“To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels – this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth”.
These words of Edith herself give us some flavour of Edith’s Christian life and her understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. They sum up her profound relationship with Jesus Christ, her identifying with Him; and her ever deeper understanding of life in this world and her relationship with all human life and human experience. “I believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must ‘go out of oneself’; that is, one must go to the world, in order to carry the divine life into it”.
Edith Stein was born October 12th, 1891, in Breslau, Germany [now Wroclaw, Polland] into a Jewish family – that year October 12th was the Feast of Yom Kippur, a coincidence her mother always saw as significant. She died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, August 9th, 1942. Edith was beatified by Pope John Paul 11 in Cologne in 1987 and canonised in Rome 1997, and in 1999 was declared joint Patroness of Europe [with Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden]. Standing in St. Peter’s Square, Rome, October 11th ,1997, watching Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers, Diplomats from virtually every country of Europe [and further afield] I could not help but think that this baby born into a Jewish family in Breslau 1891 is bringing together the whole of Europe in prayer, celebration, and peace. A century of European life has been touched and enriched by Edith – she is living testimony to the truth of the words of John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and lives among us”. This is the fruit of a life well lived; a life of prayer, love and self-giving; a life of human and Christian maturity. A life that has become a living testimony to God’s presence in all human life.
Edith’s life story touches every facet of life and change that the 20th century saw: two world wars, politics, history, philosophy, psychology, education, human dignity, feminism, Church, Judaism, atheism, – this list could go on forever. Edith studied, wrote about, and engaged with all these subjects and so much more. Today people read and study Edith Stein from a great variety of backgrounds and interests. However, the critical question remains: Who is Edith?
“She ran to Carmel, singing for joy, like a child to its mother’s arms”. These are the words of her spiritual director Abbot Walzer OSB. Edith was very close to, and greatly influenced by, her mother Auguste Stein [nee Courant]. However, the words of Abbot Walzer carry a deeper truth. It was in Carmel that Edith discovered her deepest identity and received the nourishment her heart, mind, and spirit longed for. Entering Cologne Carmel was truly a “coming home” for Edith; Abbot Walzer’s words capture the deeper truth of who Edith really is. The most significant and life changing moment of Ediths’ life was her reading of St. Teresa of Avila’s book called “Life” in the summer of 1921. From that moment on Edith knows she is a daughter of Teresa and that it is in Teresa’s wisdom and teaching that she will find the meaning and purpose of her life.
Edith was baptised January 1st ,1922, but she will have to wait until October 14th, 1933, before she can fulfil her destiny and enter the Carmel of Cologne. When Edith read Teresa she also discovered the meaning and purpose of everything she had lived, and worked for, up until then. We can apply Edith’s own words to herself: “God is Truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not”. Edith has been searching for truth all her life, truth was always very important to her, it was the object of all her study and research. Even though she was for many years “a convinced atheist” her eyes are now opened to the fact that it was really God that her heart and mind were hungering for. This is what Teresa’s experience and teaching showed her. From now on Edith cannot live without what Teresa has given her – in the true sense of conversion she says “yes” to what she cannot say “no” to.
She captures the heart of her new life very well in these words: “We thus fulfill our Rule [of St. Albert] when we hold the image of the Lord continually before our eyes in order to make ourselves like Him. We can never finish studying the Gospels…. To stand before the face of God continues to be the real content of our lives”.
Fr. Matthew Blake, OCD