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From Atheism to Sainthood


Saint Edith Stein was one of the most outstanding figures of the European philosophical and cultural elite of the twentieth century. An uncompromising search for the truth led her from the depths of atheism to the heights of sainthood. In 1942 she suffered a martyr’s death at Auschwitz. In 1998 she was canonized by Pope John Paul II and declared patroness of Europe.

Childhood

From Atheism to SainthoodEdith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany [now Wroclaw, Poland], on 12 October 1891, to a well-to-do Jewish family living in a house in what is now Dubois Street. She was the youngest, eleventh child of Siegfried and Auguste Stein; four of her siblings died soon after birth. Edith’s father died suddenly when she was barely two years old. After Siegfried’s death, Auguste had to take over as manager of her husband’s timber business. Edith’s mother was an exceptional person, whose warmth and demanding love kept the family together. She exem-plified deep faith in God, prayed daily, and observed the required fasts and other religious practices.

“A simple life lived in a natural and unaffected atmosphere” – this was the family environment in which little Edith grew up. In her autobiography she admits that although she exuded joy and a cheerful spirit, she could also be obstinate and mischievous. “In my early years I was like quicksilver, always on the move, seething over with ideas, audacious and nosy, and incredibly stubborn when something went against my will. … But there was another world inside me. I would relive everything I saw or heard in the course of the day. The sight of a drunkard would haunt and torment me day and night. … Never could I understand how people could laugh at this. In my student years, though I did not belong to any organization or pledge any vows, I began to abstain from alcohol altogether so as not to lose my freedom of spirit and human dignity” (Life of a Jewish Family, Krakow, Carmelite Press, 2005, pp. 87-88).

Edith never settled for the mediocre. From her childhood, she learned to be demanding of herself, to carry out her responsibilities conscientiously, and to achieve her goals through hard work and the subjection of her feelings to her will — by no means an easy task considering her highly sensitive nature.

Radical rejection of faith

Edith was brought up in a family of religious but non-orthodox Jews. With her mother and siblings she prayed in German rather than in Hebrew. On Saturdays — the Sabbath — the family firm remained open for business. In 1897 she entered primary school and between 1908 and 1911 attended Victoria Lyceum in Breslau. She was a gifted student, self-disciplined, tenacious, and persevering; and thanks to these qualities she achieved excellent marks.

At the age of fifteen, Edith stopped praying and renounced her faith in God. At that time she was staying with her sister Elza in Hamburg. This is how she describes this momentous decision in her autobiography: “After doing the domestic chores, I would read. I read and heard things that were not good for me. My brother-in-law’s profession required that he keep a library of books that were by no means suitable reading for a fifteen-year-old girl. What is more, both Max and Elza were confirmed atheists, and there was no trace of religion at their house. It was there that I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying” (Ibid, p. 179). Edith’s spiritual crisis had begun two years earlier. Her search for the truth gave her no peace of mind. She saw her brothers pray without any deep conviction in the existence of God. Especially traumatic for her were the funerals of her two uncles who had committed suicide. In her young, extraordinarily susceptible heart, she sensed that the mourners prayed without believing in life after death or in the prospect of meeting the deceased again. Years later she would write, “The immortality of the human soul is not an article of faith with the Jews. All their efforts are focused on earthly life. Even the devotion of the pious is directed at making this life holy” (Ibid, p. 98).

Edith was an uncompromising seeker after the truth. Having renounced her faith in the God of her childhood, she considered herself an atheist until she was twenty-one. “The state of my soul before my conversion was the sin of radical unbelief” – she would write later. Yet throughout this period of “radical unbelief,” Edith never stopped longing for the truth, and earnestly sought after it in philosophical inquiry. Later, in one of her letters to Roman Ingarden, she would write: “When I look back at those times, I always see, lurking in the background, my desperate state of mind, that incredible confusion and darkness.” In fact, her sincere and passionate search for the truth was a road leading her to God, though she was not aware of it at the time. When eventually she found the truth in the person of Jesus Christ, she would write: “Longing for the truth was my only prayer. …Those who search for the truth search for God, even without knowing it.”

