The Life and Legacy of Edith Stein | Franciscan Media
Edith Stein hardly looked like Catholic saint material. She, a precocious Jewish girl, rejected God as a teenager at the turn of this century in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). but even as a child edith was, deep down, a radical, one that goes to the roots, to the roots. when she became convinced of the truth of an idea, her life revolved around it.
Her youthful rebellion ended, for example, when she became intellectually convinced that the guidance of her mother and sister would be good for her, that at the age of seven. but she rejected the Jewish piety of her mother. she later rejected god because she saw little evidence that most believers, whether jewish or christian, actually believed. if there was nothing there, she wasn’t going to play the game.
but there was something there for edith, even as world war one and then the nazi movement unfolded. That something led her to a remarkable life of faith, cut short at age 51 by her murder in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Pope John Paul II canonized her as Saint Teresa Benedictine of the Cross, Confessor, and Martyr on October 11, 1998.
Is the canonization of a Jew who has become a Catholic an insult to Judaism? some Jews think so. The tragedy of the Holocaust is so great that efforts to commemorate Edith Stein’s death at Auschwitz have been controversial. What did his life and his death mean?
st. Anthony Messenger interviewed three people who have been deeply involved in the life of Saint Teresa Benedict. One is the father of Teresia Benedicta McCarthy, a Boston-area girl who was miraculously healed in 1987 through the intervention of Saint Teresa Benedicta. this miracle, verified by the sacred congregation for the causes of the saints, allowed the canonization of this month.
The second interview is with Carmelite Sister Josephine Koeppel, whose life’s work has been translating Edith Stein’s writings into English.
finally, philosopher and polymath dr. Marianne Sawicki explains that Edith Stein’s philosophical insights offer a continuing contribution to Western thought. That intellectual gift might have been on Pope John Paul’s mind over the years, as he has furthered his cause.
a promising student
Edith Stein was a brilliant woman who, at the age of 20, joined the ranks of Europe’s leading philosophers. she was attracted to the philosophy of edmund husserl, father of a philosophical school that sought to explain the connection between the visible world and the world of ideas and values. Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger became a giant of Western thought. another student, max scheler, was the subject of karol wojtyla’s (later pope john paul ii) doctoral thesis.
Existentialism, an influential school of thought, has its roots in the thought of Husserl. Stein studied with Husserl and, as his assistant, prepared his articles for his publication.
along the way he studied with Christian intellectuals. She was particularly influenced by the faith of the widow of a friend and teacher, Adolf Reinach, who died in the First World War. At the age of 30, in 1921, she picked up the autobiography of Santa Teresa de Ávila in the library of a friend of hers and could not put it down. “This is the truth!” She told herself as she finished the book. For Edith Stein, that meant an irreversible change.
she was baptized in 1922 and subsequently left her position at the university as husserl’s assistant. in her day, a woman could not expect a full academic career at a top-tier university. she held a teaching position at a dominican college for women teachers in speyer, germany. Although she wanted to become a Carmelite, she was advised to wait because her conversion had been very hard on her mother. she made private religious vows.
in speyer he studied the philosophy of thomas aquinas and translated his treatise on truth into german for the first time. She soon began to give numerous lectures in Europe, to women’s groups, on education and the role of Catholic women.
When the Nazis stopped her from teaching because she was Jewish, she was forced to make a life-changing decision. To the dismay of her mother, she entered the Carmelites as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. as a carmelite she wrote, among other works, life in a jewish family and the science of the cross, study of saint john of the cross. she led a deliberate life of holiness and dedication. the nazis forced her to wear a star of david.
When the safety of anyone with Jewish ancestry evaporated, she fled her Carmelite monastery in Cologne to Carmel in Echt, the Netherlands. but there was no escape. when the dutch bishops spoke out against the nazis, the third reich retaliated by rounding up all jewish converts to catholicism in the netherlands. In a dirty van full of people they were transported to Poland.
