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Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.

Andy Wright has been a Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego for six years. He is a third year medical student at Baylor University.

The vocation to holiness has been and always will be a universal call. While we will never know all those who have responded to this call, as we are reminded every All Saints Day, we are strengthened in every age by the witness of our contemporaries recognized as saints. Edith Stein, known to her Carmelite sisters and the greater Catholic community as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, provides us with a witness to holiness in the face of great evil. María Ruiz Scaperlanda has written a superb, dignified introduction to this 20th century saint many of us know little about outside of the popular press.

Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a model of ecumenical writing. Scaperlanda is at once true to the journey Stein chose to holy martyrdom, while respecting the Jewish perspective that her greatest honor is preserved as a Jew who, although she chose the Catholic faith, died as a Jew in the Holocaust. In addition, one cannot overlook the timeliness of Edith Stein’s canonization, and this introduction to her life, in terms of the example her life gives of how to respond to great evil in the world. In fact, Scaperlanda frequently parallels Hitler’s life with Stein’s, perhaps to show the diverging path of one who has chosen to follow Satan, and one who has chosen to follow God.

In this brief volume Scaperlanda manages to introduce us to the complexity of the person of Edith Stein, at once Jewish and a Christian (this of course describes the vast majority of early Christians). The author guides us through Edith Stein’s life much as a good friend would invite us over to show us the scrapbook of someone she knew well and loved dearly. The book itself is introduced by Stein’s Jewish niece, Susanne M. Batzdorff, with whom Scaperlanda communicated in researching the book. It is divided into five parts, the first of which highlights her road to sainthood. Of note, over 100 of Edith Stein’s relatives attended the canonization, a testament to the profound mutual respect between Stein’s Jewish roots and her Christ-centered destiny.

The second part of the book establishes the context of growing up a German Jew in the early 20th century, as well as sketching Edith’s early life. Scaperlanda recalls the many slaughters of Jews through the centuries in the region of Ashkenaz (Germany), often at the hands of proclaimed Christians, through the centuries). This dates back as early as the Crusades. These events would be part of the oral history in Jewish families. The image of the Jew as a pig first appeared in the 13th century in Germany. Even as Jews acculturated to mainstream German society, being granted German citizenship in 1812, scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr (p. 45) argues they never enjoyed acceptance as full members of German society. It is necessary to understand this context when one considers the double blow it was to Edith Stein’s family that she converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1922 and then her entrance into Carmel in 1933. Her mother never met with her again after her entrance into Carmel, even though Edith continued to correspond with many family members throughout her life.

Edith Stein was born on the Feast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, October 12, 1891. Scaperlanda notes this “was more than a coincidence; it marked her destiny and proclaimed her lifelong desire to find Truth” (p 27). She was the youngest of the 7 living children (there were 11 total) of Siegfried Stein and Auguste Courant Stein. Her father died shortly after Edith turned two, and she had no conscious memory of him. Her mother took up where her father left off, building a successful lumber business from near bankruptcy, as well as raising a family. Edith was 18 months apart from her sister Erna with whom she was very close. (Susan Batzdorff, who wrote Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint is Erna’s daughter.) From early on it was evident that Edith Stein was gifted with exceeding intelligence, a desire to plunge her whole being into whatever she was doing, and an unassailable will. She was an enemy to mediocrity, invested in the world around her, and dedicated to her studies. She was one of the first women to attend the University of Göttingen in 1913, eventually earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. It was there she met and studied under Edmund Husserl, the father of the philosophy of phenomenology. (The same philosophy of which Karol Wojtyla was a student.)

Parts 3 and 4 of the book trace Edith Stein’s uncompromising search for and living out of the Truth. In writing to a Benedictine nun friend, Stein retrospectively characterizes her search thus: “whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously” (p 59). Scaperlanda includes Pope John Paul II’s words about Stein’s understanding: “love of Christ and human freedom are intertwined, because love and truth have an intrinsic relationship. […] St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love.”