Even in the depths of that confusion and darkness which her atheism spawned, Edith never wavered from her inner integrity, self-discipline, purity of heart, and fidelity to ethical radicalism. Her search for the truth was utterly without compromise, and for this she was ready to make the greatest sacrifices. She wrote, “A scholarly life required dedication. I led the life of a nun.” Thanks to her purity of heart, Edith was able to grow in her understanding of the truth and avoid sinking “into the abyss of extreme agnostic scepticism” (J.I. Adamska OCD, Blessed Edith Stein, Krakow, Carmelite Press, 1988, p. 32).

As a student, she was especially attracted to her Polish colleague, Roman Ingarden, and Hans Lipps. “Despite my great devotion to my studies, I cherished a hope in my heart that one day I would experience great love and happiness in marriage” – she wrote in her autobiography. “Being completely ignorant of the Catholic faith and its moral principles, I was nonetheless thoroughly imbued with the Catholic ideal of marriage. Among the young men I went out with, I was fond of one in particular and would have been very happy to marry him” (Life of a Jewish Family, p. 284). Edith was able to spiritualize her affections and turn love into a desire for the good of the beloved rather than a desire to win and possess. She defended her virginity as a precious jewel. She recalls in her autobiography: “I based our friendship on the firm conviction that this was a very pure person. … I did not wish to have any contacts with people wanting in this respect” (Ibid, p. 264).

Collapse of atheistic prejudices

In 1911 Edith Stein was one of the first of a small number of young women to begin studies at the University of Breslau. For two years, she read psychology, history, and German language and literature. In 1913 she went to Göttingen to study under Edmund Husserl, the world-renowned philosopher and founder of the famous school of phenomenology. Most of its students were Jews. “Husserl and his wife were of Jewish origin, but they had long since converted to Protestantism” (Ibid, p. 320). Phenomenology was a new philosophical movement that led many of its students to embrace Christianity. Kantian idealism, the reigning philosophical movement of the day, had reduced human experience and the nature of God to purely subjective concepts. Husserl, on the other hand, stressed the possibility of perceiving reality, including supernatural reality, in objective terms. In this way, Edith realized that she too could come to a knowledge of the existence of an invisible God. She was particularly fascinated by the lectures of two Jewish professors: Adolf Reinach, who had accepted baptism shortly before his death in the trenches of World War One, and Max Scheler, who had converted to Catholicism in 1899. The latter’s brilliant lectures on humility and sanctity opened up for Edith new cognitive vistas in the spiritual realm that had previously been closed to her. Her years at Göttingen, the most prestigious seat of humanist learning in Europe of the time, caused the walls of atheistic prejudice to crumble and collapse around her, and gradually disposed her spirit to an acceptance of the mystery of an invisible God.

In Edith Stein’s own words: “Max Scheler overflowed with Catholic ideas and knew how to win over followers by his sheer brilliance of spirit and power of expression. This was my first contact with a world that had been closed to me until then. Though it did not yet bring me to faith, it set the parameters of a ‘phenomenon’ that I could not blindly pass by. To good purpose was it drummed into our heads that we should approach all things without prejudice or any suspicion of ‘fear.’ One by one, the towers of rationalistic prejudice in which I had grown up crumbled even without my knowing it, and suddenly the world of faith lay open before me. After all, people whom I saw every day, people whom I regarded with admiration, actually lived by this faith. Here then was something that, at the very least, deserved reflective consideration. But at the time I was too busy with other matters to examine the questions of faith in any systematic fashion. I contented myself with absorbing uncritically the impulses of my surroundings; and these were — almost imperceptibly — transforming me internally” (Ibid, pp. 333-334). “In Göttingen I learned to respect the questions of faith and people who believed. Sometimes I even accompanied my friends to a Protestant church (obviously, the mixing of politics and religion that characterized the sermons I heard there could not help me to come to know the true faith; indeed, it discouraged me), but I had not yet found the way to God” (Ibid, p. 409).

