I want to tell you about a woman whose heart was troubled and restless. She was also a woman of great intelligence who searched for truth. She searched for truth in psychology and philosophy, once thinking that truth had nothing what so ever to do with God. This woman’s name was Edith Stein. Edith Stein was born in 1891 in Breslau Germany. She was the youngest of eleven children born into a very devout Jewish family. Edith’s fa-ther, who ran a successful timber business, died when she had only just turned two. Her mother, a very devout, hard-working, and strong-willed woman, now had to fend for herself and look after the family and their large business. Which she did, however, she did not succeed in keeping up a living faith in her children. As a teenager Edith lost her faith in God, she quit praying, and became an atheist and began her search for truth in the class-room.
Edith was a brilliant student and after High School she went on to the University of Breslau where she studied philosophy and women’s issues. “For a time,” she wrote “I was a radical suffragette.” She had planned on becoming a teacher. But after graduating she served as a nurse for a short time in an Austrian field hospital during World War I. When the hospital dissolved she went back to school to finish her doctorate which she earned summa cum laude, writing a thesis on “The problem of Empathy.” It was at about this time that one of her associates from the University had been killed on the battlefield. And this dead man’s young widow invited Edith to her home to help her get her husband’s academic papers in order. Edith hesitated; she had no belief in life after death so she wasn’t sure what she would say to this young Christian widow. She wasn’t sure she’d find the right words to console her. But what Edith Stein encountered when she met the widow struck her like a ray of sunlight. Rather than appearing crushed by her suffering, the young widow was filled with a hope that offered all the other mourners a sense of consolation and peace. Edith’s rational atheistic arguments crumbled in the face of the experience. Not any intellectual insight or argument convinced her. What convinced her was contact with the essence of truth itself. The light of faith broke in on her. And this light of faith, this transformation of faith, came to her in the mystery of the Cross.
Years later she would write about this incident, “It was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power that it bestows on those who carry it. For the first time, I was seeing with my very eyes the Church, born from her Redeemer’s sufferings, triumphant over the sting of death. That was the moment my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forth – in the mystery of the Cross.” In a search for truth Edith never dreamed she’d find it in Christ. She began to read the New Testament and the question became, would she convert to Lutheranism or Catholicism. Two events would help her make this important decision. First, while helping tutor a student she and this student out of curiosity went into a Cathedral for a few moments, just to look around, and as they stood there just taking everything in a woman came in with her shopping basket and she knelt down in one of the pews to say a short prayer. This was something new for Edith. In the synagogue, as in the Protestant churches she had visited, people only went in at the time of the service. But here was someone coming into the empty church in the middle of the day as if to talk with a friend. She was never able to forget that. And the second event that helped her in her decision to become a Catholic involved reading the life of St. Teresa of Avila. She had picked up the book while staying at a friend’s house. And once she’d begun reading it she couldn’t put it down. She read it through the night and after finishing it the next morning the very first words out of her mouth were, “This is the truth.” God is love. He doesn’t reveal his mysteries to deductive intelligence, he reveals himself to the heart that surrenders itself to him. It’s humility.
She soon sought baptism and after being received into the Church she pursued scholarship and study as a service to God. Teaching, writing, and learn-ing all she could about her new found faith. It wasn’t until eleven years later that she eventually entered the Carmelite Convent of Cologne, this was the year 1933. “Henceforth my only vocation is to love,” she would say, praying to God for everyone. She was now known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and while in the convent she pursued more studies and wrote more academic papers.
With World War II, Edith was moved from convent to convent across Europe trying to evade the Nazi forces. In 1942 she found herself in Holland and at last she thought she was safe. However, on August 2nd she was arrested by the Gestapo. All Jewish converts to the Catholic faith were rounded up in retaliation for a statement put out by the Dutch Bishops in which they condemned the pogroms and deportation of Jews. On August 9th she was killed at Auschwitz. A fellow professor later wrote, “She is a witness to God’s presence in a world where God is absent.”
At her canonization Pope St. John Paul II said that, “Her heart remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God.” The truth that she found was Truth in itself, truth without beginning or end. And from it springs all other truths, just as all love springs from this Love and all glory from this Glory.
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And as we know this way, this journey of our whole life, has its struggles and crosses and sometimes we even struggle with our faith itself. Sometimes we struggle in certain areas maybe finding certain truths that we profess hard to accept. But we don’t give up we continue that struggle to know and to understand, we continue to study, we continue to pray for that understanding of Christ and His Church. And in that struggle for Christ’s truth we pray asking to be taken by the heart as St. Theresa Benedicta once was grabbed by the heart.
For two thousand years, many have found Jesus to be the way. They have trusted him, staked everything on him and he has not disappointed: in him they have truly found life.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley