St. Teresa Benedicta: A life of the mind

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of remark­able women whose works have contributed to or had influence on Church doctrine and theology.


In a time when people are lost and in search of something to believe in, the life and words of a German-born Carmelite nun who became a martyr during World War II, then a saint, seem particularly relevant.

She is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, more commonly known by her given name, Edith Stein.

Her life story is inspiring, in part because of her spiritual journey and her determination to stand up against the horrors of the Nazi regime.

saint_edith_stein-webBefore she became a Catholic, Stein also began a remarkable intellectual journey on a search for ultimate truth that led her to become one of the leading female voices in modern philosophy.

This multi-faceted saint has been the subject of deep study for many years for Sister Judith Parsons, a Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and associate professor of philosophy at Immaculata Univer­sity in Immaculata, Pa.

Sister Judith discovered Stein and her writings while studying philosophy at Duquesne Univer­sity in Pittsburgh. She found the saint remarkable both for her life of holiness and her life of the mind. Stein’s writings on the subject of philosophy, the search for God, and the ethics of human relationships remain some of the most groundbreaking written by a woman saint.

“Her authenticity and her ability to consider different perspectives are two of the most important things about Edith Stein,” Sister Judith said. “She is relevant to our time because of her search for truth. She was willing to be respectful and open, to consider different perspectives, but always came back to the important point of living our lives for God.”


Discovering Catholicism

Stein was born in 1891 in Germa­ny and raised in a Jewish family. However, she was an avowed athe­ist by the time she was a teenager. She grew up with a love of learn­ing and studied at universities in Breslau and Freiburg. In 1915, she volunteered as a nurse with the Red Cross, and it was there that she began delving into deep consideration on empathy and the common spiritual bonds of all humanity, which would continue throughout her life.

She eventually received a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Freiburg, where she assisted and worked with Edmund Husserl, founder of the school of philosophy known as phenomenol­ogy, the study of human experi­ence and consciousness.

During her university years, Stein became interested in the Catholic faith after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and she joined the Church in 1922.


Living and dying for faith

19981011_teresa_benedetta_della_croce-webAfter her conversion, she spent several years as a translator, writer and teacher, and her philo­sophical writings were celebrated in Catholic circles. Her work was curtailed by the rise of the Nazi regime, and at the same time, she felt a calling to religious life. Stein joined a cloistered Carmelite com­munity and professed her vows in 1935. Because of her Jewish heri­tage, she realized she was a danger to her community and received permission to secretly transfer to a community in Holland.

After the Nazis invaded Holland, all Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested and Stein was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in August 1942.

St. John Paul II beatified her as a martyr in 1987, and then canon­ized her St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on Oct. 11, 1998. She is one of six patron saints of Europe.

There was some controversy when she was beatified by the Church because critics claimed she was killed in the concentra­tion camp because of her Jewish heritage, not her Catholic faith. The Church maintained that she died not only because of her heritage, but because she and the Church in Holland condemned the Nazi regime.


Writing for God

Over the years, Stein’s writings, which include “Finite and Eternal Being” and “The Science of the Cross,” have become some of the most respected works in modern Catholic philosophy. Modern scholars speculate that she may be named a doctor of the Church, an honor given to saints whose writ­ings or teachings are considered especially important.

Stein used her mastery of phe­nomenology to explore the nature of the human person, and the diffi­culties of dealing with the tension between the earthly world and the search for the transcendent, a rela­tionship with God. She explored in depth the unique dignity of each human person and the essence of the soul, the unique spark of God’s creation that makes each person unique in body and spirit.

“From the time she was a young woman, she had a great desire to find truth, and her philosophical studies gave her the tools to look for that truth,” Sister Judith said. “Stein says if we use our gifts with Christ, if we are co-creators with Christ, then we can bring about the new creation. It’s a hopeful but responsible way of looking at our faith. We can’t just sit back, but must use whatever circum­stances God has placed us in to bring about the kingdom of God … I think she tried to use her own unique gifts as a scholar and as a speaker to women to bring about God’s kingdom. She did not take that responsibility lightly.”


Further reading

Sister Judith suggested a few books as an introduction to the life and philosophy of Edith Stein:

“Self-Portrait in Letters” by Edith Stein

“Life in a Jewish Family”, Her Unfinished Autobiographical Account, collected works of Edith Stein Volume 1, by Edith Stein.

“Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heri­tage of a Catholic Saint” by Susanne Batzdorff (Edith Stein’s niece)