And so, with her studies at Göttingen, Edith began gradually to shed her atheism and discover the fascinating and mysterious reality of supernatural faith.

 In 1915, with the First World War raging, Edith interrupted her studies to serve for five months as a Red Cross nurse in a field hospital in Moravia. There, with great commitment, care, and unselfish love, she tended to the wounded soldiers and those suffering from conta-gious diseases. After her return, in August 1916, she passed her doctorate in philosophy summa cum laude at Freiburg University under Edmund Husserl. It was a great achievement, for in those days women were not generally accepted in academic circles. Recognizing her extraordinary abilities, Husserl invited her to work with him as his assistant.

This is the truth

Edith began to be increasingly drawn into the orbit of the Christian faith. All around her she observed believers whose authentic relationship with God enabled them to radiate a special warmth of love and inner peace. In this way she was able to discover an unknown supernatural world, which, while not recognizable to the senses, fascinated her with its spiritual beauty. She began to read the New Testament and study the Lord’s Prayer and the works of the great Christian philosophers: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus.

In 1917 she was devastated by the news of the death of her dear professor, Adolf Reinach. His wife, Anna, asked Edith to help her to set her late husband’s papers in order. As someone who did not believe in life after death, Edith expected to find the young widow in great dis-tress. To her surprise she found Anna in cheerful spirits and not at all in need of consolation, despite her deep grief over the loss of her beloved husband. Edith attributed this great spiritual strength to Anna’s faith in the Risen Christ and eternal life. Years later she would write: “Reinach’s funeral was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it. For the first time in my life, I saw the Church in her victory over the sting of death. That was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and I saw Christ in the mystery of the Cross” (The Mind of Edith Stein, Verbinum, 1995, p. 27).

Anna Reinach’s example of deep faith pointed Edith in the direction of Christianity; but still she could not find her way clear to making the final decision. She had to mature toward it, and this would require another five years. In 1918, after a year of uneasy collaboration with Husserl, Edith gave up her position as his assistant. With the publication of several of her books and the delivery of a number of brilliant lectures at various philosophical symposiums, Edith Stein won recognition as one of the leading lights of the Europe’s philosophical and cultural elite.

It was then that Edith Stein’s persistent search for the truth brought her to the threshold of Christianity. The immediate cause of her decision to devote herself entirely to Christ and enter the Catholic Church was an all-night reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. This took place on a summer’s evening in 1921, at the home of her university friends Jadwiga and Conrad Martius. Left alone in the house, Edith picked out a book from the couple’s library. Years later this is how she remembered the event: “I reached for a book at random. It bore the title: The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila Written in Her Own Hand. I began reading it. It held me spellbound! I read it through at one sitting. On closing it, I said to myself, ‘This is the truth.’” It was now clear to her that the truth was the person of the Risen Christ, who lives and acts in His Church. To believe in Him was to enjoy a personal relationship with Him through prayer and the sacraments.

That very morning she went to a bookshop and bought herself a Catholic catechism and a missal. Her long and painful search for the truth ended with her decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Teresa’s mystical experiences of God merely completed Edith’s long period of searching, which she characterized as a special kind of prayer leading to faith or “resting in God,” as she called it. Edith understood that the real experts in the field of faith were the mystics and saints, for only they can claim to have a true experience of God.

This is how Edith described her liberation from atheism: “My coming across the Life of our Holy Mother Teresa in the summer of 1921 put an end to my long search for the true faith. … God is the Truth. Those who seek the truth, seek God, even if they do not know it. … Some may be nonbelievers through no fault of their own (for they may be totally ignorant of God) and, for this reason, the images of Holy Scripture make no sense to them. We know that the burden of original sin causes a darkening of the spirit. But when this is further darkened by the environment in which we live, what blame and responsibility it must bear! Still, the unbeliever always bears a share of the responsibility. It is increasingly rare for a person never to come into any contact with God. … God leads each one of us in his own way. Some reach the goal sooner and more easily, others later and with more effort. Everything we do is a trifle compared to what we receive. But that little trifle we must do ourselves. Above all, we must pray constantly for knowledge of the right path and, once knowing it, embark on that path freely, under the inspiration of grace. Those who em-bark on this path, and bear it patiently, cannot say their efforts are useless; only we must not impose deadlines on God” (The Mind of Edith Stein, pp. 46-47).