Edith was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Her sister Rosa, who had also converted and remained close to Edith, was murdered along with her.
a child is saved
Forty-three years later, to this day, a girl was born on the other side of the Atlantic. In honor of Edith Stein, her parents named her Teresia Benedicta (the Latin spelling used by Edith). “God communicates not only through words, but also through symbols and actions,” says Melkite Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the girl’s father. The day I interviewed him, he was fasting and praying in the presence of the Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, on the anniversary of the first atomic explosion, July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mt. carmelo “everything in life is context”, he says. he is talking to st. Anthony Messenger on the miraculous healing of her Benedictine daughter in 1987 after doctors at one of the best hospitals in the country, the Massachusetts General, declared her case hopeless.
the events were fairly simple on the surface. While father Charles and his wife, Mary, were away from their Brockton, Massachusetts, home for a few days on a religious retreat, the eldest of 12 college-age McCarthy children was in charge. the flu was running through the family and the teens were taking tylenol. Benedicta, two years old, watched and imitated. over two days, a deadly overdose of the drug built up in his system.
When Father Charles and Mary returned, they learned that Benedicta was in the hospital. she was transferred from brockton to massachusetts general in boston. there the doctors found that her liver was irreparably damaged. without a transplant, she would die.
In the face of this grief, Mary’s sister Teresa made a suggestion: “You named Benedicta after Edith Stein, so why not pray to her? ” Rosaries and prayer chains began among the McCarthys’ family and friends one Saturday.
The next day, father charles was scheduled to fly to north dakota to give a retreat on jesus nonviolence. one would have to know father charles to understand the dilemma he felt. he is a theologian who takes mysticism seriously. co-founder of pax christi u.s.a., he has dedicated his entire adult life to a preaching ministry of absolute confidence in jesus and the gospel message. “No one would want to be in the frame of mind I was in when I made that decision,” he recalls. “But all the years of nonviolence, of preaching trust in Jesus, how can you not trust God? he asks.
On Saturday night, he and Mary came home to check on the other kids. “I walk into the room and see a book on the floor. I pick it up to put it on the shelf and look at it, 12:00 at night, Saturday. It is the path of perfection of Saint Teresa of Avila. a sentence jumps off the page, jesus talking to teresa, and he says, ‘you mind my business and i’ll mind your business.’ That answered the question of whether to go or not. “
Two days later, at exactly the time his retreat ended, on March 24, 1987, says Father Charles, doctors in Boston recorded in Benedicta’s medical file, “‘this child has made a remarkable recovery.’ “. abc-tv’ on thursday 20/20 the story of the mccarthys aired in june this year on a program about canonization. The chief of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Jewish man who ultimately testified before the congregation for the causes of the Saints, was one of several medical staff who agreed that there was no way they could explain Benedicta’s recovery. in fact it was a miracle.
shortly after the miracle, the editor of church world, maine’s catholic diocesan newspaper, heard the story while attending a talk by father charles and ran it on the front page: “a miracle for edith stein? she was already going to be beatified on May 1, 1987, as a martyr, therefore without the need for a proven miracle. but a miracle would be needed for canonization. When Rome officials learned of the alleged miracle, they launched an investigation that finally confirmed the miracle’s authenticity in 1997.
A miracle for nonviolence?
Father Carlos, interim rector of Saint Gregory’s Seminary of Theologians in Boston, likes to quote famous teacher Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “‘The most important things happen on the unseen side.'” he finds the meaning of the miracle of his daughter’s healing. a lot has to do with the date of August 9.
By the time of his ordination in 1981 in Damascus, Syria, he had already devoted years to his ministry teaching the nonviolence of the gospel. he had waited all summer in damascus for the Melkite patriarch to order it; the calendar finally yielded August 6 for his diaconal ordination and August 9 for his priestly ordination. Those dates already stood out to him as the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which he considers dark days for Christianity.
