On October 12, 1891 Edith Stein was born in Breslau. As is well-known she was a brilliant student of the philosopher, Edmund Hussserl. She was attracted by the phenomenological method and the quest for the truth of things in themselves. But secretly she sought God.
Visiting friends in the summer of 1921, she came upon a book in their library, Teresa of Avila’s Life. She read through the night and, upon finishing it, she announced simply that she had found the Truth. She was baptized in the Catholic Church on January 1, 1922. Twelve years later she entered the Cologne Carmel and took the name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce.
The liturgical calendar celebrates in the month of October the great Carmelite saints and Doctors of the Church: Therese of Lisieux (October 1st) and Teresa of Avila (October 15th). This year both feasts fall on Sunday and thus we may neglect to honor these remarkable women.
Today’s recollection of the birthday of Edith Stein allows us to pay tribute to the fecund spiritual heritage that passed from one to the other over the span of five centuries. As we struggle to discover ways of contemplation in the midst of our overly frenzied lives, we can learn in the school of Carmel, from the different, yet inspired and always truthful voices of these mothers in the Spirit.
Teresa Benedicta left Cologne and joined the Carmel at Echt in Holland to escape the growing Nazi madness. There, after the Dutch bishops’ Pastoral Letter condemning Nazi racism, she was arrested and deported with her beloved sister, Rosa. They died in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942, the day her liturgical feast is celebrated.
During her last Pentecost in Echt, Teresa Benedicta composed a Pentecost Novena in “Seven Poetic Beams of Light.” I quote the first stanza from the book Edith Stein: Selected Writings, translated by her niece Susanne Batzdorff and published by Templegate.
Who are You, sweet light that fills me
And illumines the darkness of my heart?
You guide me like a mother’s hand,
And if you let me go, I could not take
You are the space
That surrounds and contains my being.
Without You it would sink into the abyss
Of nothingness from which You raised it into being.
You, closer to me than I to myself,
More inward than my innermost being –
And yet unreachable, untouchable,
And bursting the confines of any name:
Holy Spirit —
Heiliger Geist –