The Scholar and the Cross|
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The Nazis Killed Her
She was, said Time magazine,
"One of the most remarkable women of her time."
On the evening of August 2, 1942, the doors of the Carmelite
convent in the Dutch village of Echt opened, and a middle-aged
nun calmly stepped from within the enclosure accompanied by two
Gestapo officers. She walked with them a short distance to a long,
sleek sedan, surrounded by an excited, protesting crowd. Born
Edith Stein, now Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she was
taken first to a concentration camp in Westerbork. Then several
days later one of her former pupils saw her on the station platform
at Schifferstadt. "Give my love to the sisters at St. Magdalena,"
Sister Benedicta bade her. "I am traveling eastward."
On August 9, 1942, the Vigil of St. Lawrence, Edith Stein and her
sister Rosa disappeared into the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Born of wealthy Jewish parents in 1891 in Germany, Edith Stein
lost her religion early. She was an intellectual and a brilliant
woman who studied under the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Gradually she broke away from agnostic paganism and
found her way to the Catholic Church, and eventually to the
contemplative Order of Carmel.
The noted Catholic writer of the mid-20th century, Hilda C. Graef,
masterfully fleshes the bare outline of what is known of Edith
Stein's life into a superb and moving biography. In her book
originally published in 1955, Miss Graef drew on previously
unpublished material supplied by Sister Benedicta's friends. The
Carmelite nuns at Cologne and Echt answered her questions and
shared their reminiscences, as did family members, friends and
former students and their parents. Miss Graef combines the
sketchy facts of Edith Stein's life with her research, and in the
words of Commonweal, adds "her own gifts of insight and
interpretation." The result is a commanding portrait of an
exceptional woman and a great Catholic who was canonized by
Pope John Paul II in 1998.
From The Scholar and the Cross:
"Many of those who knew Edith
Stein, even close friends, found it
difficult to understand why she
should have chosen Carmel, and not
the Order of St. Benedict, to which
she seemed attached by so many ties,
or another religious family like the
Dominicans, more akin to her
intellectual and liturgical
inclinations. Yet her decision is not
so difficult to understand. There are
souls for whom God intends the
religious life to mean using their
natural talents in His service. There
are also others to whom it must mean the renunciation of
these talents and of all their natural self holds dear. In this
case, although their gifts are left unused in the natural way,
they are made fruitful in a supernatural way....The vocation
of the total sacrifice of the natural self corresponds to a
certain type of soul which one might perhaps call the 'all or
nothing' type, who bring to all they do the whole of their
personality. Edith Stein was of this type."
Looking for a book for your book group?
"There are so few good modern biographies of saints,"
lamented a Catholic woman to us not long ago. "We
would like to read one in our Catholic book group, but
we've read the few out there." Hilda Graef's The Scholar
and the Cross fills the bill for this woman and for your
Catholic writer Chilton Williamson Jr., author of The
Conservative Bookshelf and senior editor for books at
Chronicles magazine, makes this interesting observation
about the biography: "Not the least of this book's many
and striking virtues is its success in conveying Edith Stein's
co-essential Jewishness, along with her Christian sanctity.
The complementarity of Judaism and Christianity is thus
made abundantly clear." Good food for thought and