Stein is one of those people whose entire life seems to be a sign. She
was born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in 1891 in Breslau,
Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the youngest of eleven children in a devout
When she was not yet two years old her father died suddenly, leaving Edithís mother to raise the seven remaining children (four had died in childhood) and to manage the family business. Brought up on the Psalms and Proverbs, Stein considered her mother a living example of the strong woman of Proverbs 31, who rises early to care for her family and trade in the marketplace. By her teenage years, Stein no longer practiced her Jewish faith and considered herself an atheist, but she continued to admire her motherís attitude of total openness toward God.
Like many before and since, Edith Stein came to Christianity through the study of philosophy. One of the first women to be admitted to university studies in Germany, she moved from the University of Breslau to the University of Göttingen in order to study with Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Steinís philosophical studies encouraged her openness to the possibility of transcendent realities, and her atheism began to crumble under the influence of her friends who had converted to Christianity
|During the summer
of 1921, at the age of twenty-nine, Stein was vacationing with friends
but found herself alone for the evening. She picked up, seemingly by chance,
the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite Order.
She read it in one sitting, decided that the Catholic faith was true, and
went out the next day to buy a missal and a copy of the Catholic catechism.
She was baptized the following January, but her desire immediately to enter
the Carmelites was delayed for a time. Her advisers saw that her conversion
and claustration would be a double blow to her mother, and they knew the
Church could benefit enormously from her contributions as a speaker and
Stein eventually became a leading voice in the Catholic Womenís Movement in Germany, speaking at conferences and helping to formulate the principles behind the movement. By the time Hitler rose to power in early 1933, Stein was well-known in the German academic community. Hitlerís growing popularity, and the increasing pressure on the Jewish people, prompted her to request an audience with the pope in the spring of 1933. She hoped that a special encyclical might help counteract the mounting tide of anti-Semitism.
due to bureaucratic confusion, her request was not granted. By March of
that year, Steinís colleagues at the Educational Institute in Münster
realized that they could protect her no longer, and so offered her a teaching
position in South America. Since this would mean that her mother, now eighty-four,
would never see her again, Stein felt that the time had come to fulfill
her long-standing desire to enter religious life.
While on a trip during Holy Week of 1933, Edith stopped in Cologne at the Carmelite convent during the service for Holy Thursday. She attended it with a friend, and by her own account, the homily moved her very deeply. She wrote:
I told [our Lord] that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.
On October 15, just after her forty-second birthday, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.