Edith Stein stresses that faith is a divine gift, but man must endeavor to dispose himself toward this gift and accept it: “When man opens himself up to the grace working within him, he faces a long struggle to tear himself away from the natural world and the self. … Grace must come to him of its own accord. By himself, man may at best approach the gates, but he can never force them open” (cf. J.I. Adamska OCD, Blessed Edith Stein, p. 47). “It is God who stirs to action and perfects, but He expects man to cooperate with Him and make a spiritual effort. The human spirit must rid itself of everything that engrosses it according to its nature. It must be taught to know God and rejoice in Him alone” (Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross, Krakow, Carmelite Press, 1994, p. 32).

In a letter to a fellow-seeker after God, Edith gave the following simple advice: “You want advice? I have already given it. Become a child and place your life and all its quest-ing and philosophizing into the Father’s hands. If you are not yet prepared to do this, then beg help from the unknown God who awakens your doubt. You must surely be looking at me in amazement that I should dare to recommend to you such a simple, childish wisdom. This is true wisdom, because it is simple and embraces life’s hidden mysteries. It is also the way that will bring you safely to your goal” (Blessed E. Stein, p. 62).

Born again

After several months of intensive preparation, Edith was baptized in St. Martin’s Church in Bergzabern on 1 January 1922. She saw in the Sacrament of Baptism an experience of spiritual rebirth, of taking root in the reality of God. She wrote: “There is no doubt that when a soul is born again in Spirit, the soul is utterly transformed. … The Spirit of Light does not destroy man’s individuality, but weds it to Himself and, thanks to this, man is reborn” (Ibid, p. 62).

On being baptized and receiving her First Holy Communion, Edith resolved to devote herself entirely to God in the religious life; however, so as not to cause her mother too much pain, she decided to wait a few years. Having professed private vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, she accepted a position as teacher of German in a secondary school run by the Dominican Sisters. She refused to take a salary. From the day she was baptized, Edith received the Eucharist every day. She also had a regular confessor. Jesus Christ became her greatest love, and she cherished Him with all her heart and will. She observed holy hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, meditated on Our Lord’s passion and death, and spent many more hours in prayer and contemplation. In this way she opened herself up to the One Divine Reality, who is both Love and Truth. She came to the conclusion that man, in and of himself, is nothing; he can find his infinite value and dignity only by uniting himself with Christ. Her urgent call that we strive daily for holiness applies to each one of us: “Those who follow the truth of faith, who seek God, will, by that freely made effort, be drawn in the same direction as those who are endowed with mystical graces: they will free themselves from their senses and the ‘images’ of their memory, and even from the natural activity of their reason and will. They will enter into the utterly bare solitude of their inner self and there abide in the darkness of faith, in a simple, loving contemplation of the unseen God, who, while hidden, is nevertheless present.” 

Here is what Edith’s own experience taught her to say about prayer: “A boundless and loving giving of oneself to God, a full and enduring union with Him — that is the highest a soul is capable of; it is the highest degree of prayer. Souls who reach this point are truly the heart of the Church. Christ’s priestly love lives in them. Hidden with Christ in God, they know nothing apart from God’s love, which fills them and radiates out towards others.”

Edith Stein continued to pray and devote herself to scholarly work. She wrote several important philosophical works, translated works by St. Thomas Aquinas and the great nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Between 1928 and 1933, she was invited to give lectures at numerous European universities. Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 marked the beginning of a time of great persecution for both Jews and Christians. In the spring of 1933, Edith wrote to Pope Pius XII with a request that he publish an encyclical condemning Nazi atheism. In October of the same year, she entered the Convent of Discalced Carmelites in Cologne, where she took the name of Sister Teresa Benedict of the Cross.

