To be born into the Jewish faith and to convert to Christianity is surely to have the best of both worlds: the fullness of Christ in both His heritage and His new covenant with humanity. This was the case for Edith Stein, who became Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross after a long journey of the heart, mind and soul.
Born to German Jewish parents in 1891, Edith was raised in her family’s faith but rejected all belief in God by age 14, declaring herself an atheist. She had a brilliant mind and was accepted into several prestigious German universities, graduating with highest honors and receiving her doctorate in philosophy. She studied with a renowned philosopher of her day, Edmund Husserl, and taught, wrote and lectured often. Through all of this, her mind became open to new thoughts and ideas, being made ripe for the reception of a faith which surpassed any truth she had previously known.
And this faith came partly through the writings of another saint: Teresa of Avila. Edith read her autobiography in one sitting, and the saint’s words came alive, speaking to her of the knowledge of Christ as her Savior. Convinced of this truth, she plunged headlong into a new existence and was baptized not long after. “Whoever seeks the truth seeks God, whether he is conscious of it or not,” she would later write. She sought to enter a Carmelite convent, but was dissuaded by her spiritual director as he felt she could accomplish more in the secular world. So Edith Stein continued her work, now greatly influenced by her beliefs, especially in her studies and writings about women.
When the Nazis came to power and began targeting the Jews in Germany, she knew the time had come to give herself totally to God by making her profession as a Carmelite, determined to share in Christ’s suffering for her people. She took the name Sister Teresa, Blessed of the Cross. Some of her family, and especially her mother, could not accept her conversion, but still she “felt a profound peace ... in the safe haven of God’s will.” Sister Teresa had already begun to experience the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding,” which St. Paul wrote of in his epistle to the Philippians (4:7).
By now the extermination of the Jewish population had begun in earnest, and the Carmelite community moved Sister Teresa and her younger sister Rosa, a Third Order Carmelite, to the Netherlands where it was hoped they would be safe. There she wrote on St. John of the Cross and her desire to mortify herself for Christ grew. Her acceptance was such that when the Nazis finally raided the convent and arrested Teresa and her sister, she softly urged her, “Come, Rosa. We go for our people.”
That small statement summed up her faith in the power of the Cross of Christ. Sister Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were sent to Auschwitz in early August 1942, where they were executed one week later in the gas chamber. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in October 1998.
Saints and our lives
St. Teresa Benedicta once wrote: “When night comes, and retrospect shows that everything was patch-work and much that one had planned was left undone, when so many things rouse shame and regret, then take all as is, lay it in God’s hands, and offer it up to Him. In this way we will be able to rest in Him, actually to rest and to begin the new day like a new life.”
Perhaps today we broke a promise, doubted someone we should trust, maligned a person we loved, got angry over something insignificant, or failed God in some way, large or small; here St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross teaches that if we confess our sins and leave them in the hands of God, tomorrow He can transform unfaithfulness, doubt, failure, and anger into faith, trust, hope, and joy. As someone once said, no day is ever without the need of God’s grace, and no day is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace.
“There is a state of resting in God, an absolute break from all intellectual activity, when one forms no plans, makes no decisions and for the first time really ceases to act, when one simply hands over the future to God’s will.”
Here our saint reflects on complete surrender to God’s will for our lives — no easy task! As humans we are constantly charting, planning and mapping out our lives the way we wish them to be. It takes an active faith, not an active mind, to be able to rest in God in the way St. Teresa Benedicta suggests. Prayer and meditation on Scripture will help lead us in the right direction.
Taken from “Evangelization and the Lives of the Saints: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross,” produced by the diocesan Office of New Evangelization. For the complete pamphlet, visit the Office of New Evangelization at www.drvc.org.