Edith Stein’s conversion was not like Paul’s, sudden and dramatic. It was more like Augustine’s or John Henry Cardinal Newman’s: gradual, interior, accompanied by a good deal of intellectual wrestling. One night, while staying with friends outside Freiburg, Edith searched through their library looking for something to divert her for the evening.
She came upon Saint Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. She took the book off the shelf and stayed up all night reading it. The next morning she put down the text and declared simply, “That is the truth.” What precisely impressed her about the book is impossible to say. When pressed on the matter later, Edith replied, secretum meum mihi (that is my secret). It seems fair to conclude that the reading of Teresa’s Life was that galvanizing moment, the occasion for all of the strands to come together…
Robert Barron, Catholicism
One of the lectures which Edith Stein gave during these years at Speyer dealt with the topic, “The Intellect and the Intellectuals,” based on Aquinas. She gave many lectures on Aquinas, as well as on the woman, at conferences and over the radio. These were attended not only by women but by men; in fact, by priests. She became what has been termed “the intellectual leader” of the Catholic Women’s Movement in Europe during the years 1928 to 1933, which ended, of course, when Hitler became Reich Chancellor of Germany.
Edith Stein had wanted to become a religious, and when she came to Speyer this was the closest to the real thing. It was a Catholic atmosphere of prayer and seclusion. One can imagine that she took on this humble post as a gesture of total self-giving and great generosity of soul as thanks for her gift of faith. We can imagine the fervor of our new convert. And in this she exemplifies the consecrated single woman in the world.
Edith has written, “Virginity is the highest positive. This means a life of partnership with Christ, marked by radiant joy, an obvious unselfishness, an inner peace which cannot be destroyed by any outer vicissitude, by the rapture with which one lives the Christian life.” The deepest and most spiritual concept of purity is to be free of all bonds to oneself or to another; rather, it is to love Christ above all things, not only in mind and heart but in the exercise of daily life. These words of Edith are taken from Essays on Woman, a collection of the lectures she gave during these years as a laywoman (Stein, Essays, 227, 203).
We are told by the nuns of Speyer about the kind of life she led there. We have said that through baptism, Edith was created a new person. What kind of person was she?
During the years Edith lived at this convent, St. Magdalena, she occupied a small room which was set up like a nun’s cell. This room bearing her name is kept in her memory. Near a large cut-off crucifix there is a large portrait of Edith showing her face as mature, very quiet, with a recollected expression; her eyes seem to follow the beholder. Her hands are folded, giving the impression of a prayerful, meditative person. (See further in Edith Stein zum Gedanken).
Certainly, Edith spent a great deal of time there in prayer.
She worked and prayed, in keeping with the Benedictine motto. And, indeed, she was very devoted to the Benedictine liturgy, a love which remained with her always. She went to the Benedictine Abbey in Beuron for the holy seasons of Christmas and Easter. The Abbot there, Raphael Walzer, became her spiritual director after Canon Schwind’s death. One can see the influence of these three great orders on Edith: the Dominican, the Benedictine and the Carmelite; her friend Father Erich Przywara writes that she is the fruit of all three.
Although her director cautioned her against staying up all night in prayer, she did — many full nights. She prayed much and asked others to pray for her. Her philosophy was that the more you are drawn into the inner life, the more you extend yourself out to the world in order to spend this love for God.
At Speyer, Edith Stein matured in faith. She integrated herself into the lifestyle of the convent. Although she was a well-known figure, her day was like that of her colleagues. The memories of her colleagues and students recall her as a woman of great magnetism; she radiated intelligence and spirit. Her nature was gentle, dignified and distinguished. At the same time, she expressed modesty and humility. She never tried to bring acclaim to herself or to put herself in the limelight.
Her teaching method was fastidious. She gave a lot, knew a lot, and asked for a lot from her students — above all, she asked for discipline. A strict grader, she was nonetheless just and compassionate. Her lectures conveyed knowledge above all things. But Christ was the measure of her action; she brought Him and her faith in Him into the classroom. All that she taught was centered on Christ, the Truth.
