It isn’t often that we Christians mark a Jewish saint. Yet the life of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born as Edith Stein, is marked this August 9th. Born of Jewish parents in 1891, she was raised in the Jewish Orthodox tradition. Noted for her brilliant mind, yet not treated with respect by an anti-Semitic teacher, at the age of 14 she dropped out of school and out of active practice of her Jewish faith. This began a journey of reflection, prayer, study and of course further exploration in both psychology and philosophy.
By the summer of 1913, when she was nearly 22 years old, she was essentially an atheist, at least on the surface. She began to deeply question the meaning of truth and how and where truth is expressed in religion. She set out to understand what should be her relationship with God and searched for answers within the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic communities.
All the while, she never refuted Judaism but did not find the answers she was looking for. Christianity became more attractive not only after her interaction with Jews who had converted to Christ. As life often does not write in clear lines she was touched deeply through the death of a Christian friend’s husband. The wife was serene, at peace, and spoke of the Cross of Christ from where she drew comfort and strength.
The faith of this woman moved her and over the next few years, she continued her journey of exploration in books and Catholic spirituality. She read the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was fascinated by the process of conversion about which Ignatius writes.
But, in the end it was the spiritual autobiography, The Book of the Life, of the Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila which brought her to proclaim after reading it, “This is the truth!”
In January, 1922 Edith Stein was baptized and very soon decided to become a Carmelite Nun at the age of 30. But it took twelve years before she was able to enter the Carmel of Cologne.
The dark days of Adolf Hitler came to Germany, to Convents and Churches as well. She was not able to hide in the Convent but was taken to Holland. The Germans discovered her Jewish origins. On July 26, 1942 the Catholic Bishops of Holland spoke out against the deportation of Dutch Jews. In retaliation, Hitler issued an order in which he proclaimed all “Catholic Jews as our worst enemies . . .”
In the midst of writing a book on St. John of the Cross, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was ordered by two officials of the German forces, who came to the Monestary, to come with them. She was taken to Auschwitz and was eventually martyred as so many Christians, nuns and priests before and with her had been in those horrible death camps. Along with St. Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest, who was starved and poisoned at Auschwitz after sacrificing his life for another, she shines as a light in enveloped darkness. St. Maximillian is remembered in just a few days on August 14th. Together they strike a very high note in a symphony of heroic love and courage over hatred.
So much that we can learn from this new saint canonized by Pope John Paul II. The search for truth in our life, the restless feelings of doubt in faith, may indeed be an invitation, a call from the Lord, to probe further and not to despair.
Through the use of her reason and her natural talent she becomes another sign that God’s work is often done subtly. Through his creation, through the use of our minds, through human knowledge, the Holy Spirit can and will touch our lives and lead us to truth, which is ultimately to God himself. In our Catholic communion, we are surrounded by such means – the sacraments, the word of God, our spiritual heritage all are the great Catholic treasure that is available to us daily.
Where is our search leading us and how well have I used the tools available?
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for those who are lost and empty. Lead them to find the truth and their fulfillment in Christ Jesus and his Church.