she seemed to carry such a heavy burden of suffering that even when she did smile every once and a while, it made one even sadder. . . . She had the thought of impending suffering; not her own, for she had long accepted it, but the suffering that was awaiting the others. Her whole appearance, as I see her in my mind's eye sitting in the barrack, still reminds me of a Pieta without Christ." (Taken from Edith Stein and Companions, p. 85-86)
What Edith has taught me is the great love it takes to embrace suffering. What I hope she teaches me is how to become a better woman in Christ and how to love and to suffer as she did. May this feast day be a blessing to all of you, and I hope you will let Edith Stein into your life today to show you the face of Christ.

Edith Stein's writings can be found in English through the Institute of Carmelite Studies.

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