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The Choice of Silence: The life of Edith Stein: Jewess, philosopher, convert, nun and saint

posted Aug 20, 2015, 10:17 AM by Vidal Martinez

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein.



A candleholder with seven branches. A Baby Jesus in a manger. Handwritten translations of Thomas Aquinas. An urn containing earth from Auschwitz.
These four objects, among many others on display in the little museum of the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalena in Speyer, Germany, sum up Edith Stein's exceptional destiny.

How could one of the most brilliant philosophers of her generation, born into an observant Jewish family in Silesia, join the Carmelites and die in the gas chambers, a victim of the Holocaust and a witness to Christ?  To be sure, the call to leave everything for a cloistered life always holds a certain mystery, Edith Stein described it as a “secret."
“Not because she refused to talk about it, but because she was overwhelmed by it,” explains Bénédicte Bouillot, a consecrated celibate of the Chemin-Neuf community and philosophy teacher at the Sèvres Centre in Paris and the Chemin-Neuf Studium in Chartres, whose thesis on Edith Stein has just been published.
Yet for Stein, this vocation at age 42 was more surprising, even though it was part of a slow inner maturation.

 A professor of philosophy at age 26, Edith Stein was close to the main members of the phenomenological movement, Edmund Husserl, Adolf Reinach and Max Scheler. During World War One Stein was struck by the reaction of Pauline Reinach to her husband's death at the front: far from being crushed, Madame Reinach was buoyed by her faith in the resurrection.

“It was Edith Stein’s first brush with the glorious cross, but she had not yet encountered the Crucified,” declares Bénédicte Bouillot. That encounter was to occur through Teresa of Avila. Stein read Teresa’s The book of My Life at 30, during a stay with another Christian friend.   At that moment, she decided to ask to be baptized … an event that took place a few months later, in January 1922.

For her family, this “conversion” was especially painful because, instead of choosing Protestantism, which seemed logical given her intellectual circle, she chose Catholicism, which at the time was seen as full of traditions that were incompatible with the demands of rationalism.

In reality, Stein discovered that Catholic anthropology was deeply consistent with the philosophy of the person that she had begun to develop. At the same time, for Stein, the choice of the Catholic Church corresponded to humbling herself, an act of humility.  As soon as she encountered Christ, she knew that God had reserved a place for her in the Carmelite Order, Stein explained inHow I came to the Carmel in Cologne?, which she gave to her mistress of novices as a gift in 1933.

Stein felt she had already experienced an inner consecration, but on the advice of her spiritual advisor she gave up the idea of becoming a Carmelite immediately and went to Speyer to teach German and history at the women’s teaching college of the Convent of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Magdalena, participating in the life of the religious community.
In her free time, she undertook the German translation of John Henry Newman, and then, encouraged by the Jesuit philosopher Erich Przywara, of St. Thomas Aquinas’ De veritate – the first time the work appeared in German.

“In reading St. Thomas, I realized it was possible to use knowledge to serve God and it was only then that I was able to resolve seriously to go back to my work. It seemed to me that the more a person is drawn to God, the more he or she must go outside the self and bring divine love to the world,” Edith Stein was to write later on to explain the close connection between Thomism and modern philosophy, particularly phenomenology.

For eleven years in Speyer, Edith Stein carried her Carmelite vocation in her heart, waiting for the right time. In 1933, deprived of the right to speak in public by the Nazi regime, she knocked on the door of the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, profoundly convinced that, as she put it, “above this world in flames stands a cross that nothing can consume.” 

 
The Carmelite monasteries of Cologne and Echt

The German Carmelite monastery in Cologne where Edith Stein entered the order in 1933 was totally destroyed by bombing in October 1943 and no longer exists. A new monastery was rebuilt in Cologne in 1949, not far from the cathedral, on the site of its original foundation dating back to 1637. Some fifteen Carmelites live there today.
On the other hand, the Carmelite monastery in Echt, in the province of Limburg in the Netherlands, where Edith Stein lived from 1939 to 1942, still exists. A room outside the cloister, which was reserved for her because she continued to receive visits, has been turned into a little museum with personal objects of the Carmelite. Her cowl and her doctoral degree signed by her thesis director, Edmund Husserl, are preserved in the parish church of Echt nearby.


Claire Lesegretain


 







 









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