Comment

How St Teresa Benedicta reconciled with her devout Jewish mother

Edith Stein (Wikimedia Commons)

Faith is an extraordinary gift. Cradle Catholics can take it for granted in a way that converts never do. But why does God give the gift to some and not to others? God is God and the ultimate mysteries of the human heart are known only to him. Meanwhile, we ponder the gift in all its supernatural beauty and generosity – and continue to pray for our friends who have not (yet) received it.

These musings are occasioned by reading The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Work of Edith Stein by Hilda Graef, kindly lent to me by the Oblate Master at Pluscarden Abbey. It was first published in 1955 and is still a penetrating and sympathetic biography of the woman now known as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Stein’s life is generally well-known: born in Breslau on 12 October 1891 (the Jewish Day of Atonement that year), the youngest of seven children in an observant Jewish household, her father died when she was two and her mother, the epitome of a noble Old Testament woman and matriarch, deeply devoted to her Jewish faith, whose “religion was her greatest treasure”, raised her children and ran her late husband’s timber business single-handed. Stein, a brilliant student, drawn to philosophy, rejected religious belief between her 13th and 21st year. She had too much integrity to pay lip service to what her critical intellect had dismissed.

Nonetheless, moving in academic philosophic circles, she was struck by the faith of Christian friends and surprised that “one can be a philosopher of rank and a believing Christian at the same time.” Her spiritual search culminated over the summer of 1921 when, staying at the house of a friend, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, she happened to read the classic Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila. Having finished it in one night, she said “This is the Truth.” Her intellect could no longer withstand the Spanish mystic’s vigorous description of her friendship with Christ.

But what of Stein’s mother? Edith was baptised on January 1, 1922. When she told her mother of her momentous step, the effect was shattering. She was her mother’s favourite child and they were exceptionally close. Graef writes that Frau Stein, “the strong, capable woman who had never allowed emotion to overcome her…silently bowed her head and wept. Edith mingled her tears with those of her mother; for both women suffered cruelly. There was then re-enacted in their souls the old history of the incomprehension of the Synagogue who believed her faith in the One God betrayed by the Incarnation…”

In 1933, when Hitler’s new laws began to curtail the rights of Jews to participate in public life Edith chose to fulfil her deepest call, to enter the Carmelite Order. Breaking this further news to her mother occasioned a “desperate resistance”. On her last day at home, Edith accompanied her mother to the Synagogue. “Wasn’t the sermon beautiful?” asked her mother. “Yes”. “So one can also be devout in the Jewish way?” “Certainly – if one has not come to know anything else.” Graef adds, “And then came the desperate, infinitely pathetic reply: “Why did you come to know it? I won’t say anything against Him. He may have been a very good man. But why did He make Himself God?”

By the end of her life – she died of stomach cancer, aged 87, in 1936 – Frau Stein had become reconciled to her beloved daughter’s vocation. Indeed, Sister Teresa Benedicta relates when she came to renew her vows on 14 September that year, she distinctly felt her mother’s presence. A telegram from Breslau the same day told her that the hour of the renewal of the vows had been the hour of her mother’s death. She later wrote that she was convinced that her mother’s solid trust in God, unwaveringly adhered to throughout her life and amidst all her tribulations, would have “found a very gracious Judge and [she] is now my most faithful helper so that I, too, may reach my goal.”