We all go through periods of soul-searching in our lives. Though ultimately rewarding, these journeys to cultivate an interior life and find our purpose can be filled with struggle and sorrow. We see this in the lives of the saints especially — many of whom faced long periods of spiritual seeking and suffering on their journey.
We find a powerful example of this kind of soul-searching in the life of Edith Stein, also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Who was Edith Stein?
The youngest of 11 children, philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun, and martyr, Edith Stein was an intelligent and resilient woman. She was born in Breslau (now Poland, formerly Germany) in 1891 into a Jewish family, though she gave up the practice of her Jewish faith at a young age. A driven student, Stein studied at the University of Breslau and Gottingen with interests in psychology and phenomenology. These areas of study ultimately blossomed into a particular philosophical interest in empathy, and later into the philosophy of faith. Ultimately, she discovered her love for faith itself.
Stein continued to learn and write about faith and philosophy among the intellectual crowd in Western Europe. Though she was among the intellectual elite, she faced discrimination when she applied for higher teaching positions at universities because she was a woman and Jewish. Stein’s determination to pursue the truth despite the struggles she was forced to endure is an inspiration.
It wasn’t until she turned 30 that she experienced a pivotal moment in her conversion: discovering the works of a female intellectual saint, Teresa of Ávila.
Teresa of Ávila wrote many works on the journey of the soul. In one of her descriptions of this journey, she compares the soul to a silkworm who undergoes transformation to become a beautiful butterfly. Teresa’s emphasis on the journey of faith probably resonated with Stein because of her own story of transformation — studying, contemplating, questioning, and ultimately, loving the faith.
Just a year after discovering and embracing the example of St. Teresa, Stein was baptized into the Catholic faith. She continued to teach at the pre-college level until the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933 and banned Jews — and those of Jewish descent, like Stein — from teaching. Stein decided to take her vows as a nun of the Carmelite order, the same community as Saint Teresa of Ávila.
Stein’s conversion from her roots in Judaism to the Catholic faith was hard on her family. This, coupled with the impending reign of the Nazis in Germany, must have been extremely difficult. But she continued to listen to her heart, and she decided to pursue her vows to the Carmelite religious order in private. She took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and continued to teach and study the works of the mystics.
Stein’s life was tragically cut short when she was arrested by Nazis while living in a secluded convent in the Netherlands. She died at the Auschwitz concentration camp on August 9, 1942.
The common theme we find throughout Stein’s life is that she persisted. In spite of the barriers and struggles before her, she relentlessly pursued the truth and shared it with others — even during one of the darkest times in our world’s history.
When she was canonized in 1998, St. Pope John Paul II called Edith Stein a passionate “seeker” of and devotee to freedom and faith. He said, “The love of Christ was the fire that inflamed the life of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Long before she realized it, she was caught by this fire.”
In one of her prayers, Stein writes, “O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage, and strength to serve you. Enkindle your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me.”
Stein’s life and legacy can inspire us all to be seekers in our own lives — to pursue truth despite the challenges we face, and to give our lives to it when we find it.