Through this empowerment, she became a good and friendly teacher, conducting herself with utter good-will, understanding, trust, and great magnanimity towards these young people. She had one concept which she set as an uncompromising orientation concerning love for neighbor: this was, “spiritual need breaks through every rule.“ She had no preconceived opinions when people came to her for advice, and, as they had come to her grandmother Adelheid, many did come to Edith. She was particularly interested in the less gifted, shy and socially disadvantaged of her pupils.
Yet she remained objective and detached. Many wrote to her for advice, also. To one young girl, Edith answered that if she really wanted to improve spiritually, she would realize that Edith can’t come running to her regardless of her own situation.
Surely, she was no pushover! She cautioned another student to cite Edith as source if she does use Edith’s article.
On the other hand, she is very humble. To a priest who called her attention to several insufficiencies in the newly published Truth which Edith had translated, she answered: “No one could be more convinced than I am that others would have been better qualified for this work…. Perhaps just such an unsuspecting little David had to attack Goliath in order to give stimulus to the heavily armored knights” (Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942, 115). Her humor, serenity, patience, and sanctity are clearly evident in these letters.
What is amazing is that during these years, she was able to achieve so much intellectual work in the little cell she occupied. She seems to have been indefatigable. And yet she writes, “I do not use extraordinary means to prolong my workday. I do as much as I can. The ability to accomplish increases noticeably in proportion to the number of things that must be done. When there’s nothing urgent at hand, it ceases much sooner. Heaven is expert at economy” (Stein, S-P, 72).
But even for her, work became so heavy that she was pressed to give up her post as teacher and to give herself totally to writing and lecturing. Finally, she left Speyer on March 26, 1931.
During the next year, she devoted herself to lecturing and correcting the galleys of her translation of Truth. Among other things, she worked on Act and Potency which she hoped to make her habilitation, but again she was unable to locate a university position. Finally, in the spring of 1932, she was offered the chair in pedagogy at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster and she accepted.
Here she was to establish a system of Catholic education for the young woman, based on an understanding of her psyche and destiny. Stein’s first lectures were on the structure of the person.
And it is now, in 1932, that she goes to France for the Thomistic conference. They tell of a beautiful incident where she sits talking outside the Sacred Heart Church in Montmartre with two of the philosophers, Koyre and a priest, Father Feuling. The latter writes that Edith and Koyre were speaking of Jewish philosophers: Husserl, Bergson, and Myerson. He is another of ours’ was a constantly recurring phrase. It amused me a little to hear the way Koyre and Edith Stein, speaking of Jews and Jewish matters, would simply say ‘we’. I had a vivid impression of that blood-brotherhood which was so strong in Edith, as formerly in St. Paul…, Then I was a little naughty, and asked with a serious air, ‘And where are you banishing me?’ They looked at me in great concern and asked ‘Are you one of us, too?’ until I assured them of the contrary” (Posselt, 111).
During this period at Munster, Edith took a course especially designed for her by a young Johannes Quasten, the priest who was to become the patristics scholar of our century. She apologized to him for not knowing enough Latin and Greek, and this was just after the appearance of her translation of Truth from the Latin. The course he gave to her was the educational doctrine of St. John Chrysostom, which of course Edith was most interested in for her work. Together they read his tract on Educating Young Children.
At Munster, Edith was experiencing a growing difficulty living in the world, because she was reaching more and more for solitude and the contemplative life. She had an uneasy feeling that she might be making her colleagues a bit uncomfortable.
She is gladdened by the assurance from her friend, Mother Petra, that wearing a habit is not necessarily a prerequisite for the religious life. To another religious friend, Sister Adelgundis, Edith writes of Therese of Lisieux: “My impression was simply that there the life of a human being has been formed entirely, from first to last, only and exclusively by the love of God. I know nothing more sublime, and I would wish to have as much of that as possible in my own life and in the lives of all who are near to me” (S-P, 137).