Over the years, he became interested in things that happened on August 9, such as the execution of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, a German Catholic war resister. In the early 1980s, when Father Charles noticed that Edith Stein had died on August 9, he began reading about her. “For the next two months, I read almost all day, every day, about Edith Stein. i came to the conclusion that edith stein was in the microcosm what nagasaki, the cradle of christianity in japan, was in the macrocosm. In other words, here was a Christian woman who was destroyed by the Christians. Auschwitz was an operation run entirely by baptized Christians,” explains McCarthy. “So was the bomb squad that destroyed Nagasaki. “
When she read that Edith was aware that she was born on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, “I said, ‘This person is like the embodiment of nonviolence!'”
it is key to mccarthy that stein has formally consecrated his life, before his carmelite superiors, to atonement and world peace. Edith herself wrote, “I spoke to the savior and told him that I knew it was his cross that was now being placed on the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did, would have to willingly assume it on behalf of all. I would do that. he just has to show me how. “
When the McCarthys’ 12th child was born on August 8, 1984 (“Dawn, August 9, in Auschwitz,” recalls Father Charles), they decided to name her Teresia Benedicta. “teresia is the latin form that edith stein always used,” explains father charles. “teresia benedicta a cruce literally means, ‘teresa good word of the cross’”. (another translation is “blessed by the cross”).
There are no coincidences in life, believes Father Charles. “God presents us with situations in which we freely choose. that is why the context of the facts is fundamental for him. “The context of the miracle is the context of a lifetime of commitment to nonviolence, the context of a child being named after someone because that someone is a microcosm of the problem and solution to Christian violence. that’s the context, whether someone wants to accept it or not.
“I realize that 95 percent of the Catholic Church at all levels does not accept Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence,” he laments. “But edith stein would not be edith stein if, when she was arrested, or when she was in auschwitz, she was killing people to save her life. she is a martyr because she made the decision to lay down the gun and take up the gospel, because she chose the power of love over the power of violence and she accepted the consequences of it. “
a life of virtue
but edith stein wasn’t just a martyr. Carmelite Sister Josephine Koeppel has a different take on the meaning of Edith Stein. “The characteristics that I observe have to do with her womanhood, and in particular with her European womanhood,” says the 77-year-old Swiss immigrant to the United States.
when carmelo de colonia wanted to thank their sister community of carmel in elysburg, pennsylvania, for sending aid after world war ii, they sent a copy of the life of edith stein, written by prioress edith.
sister josephine was the only one in her carmelite community who could read german in 1950, when the book came to pennsylvania. “I read the book and told the sisters about it in their recess time,” she recalls in a telephone interview from her faculty. sister josephine became interested in edith stein and asked relatives in switzerland to send her one of stein’s books.
Soon received stein’s life in a Jewish family. In addition to translating works by Thomas Aquinas and John Cardinal Newman into German, Stein was asked by his superiors to write about his family in the 1930s. The hope, as Edith clearly explains in his foreword, was that German readers, who were being deprived of accurate information, would see that Jewish families were not very different from other German families. Sister Josephine was convinced that others should read the book, so she set out to publish a translation.
nearly 50 years later, he translated that book, as well as a book containing most of edith stein’s letters, and built a library of information on stein which he intends to donate to a center for the study of edith stein at the university of spalding in louisville, kentucky. Stein herself wrote enough to fill 17 volumes. Sister Josephine’s translations are two of five in English. more translations are in process. “I translated because I thought it was someone people needed to know,” she says.
edith stein recalled her youth and called herself “‘charmingly bitchy,'” says sister josephine. “She noticed people’s faults and thought it was her privilege to point them out. However, Ella Stein left that behind as she got older. It is her growth through her that Sister Josephine recognizes.
“she was not a retired person; She just never showed up,” says the translator of Stein’s letters. “She was always there for anyone who came to her. Every time she heard of something that could be done for someone, she did it or saw it done. “
edith stein maintained an extensive correspondence from her cloister in cologne, documented in the book self-portrait in letters, which sister josephine translated. “These people treasured his letters when they received them. it is remarkable that so many are available after all this time, in so many different life situations,” says koeppel.
although stein is just beginning to be known in the united states, he has a large following in europe. “That’s because of her personality in the first place,” Sister Josephine says. “People who read about her think of her as a b-r-a-i-n, but in Europe she was remembered above all by the students who had her as a teacher. “
stein had a special place in his heart for young children, says sister josephine, who she believes is related to the 1987 miracle of young benedicta mccarthy. “I think Edith would take a great interest in all the prayers that were offered for the children, because she had tremendous love and an absolutely charismatic relationship with the children, including her nieces and nephews. ” On a trip to Europe a few years ago, Sister Josephine heard about another miracle from the Dominican Sisters in Speyer, Germany, where Stein taught.
