“We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting … and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God.” These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.
Who was this woman?
Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11, as her family were celebrating Yom Kippur, that most important Jewish festival, the Feast of Atonement. “More than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her mother.” Being born on this day was like a foreshadowing to Edith, a future Carmelite nun.
Edith’s father, who ran a timber business, died when she had only just turned two. Her mother, a very devout, hard-working, strong-willed and truly wonderful woman, now had to fend for herself and to look after the family and their large business. However, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. Edith lost her faith in God. “I consciously decided, of my own volition, to give up praying,” she said.
In 1911 she passed her school-leaving exam with flying colours and enrolled at the University of Breslau to study German and history, though this was a mere “bread-and-butter” choice. Her real interest was in philosophy and in women’s issues. She became a member of the Prussian Society for Women’s Franchise. “When I was at school and during my first years at university,” she wrote later, “I was a radical suffragette. Then I lost interest in the whole issue. Now I am looking for purely pragmatic solutions.”
In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to G6ttingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl’s new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception. His pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: “back to things”. Husserl’s phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In Gottingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, she did not neglect her “bread-and-butter” studies and passed her degree with distinction in January 1915, though she did not follow it up with teacher training. [more]