It is through the study of phenomenology that Edith Stein sharpens her intellect to look at the world objectively. Scaperlanda paraphrases from Robert Sokolowski’s book Introduction to Phenomenology: “Phenomenology is the study of both our subjective intentions and the objective reality toward which these intentions are directed” (p. 62).
Phenomenology’s compati-bility with faith and Catholic thought were introduced to Stein by Max Scheler. Her growing faith in God and love of Jesus could not be approached abstractly, as Stein notes, rather she entered into the reality of her relationship with God. This ultimately led her to the Church, to Carmel, to the Cross, and to Christ.

Two events are commonly cited as key to Edith Stein’s conversion. The first has to do with the war-related death of her teacher and friend, Adolf Reinach, in 1917. In Scaperlanda’s words, “Edith went to see his widow, Anna Reinach, fearful that she would find a broken and distraught woman. Instead, Edith found a committed Christian, suffering, but at peace. Edith said later, ‘It was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it.'” (p 75). The other event occurs while on vacation from the university in 1921. She chanced upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, read it in one night, and was resolved in the morning to join the Catholic Church, proclaiming, “This is the truth!” (p 80). Patricia Hampl, in her essay on Edith Stein in the book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, notes that St. Teresa of Avila experienced a similar conversion after reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. While it is fascinating to consider the link of these three saints, I find it equally compelling to consider the 3 holy T(h)eresas of Carmel.

Scaperlanda emphasizes the clear bond Stein shared with Teresa of Avila. Stein, through prayer, study, and contemplation seems to have attained something akin to the great St. Teresa’s personal and mystical relationship with God. The author does well to also mention Stein’s link to Therese, the little flower. On the occasion of her first vows in 1935 Stein wrote “Carmelites can repay God’s love by their daily duties faithfully in every respect. . . . This is the ‘little way,’ a bouquet of insignificant little blossoms that are daily placed before the Almighty-perhaps a silent, life-long martyrdom that no one suspects and that is at the same time a source of deep peace and hearty joyousness and a fountain of grace that bubbles over everything-we do not know where it goes, and the people whom it reaches do not know from whence it comes” (p 121). Scaperlanda further notes, “Edith shared a trait uniquely personal with the best-known Carmelite saints-Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Therese of Lisieux. Each of them, like Edith, lost a parent when they were still children. […] each of these Carmelite saints had a strong and caring surviving parent to guide them” (p 119).

It is to St. John of the Cross that Edith, finally professed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in 1938, turned her creative, contemplative, and intellectual energies. She shared his devotion to the Cross and in 1941 endeavored to use the phenomenological method to analyze his works in developing a thesis of the “Science of the Cross”-which she was not able to finish. A term, Scaperlanda tells us, Edith coined to mean a theology and a school of the Cross. The author shares some of Sister Ruth Miriam Irey’s essay: “Sr. Benedicta wanted to show the life and spiritual evolution of John by extending his teachings on the Cross into a philosophy of the person. She addresses questions regarding the destiny and essence of the human being, summing these up in her term Science of the Cross” (p 141). It is precisely Teresa’s understanding of the Cross and her response to the evil of “the Antichrist”, as she called Hitler, that we can learn from in our response to evil, both outside of and within the U.S. and ourselves. The following is an excerpt from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14, 1939, cited in the biography:

“More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonor than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ’s cross after him.… Therefore, the Savior today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life. Carefully consider what you promise. … The world is in flames. The conflagration can also reach our house. But high above the flames towers the cross. They cannot consume it. It is the path from earth to heaven. It will lift one who embraces it in faith, love, and hope into the bosom of the Trinity.” (p 137).

Edith Stein and her sister, Rosa-a Third Order Carmelite, were seized from the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland in late July or early August 1942. The were murdered at Auschwitz (likely on August 9, 1942), along with their Jewish brothers and sisters, many of them professed Catholics.

In just 197 pages of text, María Ruiz Scaperlanda manages to compose a rich and realistic biography of a modern saint, quoting liberally from Edith’s writings. Edith Stein was teacher, poet, playwright, feminist, philosopher, theo-logian, nun, sister, aunt, and daughter. Most importantly she was a disciple of Christ all the way to Calvary. I am grateful for time spent with Scaperlanda, as she introduces us to a dear friend and advocate in Heaven. More than anything, she has inspired me to get better acquainted with Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and her writings.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 7, December 2001.