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St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
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“It always seemed to me that Our Lord was keeping something for me in Carmel which I would find only there.” With these words, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross summed up her call to Carmel, as her life took her through many exciting twists and turns on her path towards the summit of Mount Carmel. This path led her along the way of the Cross, with its strength and power. Born Edith Stein on October 12, 1891, she was the youngest of seven children of a devout Jewish family in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in Poland). Although Edith accompanied her mother to the synagogue, she was an agnostic from adolescence. A brilliant student, Edith pursued studies in philosophy and became well-known for her ability as a writer, lecturer, and teacher.
Philosophy, however, didn’t contain all the answers she was seeking. In the summer of 1921, she realized she had found the truth, when she read The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, written by herself. She was received into the Catholic Church on New Year’s Day, 1922, taking the baptismal name of Teresa. She wanted to enter religious life, but was at first held back by her spiritual director, who felt she would contribute more to the Church through her academic work. Despite her busy work schedule, Edith made time every day for prayer. In 1933, she was forced by the Nazis to give up her work because of her Jewish heritage, and she was finally able to apply to the Cologne Carmel.
After a painful good-bye to her family, especially her mother, who had been grief-stricken over her daughter’s conversion and even more so over her decision to enter religious life, Edith entered the Cologne Carmel on October 14, 1933, the vigil of the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She had difficulties at first with her new duties, such as cooking, cleaning and sewing, being more used to intellectual than manual work. She saw this as an opportunity to practice humility, especially after a lifetime of being highly praised. She soon felt right at home in her new family, who loved her.
Her entrance into Carmel was for her a sharing in the mystery of Christ’s Passion and Cross, as is shown by the religious name she received, at her own suggestion: Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She desired no other name than “of the Cross”, since she herself explained that, “Human activity cannot help us but only the Passion of Christ; it is my desire to share in it.” In Carmel she found the silence and solitude she needed to offer her life in prayer for those dear to her and for all the Jewish people, and she was radiant with joy as she lived her Carmelite life, hidden with her beloved Christ. Sister Benedicta continued writing philosophical and religious works in Carmel, the most notable of which was her Science of the Cross. The Cross was the summit of her faith, and by embracing it, she was able to face all of life’s difficulties with great strength of faith and serenity.
On August 2, 1942, Sister Benedicta was arrested by the Nazis, and as she left the convent of Echt, in the Netherlands, where she had been sent for her safety, she said to her blood sister Rosa, who had been arrested with her, “Come, let us go for our people.” Those who met Sister Benedicta during this time of mistreatment testified to her heroic courage and her compassion for her fellow prisoners, especially in caring for children neglected by their distraught mothers. In this way she was able to imitate the Sorrowful Mother of God. Embracing her cross, Sister Benedicta sought to ease the sufferings of her people. On August 9, 1942, she was martyred at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The feast day of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is celebrated by the Carmelite Order on August 9.