This week is remarkable for the feasts of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross- Edith Stein. One was an image of Christ laying down his life for his friends- the pinnacle of manhood according to the New Testament, the other a convert and philosopher who explored and lived the Christian identity of a woman deeply.
The people closest to you have a tremendous influence on who you are and on your worldview. I would have loved to have been best friends with Edith Stein. Thanks to the communion of saints, she has become very close to me as a role model, teacher and spiritual friend. How cool that God can create friendships outside of time between people connected in prayer.
Born into an observant Jewish family, she went from there to Atheism to Catholicism and Holy Orders as a Carmelite nun. As an intellectual atheist running in the academic circles of Germany, she excelled but realized the unending emptiness at the bottom of her intellectual pursuits. There was a lingering question mark at the end of all of her research and writing that she couldn’t find the answer to. She sought truth and explored the theories on the identity of woman with such intellectual honesty that when she came across the Autobiographical Life of Teresa of Avila, she would decisively declare “This is truth.” And she didn’t look back. She hadn’t just been seeking truth itself, but Truth Himself. Becoming Catholic at the age of 31, She didn’t see her baptism as a conversion from Judaism, but as a fulfillment of it.
Considering this background, her words about the nature of truth and love have weight behind them.
“Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”
Continuing as a philosopher after becoming Catholic, she deepened her exploration into the spiritual aspect of womanhood. She was a self-professed feminist, but saw feminism not as women being the same as men, but as singularly gifted in ways that were uniquely feminine. She wrote extensively on the Catholic view of the woman and lectured to Catholic young women’s groups. Some of her most enduring thoughts are
“The deepest longing of a woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely. This longing is revealed in her outlook, personal and all-embracing, which appears to us as specifically feminine.” (Essays on Woman)
“The soul of woman is also fashioned to be shelter in which other souls may unfold… [It] must therefore be expansive and open to all human beings; it must be quiet so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; self-contained, so that no invasions from without can imperil the inner life; empty of self, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.” (Fundamental Principles of Women’s Education)
“And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him — really rest — and start the next day as a new life.” (Essays on Woman)
And my personal favorite… a little prayer,
“O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me.”
In 1933, at the age of 42, eleven years after her conversion to Catholicism, Edith Stein joined the Carmelites and became Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
With the outbreak of World War II she was in a convent in Holland. She was arrested on August 2, 1942, was transported in a hellish cattle-car train ride across Europe and died on arrival at the concentration camp at Auschwitz a week later, on August 9th, almost exactly one year after St. Maximilian Kolbe had died in the same place. A life cut short but completely fulfilling what she understood as the raison d’ être of woman, giving herself completely to Christ and possessing him completely, even in His cross.