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Saint Edith Stein: A Spiritual Portrait Paperback – August 1, 2008
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The author explores the three pillars of the saint's spirituality,
namely: the Eucharist of the Body and Blood of Christ our God; the
Blessed Mother of God; and the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.
The author quotes abundantly from the saint's own writings. I could
have done without the author closing the book with one of her own poems.
But that is a minor quibble with a book that leads to a much greater
understanding of one of the most important saints of the 20th century.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.
Born on Yom Kippur, the Day Attonement in 1891 to deeply devout orthodox Jewish parents, Edith, the last of eleven children, was held in especially high regard by her mother, Frau Stein. Gifted with empathy and a penetrating intelligence, she could be conversant on a wide range of topics. But that intellectual savvy eventually made her dismiss the tenets of her Jewish faith and thus led to her embracement of atheism. In spite of her nihilism, she was moved by the horrors of World War I to volunteer as a nursing assistant in a hospital, trying to slow down and help eradicate the decimation caused by disease. But underneath all that, she was always questing for truth, a higher source of knowledge whereby everything had a relationship or an interconnectedness of some sort. With her impeccable learnedness, she eventually wound up as a student at the University of Breslau and then later received her P.h.D. from the University of Freiburg, studying under and than later apprenticed to the eminent phenomenologist creator, Edmund Husserl. She thrived and was front and center with some of the greatest philosophical minds and thinkers of the century. Nonetheless, there was still a void, a beguilement that afflicted her. Instead of broadening her mind, the endless investigating and analysis into truth only narrowed her purview. For all her learning and looking, she was, in a sense, limited, for as St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” She could only see life through the lens of books and the occasional suitor to whom she might have had an affection for.
After reading the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, found in the library of her friend, fellow philosopher and eventual godmother, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Edith Stein had an epiphany. She found truth or came as close to it as she ever thought she would. It was the tipping point that led her to belief and helped in her conversion to Catholicism. After that experience, Edith Stein’s life would never be the same. Traflet does a very good job in creating a timeline of Edith Stein’s life, expertly writing about the assorted inroads that Edith took after her conversion: Her writing, her lecturing, the sought after demands for her. She had become a famed Catholic apologist (if I may be so bold), akin to people like G.K. Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis (though not Catholic), Karl Keating, Lorraine Murray and Scott and Kimberly Hahn. She did what they did and do: She evangelized. Here her intellectual acumen could be used to their fullest and most purposeful extent. Her vocation was gradually becoming firm. Yet, as the Nazis gradually took a stronger hold over Germany, the tightening grip over the Jewish people was becoming increasingly palpable. Even though she was a Catholic convert, Edith Stein was also a Daughter of Israel. She too could feel the danger. As she probed more into the Catholic-Christian faith, Edith felt a supernatural pull, a calling, to lead a more intimate life of that which she was teaching. However, the convert’s zeal needed to be tempered. Fortunately, she always had wise council. One of the most interesting aspects that Diane Marie Traflet captures is the relationship between Frau Stein and her daughter, a dynamic that I don’t think is always fully analyzed. Traflet’s portrait is very good in the sense that she gives a detailed account of a before and after presentation to the reader. By fully immersing the reader into Edith Stein’s life before her conversion, it will make a doubter marvel at the life after her conversion. It will give one pause for thought: Something truly remarkable happened. She was, without question, the recipient of a Divine interior grace, a miracle that carried her forward all the way to religious life and then down onto her martyrdom where she died for her people. Auschwitz was her Golgotha. In saintly iconography, Edith Sten, known in religion as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD, is often depicted with the Jewish Star of David and the Holy Eucharist, each emblematic of the Old and New Testament. When she became Catholic, she could see the idea of the Cross in consideration of her Jewishness and vice versa. Her life was full circle.
The first miracle that made Edith Stein a saint (for me) is that while she was in the concentration camp, she offered herself fully and completely to those who were scared and uncertain. She acted as a mother-like the Blessed Mother-available and strong. And she died for the truth that never dies. The medical miracle that officially got her canonized is best expressed by Wikipedia: Edith Stein was beatified as a martyr on 1 May 1987 in Cologne, Germany by Pope John Paul II and then canonized by him 11 years later on 11 October 1998 in Vatican City. The miracle that was the basis for her canonization was the cure of Teresa Benedicta McCarthy, a little girl who had swallowed a large amount of paracetamol (acetaminophen), which causes hepatic necrosis. The young girl's father, Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, immediately rounded up relatives and prayed for St. Teresa's intercession. Shortly thereafter the nurses in the intensive care unit saw her sit up completely healthy. Dr. Ronald Kleinman, a pediatric specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who treated Teresa Benedicta, testified about her recovery to Church tribunals, stating: "I was willing to say that it was miraculous." McCarthy would later attend St. Teresa's canonization.
This was a great read and a wonderfully solid introduction, I think, to Edith Stien’s own written books (in no chronological order): The Science of the Cross, Life in a Jewish Family, Finite and Eternal Being, etc.