Sept. 5, 2011
The Heroic Faith of Edith Stein
by Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com Family Editor
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8: 35, 37
Whenever life gets difficult or perplexing, I like to read about Christian heroes that came before me to glean some insights and inspiration. So I googled Christian Saints, and discovered that last month, August 9th, was the feast day of German philosopher Edith Stein – also known by her religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I decided to “get to know” this modern Christian convert a little better, and I’m glad I did – it wasn’t a boring read. Here’s a brief summary of her life.
Born in 1891 on the feast of Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of Atonement), she was the 11th child to join her orthodox Jewish family. But she abandoned her Jewish spirituality as a teenager in favor of intellectual atheism. Lacking faith, but gifted with a brilliant mind, she was one of the first women admitted to a German University where she spent many years studying philosophy under respected scholar, Edmund Husserl.
Her quest for truth through philosophy did not allow her to stay an atheist for long, though, and she began to look to religion again. In 1921, after befriending several devout Protestant Christians and reading the autobiography of a Catholic nun, Stein realized all the answers she sought could be found in Christ. She was baptized that year at age 29.
Her life after conversion continued to be one of scholarly endeavors. She used her sharp mind to champion the dignity of women through her writings and teaching, promoting a form of feminism quite different from what most of us would call “feminism” today. Her writings reveal a woman who treasured the unique differences between the sexes and who felt the “maternal gifts” were central to womanhood. But in spite of her love for motherhood, she never married or had biological children although one could argue she became a sort of spiritual “mother” to many.
Stein might have spent the rest of her life studying and teaching, but the darkness brewing in Europe interrupted. In 1933, she was banned from teaching in German universities because of her Jewish heritage.
Deprived of her public life, the unmarried Stein took this opportunity to become a Carmelite nun. For a while, she joyfully spent her days in France, cloistered in prayer and study, growing more in love with Christ and in awe of His Cross.
Sadly, her love for the Cross and contemplations on Christ’s suffering would prove both necessary and prophetic. As World War II heated up, Stein secretly fled to a convent in Holland, fearing that her presence in the French convent would endanger her sisters. But peace in Holland was temporary. The Germans overtook Holland, and Dutch Bishops responded by drafting formal letters -- to be read from every pulpit -- denouncing Nazi persecution of Jews.
The Nazi’s retaliated by rounding up all Christians of Jewish descent for deportation to Auschwitz. Reports say Edith went willingly, assisting Jewish mothers and their children on the terrible journey. On August 9, 1942 Edith and her biological sister, Rosa, died in a gas chamber standing alongside their beloved Jewish brethren.
Edith Stein’s dramatic story is a reminder to me of God’s power and grace, of the amazing things God can accomplish through those who love Him – even someone who spent her early adult years devoid of faith. And while her story may have ended tragically, her life was anything but tragic. She seemed to have a keen sense of Romans 8: 35-37 as reports say she never conveyed much sadness about her sufferings – just sadness for the sufferings of others.
Edith Stein is also a reminder to me of how simple the Christian life really is, no matter how famous or how obscure we are. She sums up the purpose of our days beautifully in this quote:
“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.”
Intersecting Faith & Life: Are you facing a challenge in your life right now? Take heart in knowing that absolutely nothing can separate you from the love of God, and that many believers have walked the road before you and found victory in Christ.