This also referred to a girl, some years ago, who was seriously ill and suddenly cured. “The girl herself told her mother, ‘the sister came to see me and she healed me,’” says sister josephine. “Then her mother, thinking that this was delusional or something, asked what her sister was like. the girl said that she was dressed in brown. she asked if she had said who she was. the girl said, ‘she was sister teresia benedicta something’. I can’t remember what the last part was. ‘
“the mother had gone to school in speyer and knew about edith stein, so she told the sisters. they sent the mother back with more questions about the last part of the name. she asked if it was ‘of the cross’ (in German)? ‘no’, replied the girl. ‘a cross?’ ‘Yes, that’s it!’ said the boy. sister josephine recounts that the girl was too young to know latin, but that edith stein never used her title except in latin. this German miracle was not documented by church officials.
Sister Josephine recommends, “You can really get to know her as a person with a heart that can really be touched. First, get to know her like this. so she really respects her brilliance. “
it is that sense of empathy that defines edith stein most clearly for dr. Marianne Sawicki, who, like Dr. stein did it, he teaches philosophy. dr. Sawicki is currently a researcher at the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame and has written an academic book on Stein. In Edith Stein, Dr. Sawicki sees a woman whose ideas have much to offer our world.
stein’s fundamental ideas in academic philosophy were in a field of study called empathy theory. this was during an explosion of new knowledge when philosophers were trying to combine knowledge about the physical world with knowledge about the mind, explains dr. sawicki. The philosophers who followed Edmund Husserl, called “phenomenologists,” saw in empathy, an awareness of basic human interconnectedness, the breakthrough for human communication. the Nazis set out to replace this philosophy with their own philosophy of racial superiority.
“there are answers in empathy theory based on human communication that were tragically shelved in the 1930s,” says dr. Sawicki observes. “The questions today are, how can people of different cultures, different classes, different genders find some point of agreement on which we can move forward to build a just society? Edith Stein discovered answers both in secular philosophy and, later, in Christianity. such knowledge could serve to generate greater understanding in today’s world, says sawicki.
in the hands of god
Although many felt that Edith had abandoned Judaism, Edith Stein, in her own opinion, remained loyal to her Jewish family and heritage until her death. he predicted the holocaust and wrote an appeal to pope pius xi, asking for an encyclical to oppose the nazi program.
Her niece, Susanne M. Batzdorf, has written about Edith, “in following her conscience on the path to Christianity, she felt that she was following her Jewish path towards her ultimate goal. but it is impossible, from the Jewish perspective, to see it that way. that’s understandable. Far from elevating Edith Stein as a contempt for the Jews, the church seeks to honor and imitate a woman who heard an intimate call from Jesus and followed it. Her letters show that she continued to honor her mother’s Jewish faith.
It should be obvious by now that Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is a saint we’ve only just begun to understand. both sister josephine and dr. sawicki mentioned that stein’s appeal in so many areas is a sign of her holiness.
the theme that seems to be universally appreciated throughout edith stein’s life is her integrity, her appreciation of the truth. that’s what really makes her holy, says sister josephine. “If you’re looking for someone who embodies a ‘reality check,’ that’s Edith,” says Sister Josephine. “Every time in her life that she saw a truth that she hadn’t realized before, her life changed. “
The other big issue is trust. Stein wrote in a letter that he was often asked to give lectures on complicated topics, “but I always mean my one topic: how important it is to learn to live in God’s hands.” sister josephine says that’s edith stein’s signature phrase: learn to live from the hand of god.