Hello everyone, Happy feast day, especially to all Carmelites! Today we celebrate the feast of the great Carmelite sister and martyr, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (also known by her birth name, Edith Stein). Edith was a brilliant woman and a convert from Judaism and later atheism. She journeyed through life in the noble pursuit of “Truth.” She found the fulfillment of this vocation in the cloister of Carmel – where she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Teresa spent some nine years in Carmel before she was called to courageously offer her life as a martyr in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was Beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987 and Canonized by the same Blessed Pontiff on October 11, 1998.
Edith was born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw Poland) to a well-off Jewish family. Edith was the eleventh child to be born to Mr. Siegfried and Mrs. Auguste Stein. Sadly, only seven of the children would survive infancy. When Edith was a mere two-years-old, death visited the Stein’s again, suddenly taking Edith’s father, Siegfried. His death left Edith’s mother, Auguste, alone to care for the children and family business. She attended to both with unshaken courage and remarkable character. Auguste looked to her faith for strength and support in these trying times. Her firm faith was the source of her virtues; Edith knew this and in admiration for her mother strove to live with similar zeal.
Unfortunately, when Edith reached her teen years, she doubted and fell away from her ancestral Jewish religion, becoming a self-proclaimed atheist. But God never gives up on his chosen souls. He persistently knocks on the door of our souls until at last we open up to Him. God gave Edith a prodigious mind and a deep internal longing for “Truth.” He would slowly call Edith to Himself as she strove to understand Who and What “Truth” is. As she herself would later on say: “Those who seek the Truth, seek God, even without knowing it.”
Edith excelled in her studies as she entered the University of Breslau, in 1911, to study psychology. Then, in 1913, Edith transferred to the University of Gottingen to study phenomenology under the world-renowned philosopher, Edmund Hurrserl. Edith briefly interrupted her studies to work as a nurse in the Red Cross, when WWI broke out. After the war ended, she returned to Freiburg University and received her doctorate in philosophy in 1916. Because of her great achievement and brilliance, Edith was invited by professor Edmund Hurrserl, to work as his assistant.
Then in her Summer vacation of 1921, Edith’s life-long quest for “Truth” resolved and her vocation was made utterly clear. Edith was at the home of some university friends, and wishing to pass some time, she randomly reached for a book and started to read it. The book which fell into her grasp was the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila. As Edith read this book, she found it so captivating that she was powerless to put it down, and read it cover to cover in one night. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila had a profound impact on Edith and as she herself said: “This is the Truth.”
Not long after, on January 1, 1922, Edith was baptized and entered the Holy Catholic Church. Edith’s conversion was difficult for her family to accept, for at this time the Nazi party was growing strong in Germany. They believed that she was abandoning them to the persecutions of the Nazis. However, Edith took her conversion one step further by entering the Discalced Carmelite Convent at Cologne, in 1933. Edith had desired to enter Carmel at the time of her baptism, however due to her mother’s sorrow and pain, she waited.
Edith Stein entered Carmel in 1933 and took the name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. After she entered the convent, she continued to use her prodigious intellect to bring souls to Christ. Despite the dangers of writing and publishing at this time – after all, she was a convert from Judaism, and a Catholic Nun – Teresa continued to write and publish – even as the Nazi Regime were swallowing Europe.
On November 9, 1938, the infamous Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) took place. Civilians and SA stormtroopers ransacked the homes, shops, schools, hospitals and villages of the German and Austrian Jews. Ninety-one innocent Jewish men, women and children were killed and thirty-thousand more were sent to concentration camps. Seeing all this destruction and hate all around her, Teresa feared for the safety of the other sisters in her community. Should she be captured, the other sisters might be taken as well. Her community loved Teresa and did not want to see her captured. So together they decided to transfer Sister Teresa to a convent that was slightly further away from the epicenter of hate. On New Year’s Eve, of 1938, Teresa and her biological sister Rosa, who had converted to Catholicism three years before, were smuggled across the border to a Carmel of Echt, in the Netherlands.
However, in 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Teresa was again in danger; rather than leave, she stayed in the convent at Echt despite the persecution around her.
In June of 1942, the courageous Dutch bishops publicly denounced the Nazi party and it’s anti-semanticist conduct and they refused to retract their statements. This move infuriated the Nazis – who believed that the Catholics would simply “shut-up and comply”- and in retaliation they arrested all Catholics of Jewish origin. In August of 1942, Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rosa Stein, were arrested and sent to the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. On August 9, 1942, Teresa and her sister were executed in the gas chambers, a mere week after their arrival. In the brief period of time between her arrival and her martyrdom, Teresa accomplished much in the women’s barracks. She helped to cool the hate by serving the other prisoners with an air of calmness and peace (Drink of the Stream, Penny Hickey O.C.D.S. 307).
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was beatified by Blessed John Paul II in 1987. In 1998, he canonized Teresa. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Pray for us!!!
Today, I had the honor of serving Holy Mass at the Basilica of Holy Hill, celebrated by Fr. Cyril Guise OCD. He has a deep devotion to St. Teresa Benedicta and delivered a beautiful homily on this great Saint. Fr. Cyril was present at both her Beatification and Canonization. Glimpsing St. Teresa Benedicta through his eyes has brought me to a greater devotion of this magnificent saint.