Learning from a Heroic Convert and Martyr

Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the SaintsSaints at Heartand Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.

His more recent books are The Power of Daily Mass and The Heart of Catholicism. You can learn more about Bert and his work at BertGhezzi.com.

Today, Bert profiles St. Teresa Benedicta, also known as Edith Stein, the patroness of Europe, loss of parents, Jewish converts, and martyrs.

On July 20, 1942, the Dutch hierarchy condemned the Nazis for deporting Jews to concentration camps. The Nazis quickly sought revenge by sending Jewish Catholics from the Netherlands to certain death. Among the victims was Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun, who was gassed and her body burned in the ovens at Auschwitz in August, 1942.

EdithSteinEdith Stein was a high-powered professional. Yet she never hid behind self-important pretenses. All who met this lovely woman instantly felt she had been their lifelong friend. If you had visited her, she would have served you and joked with you. You would never have guessed she was a famous scholar.

In 1916, Edith completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at Freiburg University, where she became an assistant to the renowned philosopher, Edmund Husserl. Over the next decade her writing and speaking established her reputation throughout Europe.

Edith had been raised in a devout Jewish family, but abandoned her faith in her youth. As a student, however, Edith had discovered Catholicism. She became a convert in 1921 after reading Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography.

In 1932 she was appointed lecturer at the Educational Institute in Muenster. But when the Nazis came to power a year later, she was released because she was a Jew. Edith viewed her dismissal as an opportunity to act on a longstanding desire to become a nun and she entered the Carmelite community at Cologne, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Edith realized that the Nazi menace would ultimately touch her. For her protection, the Carmelites moved her to a house at Echt in the Netherlands. Edith, threatened but courageous, remained confident in God, as she explained in this letter:

“It is good to remember, these days, that poverty implies being ready to leave our home in our dear convent. We have bound ourselves to the enclosure, but God has not bound himself to protect me in the enclosure-walls forever. He does not need to, because he has other walls with which to protect us.
“The situation is parallel to the use of the sacraments; for these are the pre-ordained means of grace, and we can scarcely be too eager to receive them. But God is not restricted by them. At the moment in which we are cut off from the sacraments by external power, he can more than compensate us in some other way; and he will do so the more surely the more faithfully we have gone to the sacraments beforehand.
“Similarly it is our solemn duty to observe the precepts of the enclosure as conscientiously as possible so as to live undisturbed, hidden with Christ in God. If we have done so faithfully, and if we are driven out onto the street, then our Lord will sends his angels to encircle us, and their invisible wings will enfold us in a peace more secure than that of the highest and most solid convent walls. Certainly we ought to pray that we shall be spared the experience, but only with the deeply sincere addition: ‘Not mine, but thy will be done.’”

Just as the Carmelites were arranging Edith’s relocation to a Swiss convent, the Nazis struck. On August 2, 1942, SS men seized her with other Jewish Catholics as a reprisal for the bishops’ public defiance. Edith Stein was executed at Auschwitz a week later.

We don’t easily fathom why God does not seem to protect good people from the violence of evil people. Mysteriously, he seems to have a preference for martyrdom. As the psalm says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (116:15 RSV).

(Image Credit: Catholic.org)

Read more from Bert at his website www.BertGhezzi.com, or check out his many books on Amazon.