St. Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Edith Stein, Carmelite sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, died on August 9, 1942 in the gas ovens of Auschwitz. A renowned scholar who studied under the founder of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and who early in her career did much to teach and explain his philosophy. Edith was from a practicing Jewish family, but in 1922 became a Catholic. She did not rush to become a Catholic out of great sensitivity for her mother. Eleven years later she entered the Carmel of Cologne, Germany.
The tenor of the times as the Nazi’s grew to power deprived her of a teaching position due to her Jewish ancestry and also because she was a woman. It would seem that the world has rejected her. In the Carmel shortly before her arrest she wrote a final book, "Science of the Cross". This contemplative, soon to be martyr, embraces the Cross and in so doing would join Christ in the salvation of the world. Perhaps it is here that we would find a close association with the Passionist vocation? In an essay she writes,
The world is in flames…Are you impelled to put them out?…Do you hear the groans of the wounded on the battlefield?…You are not a physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the wounds. You cannot get to them…[But] bound to the Crucified, you are as omnipresent as he is. You cannot just help here or there…You can be at all the fronts, wherever there is grief. Your compassionate love takes you everywhere.
[Carmelite News Vol.17, No3 http://www.baltimorecarmel.org/. Sept-Nov 2010]
The life of this mystic explodes with meaning especially when laid against the gift of her Jewish faith with which she was born. She may well have escaped arrest had she escaped to the Carmel in Switzerland where there was room for her. She chose not to go because her sister Rosa who had joined her would not have been able to stay there. Rosa would be arrested with Edith. The words of Ruth to her mother in law Naomi fit well: Do not ask me at abandon you. Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you die I will die.
Her train passes through the transit camp of Westerbork on its way to Auschwitz on August 6. Another Jewish mystic, [Etty Hilesum, "An Interrupted Life"] who herself will follow the way of Edith and is a martyr of charity, makes mention of that mysterious train. Perhaps her religious sense is attuned to a holy woman, or like Ignatius of Antioch as he made his way to martyrdom in Rome, people were moved by grace?
When arrested Edith is supposed to have said to Rosa, "Come, Rosa, let us go for our people." Does not Edith Stein stand like Joshua whom we meet in the first reading today? Moses encourages him, "Be brave and steadfast, for you must bring this people into the land which the Lord swore their fathers he would give them; you must put them in possession of their heritage" There is something of the ‘child’ that we hear in Matthew, although we meet a brilliant, brave and self giving woman. Is she not a Good Shepherdess who resembles Jesus as his Passion approaches, who prays, ‘may they all be one Father as you and I are one’. Edith Stein draws her strength from the Cross; appearing to have been overcome by the world, in fact she has overcome the world by making herself one with the sacrificial love of her Savior.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.