Edith Stein

Today is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein. The broader strokes of her life story are relatively well known.

She was born in 1891 into a devout Jewish family in then-Germany now Breslau, Poland. A bright young woman with a keen interest in the truth, she pursued philosophy. She became an atheist in her young adult life, but eventually came to the conclusion by 1917 that some sort of divine being must exist. She still had no way of knowing how to discover or discern this being. Many of her friends had become Lutheran. She was open to that or to becoming Catholic, but she had little guidance.

Then, one evening, she found herself amongst friends at the home of a philosopher couple, the Conrad-Martius home. They would have students come to help in the orchards during the day and read in the evenings. It was during that summer of 1921 that Edith pulled a book off a shelf filled with them. That book was Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila).

Edith could not put it down. She read it cover to cover in one sitting that evening. When she was done, she closed the volume, exhaled and said “This is the truth.”

As soon as she could, she began to take instruction in the Catholic faith and was baptized in January of 1922. As soon as she was baptized, she sought to become a Carmelite Nun, a daughter of St. Teresa of Avila. Eventually she was accepted into the order, though it would take eleven years, and she took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Her being a Carmelite did not protect her from the Nazi thirst for Jewish blood. She was recalled from a convent in Holland and sent to Auschwitz. There, she was killed in the gas chamber, along with her fellow Jews, but clinging closely to Jesus, to the truth whom she loved so dearly. The year was 1942.

There are many things on which to comment about the life of Edith/St. Teresa. Not the least of these is an incident after she was a professed Carmelite. One evening the sisters voiced their frustration over the futility of voting in the elections. They had become convinced that everything was rigged in favor of the National Socialist Party (Nazis). Why vote? Sr. Teresa Benedicta would not hear any of it. She insisted they vote because every opportunity must be taken to voice opposition to injustice lest silence become compliance to injustice.

There is a strong lesson in this for many today who manufacture a façade of non-partisanship by pretending that both major parties are equally evil. They don’t vote because they are above all the pettiness of politics. There is serious folly in this however, for when evils are performed by either or both parties, the blame for it all surely falls on those who refused to choose against any of it.

But one other note from St. Teresa’s life is important to bring up as well. When she was just 21 years old, she read a novel titled Helmut Harringa. It made her terribly depressed.

The book, which fails apparently to hold together very well in terms of a real plot, is the story of Helmut, a strapping young German man of energy. He is dedicated to fighting against the three great vices of his time: alcoholism, premarital sex and the contamination of the German race.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross 3The novel pits the forces of darkness, i.e. the influences of drink and alcoholics on the pure German people, against the forces of light, i.e. the police. Helmut reads only the Nordic and Germanic legends of heroes and of their gods. His brother, Fredrick, who succumbs to an evening of drunken debauchery, discovers that he has contracted syphilis and so kills himself. Helmut believes his brother made the only reasonable choice, though he blames those who got his brother drunk in the first place.

Eventually, Helmut joins the great struggle against the enemies who are so corrupting the youth of Germany. A secret society is formed to save German youth. They then fight the bad guys  and ultimately defeat them. The novel ends stating, “The world owes the idea of freedom to the Nordic peoples, the Germans.”

The young Edith felt physically ill after reading the book.

I mention this little blip in the life of St. Teresa Benedicta because it is a good reminder of the effect literature, art, film, music, theatre can have on a soul. We happily trudge along, ignoring the filth that is pumped into homes at every hour, and then wonder why we suffer from so much violence.

For those of us with hindsight we can see within a book like Helmut Harringa the beginnings of a German youth movement that would eventually become the Nazis. But Edith had no such sight. She simply knew, because of her sensitivity to and for the truth, that this novel was evil. She was right.

So I wonder whether or not we ought to pray to St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to help us know when to stay away from the poisons that exist in our culture. And perhaps we should pray to her to help us rise up and speak out against them, lest our silence becomes complicity in evil.