The Shining Light of Saint Edith Stein
The light of faith is capable of illuminating our entire journey, directing us in all that we do in our daily activity. In this way, the light shines from within us to be seen by others (Lumen Fidei, 1, 33).
One person who saw that light in others and became a great light herself was Saint Edith Stein. She was born into a devout Jewish family in Germany, but she embraced atheism as she grew up and became an academic. Her life changed though when she saw a woman going into Frankfurt Cathedral and kneeling in prayer. “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”
A short time later, Edith visited a recently widowed friend, expecting her to be distraught, but finding instead a woman of faith and hope. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it,” she wrote. “It was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”
Here we see how “faith is passed on, we might say, by contact, from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another. Christians, in their poverty, plant a seed so rich that it becomes a great tree, capable of filling the world with its fruit” (Lumen Fidei, 37).
This contact with Christian faith led Edith to begin reading various Christian works. Upon finishing the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila, she simply said, “This is the truth.” She was baptized into the Catholic Church soon thereafter, in 1922. Later, she was called to enter the Carmelite Convent of Cologne, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce (Blessed of the Cross) in 1934. “Human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ,” she said. “It is my desire to share in it.”
Sister Teresa’s superiors sent her to the Netherlands in late 1938, fearing for her safety as Nazi oppression of the Jewish people became increasingly violent. When the Nazis subsequently began deporting Jews to concentration camps, exceptions were made for those who were baptized. However, after the Dutch Catholic bishops publicly denounced the mistreatment of Jews in July 1942, the Nazis retaliated immediately by seizing Jewish Catholics. Sister Teresa was arrested and, on August 7, she was put on the train to Auschwitz, where she was killed two days later. She had long understood that she would walk this way of the cross, writing in 1939, “Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy, as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death … so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.”
Before her conversion, Edith Stein had been a seeker of truth and love, and so she was already on the path leading to faith (cf. Lumen Fidei, 35). “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,” explained Pope John Paul II upon her canonization. Moreover, she understood that truth is inseparable from love, including the acceptance of suffering in the cross which is our salvation.
One day as a non-believer, Edith Stein saw a woman take time out of her day to kneel in prayer. After encountering this light of faith, she went on to become a great light herself. The lesson here is that no act of faith is too small to be that seed which becomes a great tree, filling the world with its fruit.