Taking the commandment of loving one’s enemies seriously, she prayed fervently for persecuted and persecutor alike, offering herself as an expiation on behalf of the Jewish people, the German nation, and world peace. She wrote: “It became clear to me that God had once again placed His heavy hand on His people and that the fate of this people was also my fate. … I talked to my Savior and told Him that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed on the shoulders of the Jewish people. The public does not understand this, but those who do, must, in the name of all, take it readily upon themselves. I wish to do this; only, may He show me how. When the devotion was over, I had an inner conviction that my prayer had been answered. But what this carrying of the cross would entail, I did not know.”

On entering the convent, Edith radiated joy as never before. How could a great intellectual, who loved dancing, climbing, rowing, playing tennis, attending concerts and plays, and discussing philosophy — how could she be deprived of all these things and still be happy in a cloistered convent? Such joy could have but one source, as she herself observed. It came from “starting a new life with my hand in the Lord’s.” Never in all her life, she confessed, had she known so much happiness as during those two years of her novitiate. Her joy flowed from deep contemplation and humility, from a close bond of love with Jesus Christ. It was from prayer that she drew her great powers of concentration and creativity. Witness her monumental 500-page-long philosophical work entitled Finite and Eternal Being, which she wrote over a period of nine months in her free time between her conventual duties.

After the infamous Crystal Night of 9 November 1938, when tens of thousands of Jews throughout Germany were arrested and interned in concentration camps, Sister Teresa Benedict knew that she would have to leave Germany. To stay would only give the Nazis further cause to close her convent. Driven by their hatred of the Catholic Church, the Nazi atheists had already dissolved many convents. Nuns suddenly found themselves out in the street. On New Year’s Eve of 1938, Sister Teresa Benedict and her natural sister Rose, who had converted to Catholicism in 1936, were smuggled across the border to the Carmelite Convent in the Dutch town of Echt. In the early months of 1939, Hitler mounted a massive propaganda campaign against the Jews and Poland. Writing to her Mother Superior on Palm Sunday of that year, Sister Teresa Benedict expressed her readiness, if such was God’s will, to accept death in a spirit of expiation for world peace, the Church, the Jews, the German people, and the downfall of the Antichrist — Hitler.

In 1939, during the octave of Corpus Christi, Edith wrote her last will and ended it thus: “Even now I accept in complete submission and with joy the death that God has prepared for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and death for His honour and glory, for all the intentions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Mary, for Holy Church, especially for the safety, sanctity, and perfection of our Congregation, for the Carmel in Cologne and Echt, in expiation for the unbelief of the Jewish people, for their acceptance of the Lord, that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the German people, for peace in the world, and finally for my family members, living and dead, and for all those whom God has sent my way, that none may perish.”

Ave crux, spes unica!

Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 set off the cataclysm of the Second World War. Two weeks later, Sister Teresa Benedict wrote a highly moving essay entitled, Hail the Cross, Our One Hope, in which she stressed that prayer and compassionate love were sure means of helping the wounded, the dying, and the orphaned. Those who could forget themselves by contemplating the Passion of Christ had the power, through mystic prayer, to overcome the worst of evils. Sister Teresa Benedict wrote: “A knowledge of the cross (scientia crucis) comes only to those who have thoroughly experienced the cross. I was convinced of this from the first moment and have always said deep in my heart, Ave, Crux, spes unica! (Hail the Cross, our one hope!).”

In 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands. On 15 September 1941 the occupying powers forced Sister Teresa Benedict to wear the yellow Star of David bearing the inscription “Jew” and to report regularly to Gestapo headquarters. Sister Teresa Benedict never greeted Gestapo officers with the required “Heil Hitler!” On one occasion she felt compelled to make it absolutely clear on which side of the barricade she stood in the war between God and Satan. She greeted a passing Gestapo officer with the words, “Praised be Jesus Christ.” Dumbfounded, the officer merely lowered his head. During her stay in Echt, Sister Teresa Benedict wrote the last and most valuable work of her life — The Science of the Cross, It was a brilliant study of the theology St. John of the Cross.

