Anyone who has ever struggled with their faith will find a friend and guide in St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Those who have born persecution will find inspiration and comfort in her. All humanity is upheld in her holy prayers.
She was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany during Yom Kippur in 1898 and given the name Edith Stein. Edith, which means "Great War," would prove to hold a dark irony for this saint.
Edith's father died when she was two, and her admirable and faithful mother managed to raise her 11 children while running the family's timber business. Despite her mother's faith, Edith, while still a young child, "consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying."
Edith was a passionate and brilliant scholar, particularly interested in philosophy and women's rights issues. In her youth, she was a fiery suffragette, though she later abandoned the movement. During World War I, Edith served in the typhus ward of a field hospital, and after the war, returned to academia. In 1917, she graduated summa cum laude (again), this time with a doctorate. Her doctoral thesis was entitled, "The Problem of Empathy."
Through certain friendships, Edith became intrigued by "the Cross." Yet, for years, she ignored these gentle proddings to faith. Instead, she single-mindedly sought a professorship. However, her way was barred, first because of her gender, and later because she was a Jew. She went back to Breslau and wrote on the philosophy of pyschology (weighty stuff). In her studies, she read the New Testament, Kierkegaard, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. But, when she picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, she proclaimed, "This is the truth."
On 1 January 1922 Edith Stein was baptized. After her conversion, Edith once wrote, "I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God." Her conversion had brought her to faith in Christ, but it had also given her back her Jewish identity.
Immediately, Edith wanted to join the Carmelite Order, but her spiritual mentor urged her to wait. She had many lessons in faith to learn first. Meanwhile, she worked tirelessly translating the pre-conversion letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas' Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. In doing this work, she discovered that scholarship was not some worldy thing that needed to be renounced but was, in fact, "a service to God."
After being summarily rejected for professorships wherever she sought them, Edith took up a post as a lecturer in the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munst. And then in 1933, Hitler became Chancellor.
"I had heard," Edith wrote, "of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine."
That same year, Edith was permitted by her bishop to join the Carmelites. Her last day at home was her birthday, and her mother cried and could not understand why she chose to follow this Jesus. "I don't want to say anything against him. He may have been a very good person. But why did he make himself God?" There were no words that brilliant Edith could find to explain, and she left home with a heavy heart, but she entered the convent with a profound sense of peace. Here, she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
On 21 April 1938, Teresa made her final profession. She did not see the Carmelite vocation as escapism. Instead, she saw it as the most profound way to serve God and others in this life where she was now "a stranger in the world" and where things seemed to be terrifically out of control. "I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort."
On New Year's Eve 1938, Teresa was smuggled across the border into the Netherlands, to the Carmelite Convent in Echt. It was here that Teresa completed her final work, "The Church's Teacher of Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1542-1942," in haste. Here, she also wrote her will, which states, "I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death ... so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world."
Teresa was arrested by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942 while at chapel, along with another sister convert, Rosa. Her last words at Echt were addressed to Rosa: "Come, we are going for our people."
Teresa was taken to a transit camp in Amersfoort and then to Westerbork. She wrote, "I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. ... I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress."
Early in the morning of August 7th, Teresa was deported with nearly 1,000 other Jews to Auscwitz. There, she was gassed. Cologne on 1 May 1987, the Church honoured "a daughter of Israel." Pope John Paul, a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Poland himself, said of Teresa that she "as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness."
Her feast day is August 9th. She is the patron of Europe, loss of parents, martyrs, and World Youth Day.
St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, pray for us.