As the process of selecting Confirmation Saints looms near at our house once again, I find myself doing a lot of name-dropping in case anyone is looking for inspiration related to choosing a patroness with some moxie.
“Saint Rita,” cough, cough.
“Mary Magdalene was the first one that the Risen Christ appeared to…”
“My grandpa told me there are so many Theresas (Avila/Lisieux/Benedicta of the Cross!). Ask for their help and someone will hear you!”
“Saint Edith Stein,” wink wink.
Thinking Outside the Box
Since I have learned her story and begun reading about her life, Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) has quickly moved to my short list of favorite female Saints. Edith exudes deep self-awareness, intelligence, introspection, friendship, discernment, suffering, and selflessness. She was ahead of her time, and speaks a much-needed truth to all of us living in the context of a society that has boxed up what it is to be a Catholic woman and left us all short-changed.
Edith was highly intellectual. Many credit her study of philosophy as the training ground for her deep spiritual life. But it was the lived witness of her friends and the Saints that helped to move her from her head to her heart.
Edith Stein's Conversion to Catholicism
I’m a sucker for conversion stories and Edith’s is a good one.
She was born into a devout Jewish family in Germany, in 1891. She lost faith as a teenager, in part because of the conflict she had observed in World War I. For a time, she served as a nurse, but later pursued her doctorate in Philosophy. While studying, she was surrounded by Catholic friends. After witnessing a friend who had been widowed and grieved with hope, Edith’s curiosity was piqued. Later, after picking up a book about the life of Teresa of Avila, she decided to become Catholic.
Out of respect for her mother, whom she did not want to grieve by formally leaving the Jewish faith, Edith continued the very unusual business of lecturing and teaching at the university (at a time when doing so was nearly unheard of for women) before being received into the Catholic Church. These years may have afforded her the opportunity to give great attention to the themes that she spoke of so eloquently.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross' Take on the Feminine Genius
Each woman who lives in the light of eternity can fulfill her vocation, no matter if it is in marriage, in a religious order, or in a worldly profession.
This idea, for her time, was really quite remarkable. To some, it still is. Women have a vocation to bring the light of Christ to the world—a task that can be done from the cloister, the cry room, or the university. Her language is so beautiful and encouraging that it invites deeper reflection and offers hope to women in all stages of life to be attentive to her particular calling within her circumstances.
Edith Stein spoke highly of the unique gifts the women in particular brought to world through their many vocations
The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.
Because of her unique role as an educator and mentor, alongside of her devotion to the Blessed Mother, Edith came to understand the particular abilities and opportunities that women have to nurture those around her.
The world doesn’t need what women have, it needs what women are.
The Fullness of Who We Are
Edith was an eloquent advocate for women knowing and bringing the entirety of themselves into all that they did.
Bringing her entirety to her day and age must not have been easy, living in the rising tide of Nazism, though it may be how she learned to attend to particular circumstances. Already in a letter dated 1933, she described her Holy Thursday prayer in this way:
I told our Lord that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.
Her Witness in Death
Being a Jewish convert to Catholicism in Nazi Germany, and having the well-known name as a presenter of the time meant that Edith attracted the attention of the Nazis. The Carmelite order made efforts to conceal her whereabouts and transferred her and her sister Rosa to a convent in the Netherlands. However, on July 26th, 1942 the Dutch Bishop’s conference condemned Nazism across the nation and, in response, all Jewish converts were arrested.
Edith and her sister were among nearly one thousand Jews transported to Auschwitz that day. They are believed to have been killed on August 9th, 1942.
Maximilian Kolbe is often the first Saint that comes to mind as the martyr of the Holocaust, but Edith (now Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) also experienced the horrors of the day. Each bore witness to Christ and to hope in the midst of deep suffering and despair. Each gave their lives along with their Jewish brothers and sisters.
With the Lord, Nothing is Wasted
Her remarkable and meandering story illustrates the deep attentiveness of the Lord to our unique callings and the ways in which nothing is wasted. Edith’s life offers a tremendous witness to embracing our own callings in a way that offers a refreshing take on the universal call to holiness.
To what particular circumstances are you being asked to bring your entire self? How might Edith Stein’s example help inspire you to do so?