On 26 June 1942, the Dutch bishops published a pastoral letter protesting the deportation of the Jews and the expulsion of Jewish children from Catholic schools — the only schools they could attend. The Nazi authorities demanded that the letter be withdrawn. Unlike the Protestant pastors, not only did the Catholic bishops not withdraw the letter, but they also instructed that the threatening telegram, which they had received from the occupation authorities, be read from every pulpit in the country. In retaliation, on Sunday, 2 August 1942, the Nazis arrested all Catholics of Jewish extraction throughout the Netherlands. Among those arrested were Edith Stein and her sister Rosa. Before being transported to Auschwitz, they were kept in a transit camp in Holland where Sister Teresa Benedict consoled and supported her fellow inmates. Fully aware that death awaited her, she nevertheless continued to radiate a cheerful spirit. On 7 August 1942 a transport of cattle cars with Edith and her sister Rosa packed inside departed for Auschwitz. The journey took two days. Sister Teresa Benedict wore her Carmelite habit to the very end. All evidence points to the fact that upon her arrival at Auschwitz, she was immediately directed to the gas chambers, gassed to death, and her body burned in the crematorium.

Today, the site of Edith Stein’s martyrdom is marked by a metal plaque bearing the following sentence from her writings, “Love will be our eternal life.” The rest of the citation reads thus: “It is here and now that we must attain to [love] as best as we possibly can. Jesus became man to be the way for us. What then must we do? We must empty ourselves of all our strength … direct our minds to God in a simple gaze, and yield our will to the will of God in love. This is easily said, but all the efforts of a lifetime could not possibly achieve this, if God did not do the most important thing. We must trust, however, that He will not deny us His grace, if we faithfully do ‘that little something’ which we are capable of; and ‘that little something,’ taken in absolute terms, is of capital importance to us.”

Thus, on 9 August 1942, ended the earthly life of Edith Stein, former atheist turned Carmelite nun, one of the most outstanding minds of the twentieth century, philosopher, scholar, and saint. She has since become not only a powerful inspiration to all seekers after the truth, but also a symbol of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. Beatified in Cologne on 1 May 1987, she was canonized in Rome by Pope John Paul II on 11 October 1998. A year later she was declared patroness of Europe.

Saint Edith Stein serves as a luminous signpost for all of us who, seeking the truth, embark on the daily road of faith. Her witness of conversion and her writings hold special validity today. Let us listen to what she has to say: “There is no need for us to spend our lives proving the legitimacy of religious experience. We are, however, required to declare ourselves ‘for’ or ‘against’ God. That is what we must do — to decide, and without receiving any guarantee in return. This is the great risk of faith. The path leads from believing to seeing, not the reverse. Those who are too proud to squeeze through the narrow gate are left outside. However, those who do make it through to the other side come, even in this life, to see with ever increasing clarity and experience the truth of the maxim: credo et intelligam – I believe and I shall understand. To my mind, there is little to be gained here through experiences shaped and constructed by the imagination. Christ did not leave us as orphans. He sent us His Spirit to lead us to the full truth (cf. John 16, 13). He founded His Church guided by His Spirit and gave us His vicar on earth through whom the Holy Spirit speaks to us. It is also in the Church that He united all believers and desired them to be responsible for each other. Thus we are not alone; and when at times we lose confidence in our judgement and even our prayers, there comes to our rescue a strength flowing from our obedience to the Church and faith in the intercession of others” (The Mind of Edith Stein, pp. 99-100).

May the example of St. Edith Stein strengthen our resolve to walk in the way of faith without compromise, to so discipline ourselves that we treat daily prayer, regular confession and participation in the Eucharist as our supreme privilege and duty, and the Gospel as the only path to happiness in heaven. Let us express this resolve in the words of St. Edith Stein’s prayer:

Lord, I beg You, give me everything
that leads me toward You.
Take from me everything, Lord,
that can lead me away from You.
Take also my very self
and accept all of me as Yours.

Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr

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