. . . Into the Light
Truth often comes to us through the witness of other people’s lives, a fact Edith experienced in two instances. Both changed the direction of her life.
During World War I, Edith’s colleague and friend, Adolf Reinach was killed in battle. On an invitation to the Reinach home to organize his papers, Edith met his widow Frau Reinach. Here was a woman suffering intensely, and yet Edith saw only hope and joy in her face. Her rational arguments began crumbling in the face of the mystery of the cross, which eventually transformed her from an atheist to a believer. Still, the road to the Catholic faith remained at a distance.
While visiting a friend, Edith came across the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. After reading it through the night, she put down the book and thought within herself, “This is the truth.” Teresa’s experience was hers; Teresa’s words were paraphrased: “I was so blind! Whatever made me think that I could find a remedy apart from you? Such stupidity–running away from the light.” St. Paul would call this “the futility of the mind” (Eph 4:17). Francis Thompson would refer to such a spiritual journey in his soaring autobiographical poem, “The Hound of Heaven:”
“Naked I wait thy love’s uplifted stroke,
My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me.”
Edith’s eyes were opened, and the road to her conversion, within sight. She bought a catechism and a Missal, studied them both, and went to her first Mass, after which she asked the pastor to baptize her. Apprised of her background, he suggested that she read St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, as a proximate preparation for her reception into the Church. On New Year’s Day, 1922, at the age of thirty-one, Edith Stein was received into the Church. Her mother wept with inconsolable sadness.
Integration of Mind, Heart, and Will
Following her conversion, Edith took a teaching position in Speyer at a secondary school conducted by the Dominican sisters. As an inspiring leader, she won the hearts of the teachers and students alike. In addition to teaching, she lectured, especially to women. On one occasion, speaking to them, she declared, “The nation . . . doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” During her tenure at the school, she developed a spirituality of the Christian woman.
In 1925, the noted philosopher, Eric Przywara, S.J., asked Edith to translate St. Thomas beginning with his disputed questions on truth. His request convinced her of the importance of academics as a vocation to follow. St. Thomas’ works served not only as a path to truth but also as an analytical way to personal experience of God. For him, there is a unity between the thinking person and the person who contemplates and loves. As Edith put it, “The perfection of love does not consist in a certainty of knowledge but in an intensity of being seized” (Herbstrith, 86 quoting Stein Thomas von Aquin, I, Teil, 268, 86).
During those years at Speyer, Edith dedicated herself to a life of prayer, which for her, was the hidden but energizing power of her professional life and her many works of charity. Her public lectures saw the fruit of prayer. Eventually however, she lost her teaching post because she was a Jew.
The Cologne Carmel, Kristallnacht, and the Carmel at Echt
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In October, 1933, at forty-two Edith asked to be received into the Carmelite monastery at Cologne and was accepted. Her family was crushed by the decision and could not understand it. Her last day at home was a Jewish holiday, the Feast of Booths. She went to synagogue with her mother, and the next morning, left for Carmel.
On November 9th, 1938, Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” as it came to be known, the Nazis intensified their persecution of Jews. During this year, a large-scale offensive was enacted against the Jews, and thousands were forced to leave Germany. Edith grieved for those victimized by racial hatred, especially over her family and friends.
With the horror of Kristallnacht, the German Jews abandoned all hope to live in peace. “All through the night, Jewish citizens were rounded up, driven from their homes with Billy-clubs, and their businesses were demolished or confiscated. In a matter of hours, their lives as members of German society had been destroyed. Even the synagogues had been burned” (Herbstrith, 164). Germans and Jews alike now understood that any public outcry on their part would be met with ruthless and immediate punishment.
It was becoming more dangerous for the Carmelites in Cologne to house Edith and her sister. On New Year’s Eve, Sr. Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were transferred to the Dutch Carmel of Echt. Two years later when the Nazis occupied Holland, they rounded up all Jews who were now forced to wear a conspicuous yellow star. The Carmel in Switzerland offered her asylum, but as there was no room for Rosa. Edith felt she must decline their assistance.
From Westerbrook to Auschwitz
In his journal dated July 30th, 1942, Dr. William Harster, the Commanding Officer of Security Police and the Public Security Administration in charge of The Hague, wrote among other entries: “Since the Catholic bishops have interfered in something that does not concern them, deportation of all Catholic Jews will be speeded up and completed within the coming week. Noappeals for clemency shall be considered” (Herbstrith, 191).