She lived a Eucharistic life. She spent hours before the tabernacle: “Dogmatically, I believe the matter is very clear: the Lord is present in the tabernacle in his divinity and in his humanity. He is not present for his own sake but for ours: it is his delight to be with the ‘children of men’. He knows, too, that, being what we are, we need his personal nearness. In consequence, every thoughtful and sensitive person will feel attracted and will be there as often and as long as possible” (S- P. 114).
Again, “Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depths in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart” (Stein, Essays, 56).
Edith was to need this strengthening. Hitler became Reich Chancellor in January, 1933. Edith was experiencing growing difficulties with a small group of students who were Nazi sympathizers. Then an incident occurred early in 1933 when she was locked out one night by what she thinks was an accident. She was invited to the home of a colleague to spend the night. There she heard stories, relayed through the American press, about the persecution of the Jews.
She writes, “I had indeed already heard of severe measures being taken against the Jews. But now on a sudden it was luminously clear to me that once again God’s hand lay heavy on His people, and that the destiny of this people was my own” (Posselt, 117). Let us remember that Edith had said, after her baptism she felt Jewish again. She was undoubtedly sure that the Father of Christ was also the Father of Israel.
After Hitler’s first economic boycott of the Jews on April 1st, 1933, Edith immediately realized the terrible implications. She decided to seek a private audience with Pope Pius XI to ask him to issue an Encyclical denouncing the anti-Semitism of National Socialism. But first she wanted to get permission to do this from her spiritual advisor in Beuron, where she was going for Easter. On her way there, she stopped at the Cologne Carmel for a Holy Hour on the Eve of First Friday. She writes,
I spoke to our Savior and told Him that I knew that it was His Cross which was now being laid on the Jewish people. Most of them did not understand it; but those who did understand must accept it willingly in the name of all. I wanted to do that, let Him only show me how. When the service was over I had an interior conviction that I had been heard. But in what the bearing of the cross was to consist I did not yet know (Posselt, 118).
She went on to Beuron. She had already been informed that a private audience with the Pope was not possible. So she wrote a letter to the Holy Father, cautioning that what would happen to Jews would happen to Catholics as well. The Abbot took the letter and relayed it to the Vatican that month. In reply, Edith received a blessing for her and her family.
Her last lecture before this Easter holiday had been on February 25th. When she returned to Munster, she found that her teaching position was gone. The Institute was Catholic, and they did invite her to stay for research during the summer. The crisis in her life, as for all in Germany, escalated. Looking back at that time later, she writes to a friend: “‘We know that for those who love him, God turns everything to the good’ (Romans 8:28).
That phrase I quoted from the Letter to the Romans afforded me the greatest comfort and joy during the summer of 1933 in Munster, when my future was still shrouded in total darkness. Never have I prayed the Divine Office of the Martyrs, which recurs so frequently during the Easter cycle, with greater fervor than I did at that time” (S-P, 235).
Now she wondered if, after almost twelve years since her baptism, she might not now be free to enter the religious life. On the 30th of April, she went to St. Ludgeri Church where they were observing thirteen straight hours of devotion to the Good Shepherd. She promised herself not to leave until she had made a decision. She writes, “As the final blessing was given, I received the Good Shepherd’s consent” (Posselt, 120).
She knew now that she had to carry the cross laid on the Jews and that she had to share their destiny. She knew that she had to spend her life in the prayer of expiation for the sins being shed and for the safety of the humanity she so loved. Carmel was the place for her. Teresa was the final inspiration which had carried her into the Church. But to Edith, Carmel excels as an Order because of its joyous reception of the Crucified Christ.
