09 August 2010

Memorial of Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Virgin and Martyr

Today marks the day on which Sister Teresa Benedicta, OCD, was martyred in 1942.

"We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting ... and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God." These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.

Sister Teresa Bendicta was, by all accounts, a brilliant philosopher. Of Jewish parentage, she was academically gifted throughout her life. She studied under Edmund Husserl the celebrated phenomenologist at a time when women were rare in this field, and in fact worked as his assistant. She received her PhD, Summa Cum Laude (with highest honor). Subsequently she established herself as philosopher, translator, and writer, and then, after turning to Christianity, sought the greater solitude of the Carmelite Order. When WW II broke out she transferred from a Carmel in Cologne to another house (Echt) in neutral Holland so that her Sisters might be protected from Nazi persecution due to her presence.

When the Bishops in the Netherlands protested the removal of Jewish children from Catholic schools and the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, the Nazis retaliated and arrested all Catholic Jews in Holland. Sister Benedicta, who could have escaped this fate, went with them as a sign of personal solidarity with her people and a witness to Christian love and solidarity as well. The Carmelite was taken to Auschwitz where she died on 09.Aug.1942 in the gas chambers there. As noted, she was beatified on 01.May.1987, canonized on 11.Oct.1998, and remains a witness to the triumph of the cross of Christ, in her thought, writing, piety, and above all, in her living and dying in the hope of Christ.

For a good biography of Sr Teresa Benedicta, try Edith Stein, The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, by Teresa Renata Posselt, OCD, ICS Publications. Posselt was the Novice Mistress and then the Mother Prioress when Edith Stein lived at the Cologne Carmel. The text has been reprinted and enlarged with scholarly perspectives published in separate "gleanings" sections, so they are available, but do not intrude on Posselt's text.

Another excellent biography you might check out is, Edith Stein, A Biography by Waltraud Herbstrith, OCD, Harper and Row. Sister Herbstrith knew Edith Stein well and has apparently spent a large part of her life making sure the story of Sister Benedicta's life and martyrdom was completely told.