Edith Stein: Seized by the Truth, Martyred for Love

‘St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love,’ said Pope St. John Paul II. ‘And do not accept anything as love that lacks truth.’

Edith Stein poses for a photo in Breslau (Wrocław), Poland, between 1913 and 1914
Edith Stein poses for a photo in Breslau (Wrocław), Poland, between 1913 and 1914 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I love the saints. Some of them baffle me and some of them seem hopelessly unrelatable, aside from their love for Christ. Then there are those whose lives take my breath away. I have greedily devoured their biographies and pored over their writings, underlining and annotating until their words are emblazoned on my heart. They are the friends in heaven to whom I turn over and over, entrusting to them my fears and hopes to hold in their hands before the throne of the Father.

When my closest friend first introduced me to St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known also by her given name Edith Stein, in college, I could not stop learning about her and from her. Edith’s story alone is compelling. A Jewish girl born in 1891 and raised in Germany by her iron-willed mother, who somehow raised 11 children by herself following her husband’s death, Edith rejected God as an adolescent. Despite retaining the cultural practices of her people, she boldly declared herself an atheist. Fortunately for Edith, and for all of us, God had given her a formidable intellect, a massive capacity for love, and an insatiable desire for truth. She earned her doctorate in philosophy, only taking a brief break from her studies to serve as a nurse with the Red Cross during World War I. She maintained her atheism but the unrelenting Hound of Heaven circled ever closer to the future saint’s heart. As her early career expanded her intellectual circles, Edith met more Christians, who impressed her with their faith.

In the summer of 1921, while visiting Protestant friends, she stumbled upon a copy of St. Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography in their private library. Edith read the tome in one night and upon closing the book declared, “This is the truth.” She entered the Catholic Church on New Year’s Day 1922, and 12 years later she took the habit of a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Teresa Benedicta’s conversion story never fails to amaze me. A well-known atheist and Jew, she stood to lose her professional credibility and alienate her family by her decision to convert. Her siblings did not understand her newfound love for Christ and her mother never forgave her for becoming a Christian. Yet her intellectual honesty and her love for truth precluded any other path.

When Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Teresa Benedicta’s canonization Mass in 1998, he said in his homily:

Her mind never tired of searching and her heart always yearned for hope. She traveled the arduous path of philosophy with passionate enthusiasm. Eventually, she was rewarded: she seized the truth. Or better: she was seized by it. Then she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ. From that moment on, the incarnate Word was her One and All.

Teresa Benedicta was not only indefatigable in her search for truth. She fearlessly faced the consequences of her findings. When she determined the truth found in the Church, she immediately cast aside her prior doubts and moved quickly to align her life with her newfound faith. She threw herself headlong into the arms of Jesus and she never looked back, despite accusations from her family that she was abandoning her people and allegations from colleagues that her conversion was an insincere ploy to escape the rising persecution of the Jews.

Twenty years after she joined the Church, and four years after she took her perpetual vows as a Carmelite, Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were arrested by the Gestapo and taken from the convent to which they had fled in the Netherlands. Along with a train full of other Jewish converts to Christianity, they were brought to Auschwitz. Due to her fame as a philosopher, Teresa Benedicta was offered several chances to escape. Each time she refused, choosing to offer her suffering for the people of Germany and her persecuted Jewish brethren. On Aug. 9 she was killed in a gas chamber alongside her sister Rosa and countless others.

Pope St. John Paul II canonized Teresa Benedicta in 1998 and later named her a co-patroness of Europe. In the same homily at her canonization Mass, he praised her ability to unite her pursuit of love with the truth she found in Christ:

In our time, truth is often mistaken for the opinion of the majority. In addition, there is a widespread belief that one should use the truth even against love or vice versa. But truth and love need each other. St. Teresa Benedicta is a witness to this. The ‘martyr for love,’ who gave her life for her friends, let no one surpass her in love. At the same time, with her whole being she sought the truth. … St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love that lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.

Nearly 25 years later, his words, and the witness of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross remain prescient. Truth is under assault, as it has been ever since the Fall, and while the enemy’s tactics may change, the answer is always found in the Cross. St. Teresa Benedicta grasped this on that fateful night in 1921 in her friends’ library. She spent the next twenty-one years, up to and including her final moments in the cattle cars and gas chambers of the Holocaust, using her life to point to the eternal truth found in Christ.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us!