Perhaps at the time of her entry, Edith was not aware of the Jewish ancestry of St. Teresa of Avila. Although it was not spread abroad, the Carmelites did know of it. Teresa’s paternal grandfather was Juan Sanchez (1440-1507), a wealthy textile merchant who lived in Toledo. After converting to Christianity, he reneged and raised his sons in Judaism. Remember, this was the time of the Inquisition. Offered an opportunity for absolution, he confessed to heresy and apostasy. For penance he was compelled to walk each Friday for seven weeks, wearing the yellow tunic of the Judaiser. Teresa’s father at the age of four walked with him.
This was in 1484. Teresa’s grandfather avoided bankruptcy but he was ruined socially. Although canon law stipulated that baptism is irrevocable, there was such stigma attached to Judaism that the conversos could not act as public officials, members of religious orders, students at a university, or even tax collectors. Her grandfather moved to Avila. His wife was of pure stock, called Old Christian, and he attached her name to his, becoming Juan Sanchez de Cepeda. And in 1500, his purchase of a certificate of pure blood allowed him to take on the status of a nobleman. He was able to arrange marriages for his sons with daughters of Old Christian families, Teresa’s mother among them.
Whether Edith knew all this before or after her entry into Carmel, it must have occurred to her that the persecution of the Jews in Spain in the 15th century resembled that of National Socialism.
But now a real agony awaited Edith. To her mother, conversion itself was a problem, for Augusta believed that one should stay in the faith into which one is born. Edith was to be home for two months before entering Carmel, and her family had to be told. Our reserved Edith had only now told one or two persons of her plans.
When Edith returned home, she asked her mother to share memories with her: memories of the Stein family life, of her own Courant family as a young girl, of her husband’s parental line, and of their entire family life as community. Edith had decided to write all this in order to present a true picture of Jewish humanity to combat the current Nazi caricature of the Jews. This provided the beginning of Edith’s autobiography of her youth, Life in a Jewish Familij.
Those days must have been a time of tender bonding for Edith and Augusta, these two women who loved each other so deeply. But the joy and peace were shattered quickly. Two weeks after her return, her mother said to her, “What are you going to do with the sisters in Cologne?” “Live with them,” Edith answered. This was met by “desperate resistance.” For her mother, it was the worst thing possible that could ever happen. Not only did this agony appear as an “inconceivable cruelty” at the very time that Hitler was persecuting the Jews; but now that Augusta was 84 years old and no longer traveled, she knew she would never see her child again.
The other family members, except for Rosa, were also aghast. Even her little niece Susel, aged 12, meeting her alone, confronted her with, “Why are you doing this now?” (Posselt, 129). Edith spoke to her as to an adult, explaining that she was not abandoning her Jewish heritage, that she was still Jewish, that nothing was changed between them; and the convent walls would not protect her from any persecution against the Jews. Susel writes that they all continued to love her, but now a rift separated them.
The pain of Edith’s family was her cross. For her, it was a “deep abyss” separating her from her usual inner peace. A few days before she left her home forever, she wrote to a friend, Gertrud von le Fort: “You will help me, won’t you, to beg that my mother will be given the strength to bear the leave-taking, and the light to understand it” (S-P, 158).
But Edith knew that “…suffering borne in union with the Lord is his suffering, incorporated in the great work of salvation and made fruitful therein.” She had chosen to enter Carmel for this work. Her family did not understand that her love for them and for all the Jews was now separating them.
Edith’s last day with her family was her forty-second birthday, October 12, 1933. The next morning, Edith went as usual at 5:30 for the first Mass at St. Michael’s Church. At breakfast, her mother could not eat; she started to cry. Edith went to her and held her until it was time to go. Her noble mother kissed her very tenderly, but as Edith left, Augusta wept aloud.
Only Rosa and Elsa saw Edith off to the train. When the train went past their house, no one was at the window waving, as there had always been in the past. Edith writes, “So what I had hardly dared to hope for was now real. There could be no violent access of joy. All that lay behind me was too terrible for that. But I was in deep peace — in the haven of the Divine Will” (Posselt, 131).