SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST: Second Word, Witness—St. Teresa Blessed by the Cross (Edith Stein) by Charles M. Murphy

Holy Hour Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ

Second Word, Witness—St. Teresa Blessed by the Cross (Edith Stein) by Charles M. Murphy

From Eucharistic Adoration

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:32-34)

Hannah Arendt and Edith Stein were philosophy students in Germany before World War I.  Arendt studied with Martin Heidegger, Stein with Edmund Husserl.  Though Jewish, both women were strongly attracted to Christianity.  Arendt wrote her doctoral dissertation on Saint Augustine’s concept of love, and Stein wrote hers on the idea of empathy.  Arendt eventually made her way to the United States and had a distinguished academic career.  Her five-part article, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” written for the New Yorker magazine in 1963, caused great controversy.

After some years as a Roman Catholic, Stein was finally allowed to enter the Carmelite Order in Cologne where she took as her religious name Sister Teresa Blessed by the Cross.  Her clothing as a religious took place on April 15, 1934.  Her spirituality was thus shaped from the beginning by the cross of Christ whose shadow was then falling upon Germany and the Jewish people in particular.  Edith Stein, with her sister Rosa, was to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.  When they were arrested in Holland where they had gone to escape, Edith said to her sister, “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people.”

Some years after she joined the Carmelites, Edith explained to another religious the personal significance of her religious name.

I must tell you that I already brought my religious name with me into the house as a postulant.  I received it exactly as I requested it.  By the cross I understand the destiny of God’s people which, even at the time, began to announce itself.  I thought that those who recognized it as the cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all.  Certainly, today, I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross.  Of course, one can never comprehend it, for it is a mystery.

As a Roman Catholic contemplative nun, Edith Stein maintained close contact with her family, even though relations were strained, especially with her mother.  In a letter dated October 31, 1938, Edith confided to her mother superior worries about the family.  She asked if Rosa could be allowed to leave home in Breslau for the safety of the convent in Cologne.  “There is no longer any sense in saving money,” she writes, “since they have to turn everything in when they emigrate.  If only they knew where to go!”  She continues:

And I trust in the Lord’s having accepted my life for all of them.  I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from among her people precisely that she might represent them before the king.  I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful.  This is such a great comfort.

On the day of Edith Stein’s beatification by Pope John Paul II in Cologne, May 1, 1987, the passage from the Book of Esther that Edith referred to was read at the Mass.

Back in 1933, Edith had written a letter that was personally handed to Pope Pius XI by her confessor.  In it she begged that he issue a condemnation of anti-Semitism.  A draft of such an encyclical prepared for the Pope by the American Jesuit John La Farge has recently surfaced, but the encyclical was never issued.

At Christmas 1932, Stein reflected upon how the mystery of the cross is played out in the lives of those who belong to him for the salvation of the world.

There is a vocation to suffer with Christ and thereby to cooperate with him in his work of salvation.  When we are united with the Lord, we are members of the mystical body of Christ: Christ lives in his members and continues to suffer in them.  And the suffering borne in union with the Lord is his suffering, incorporated in the great work of salvation and fruitful therein.  That is the fundamental premise of all religious life, above all in the life of Carmel, to stand proxy for sinners through voluntary and joyous suffering, and to cooperate in the salvation of humankind.

In 1943, while World War II was raging, Pope Pius XII issued his seminal encyclical letter on the Mystical Body of Christ.  The church, according to Pius, is more than a mere human institution – it is something mystical and transcendent, Christ’s own presence in the world.  This high and noble vision of the church helped Edith Stein, and countless others, to remain faithful to the church even when many of its members were complicit in the Nazi regime.

By Easter 1933, because of her Jewish ancestry, Edith Stein had been terminated from her teaching position at the Roman Catholic pedagogical institute in Munster. She wrote at the time:

I consider it an educator’s duty to live through these times with the children.  This includes making the effort to form one’s own judgment, measuring the “movement” National Socialist (Nazi) against our own standards.  My lecturing was terminated at Easter.  Do not be sad about that.  Something more beautiful will be replacing it.  What that is I am still unable to tell you today.

As conditions in Germany deteriorated, Edith and her sister no longer felt safe in Cologne.  They applied for asylum at a Carmelite convent in Switzerland, but when that fell through they fled to a convent in Echt where they resided between 1938 and 1942.

In a letter written in April 1939, Stein summarized her attitude toward her new situation.

My basic attitude since I have been here is one of gratitude – grateful that I may be here and that the house is as it is.  At the same time I always have a lively awareness that we do not have a lasting city here.  I have no other desire than that God’s will be done in me and through me.  It is up to him how long he leaves me here and what is to come then.  In minibus tuis, sortie meae [My days are in your hands], (Psalm 31:15).  There everything is well cared for.  I need not worry about anything.  But much prayer is necessary in order to remain faithful in all situations.  Especially we must pray for those who have heavier burdens to carry than I have and who are not so rooted in the Eternal.  Therefore I am sincerely grateful to all who help.

As a kind of spiritual testament as she sensed her life drawing to its close, Edith Stein summarized her life’s intention in these words written on June 9, 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.

On October 11, 1998, Sister Teresa Blessed by the Cross was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II under the title of martyr and was declared copatroness of Europe.  Her feast day, to be observed by the universal church, was established for August 9th.

After Pope Benedict XVI visited Auschwitz in May 2006, he reflected upon the experience in a general audience in Rome: “In the face of the horror of Auschwitz, there is no other response than the cross of Christ.  Love descended to the very depths of the abyss of evil to save man.”

Edith Stein also recognized the new kind of saintliness that Simone Weil spoke about, a saintliness vitally connected with the struggles of the actual world in which we live.

Immediately before and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine.  But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world.  I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself”: that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it.

Along very similar lines the martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocated what he termed “a new kind of monasticism,” that is, not a flight from the world but getting your hands dirty trying to change it.  He put it this way: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”


O God, my compassionate and loving Father, your daughter Sister Teresa finally understood her destiny beneath the cross of your Son, what it meant to be the bride of Christ under the sign of the cross.  Help me to shoulder my particular sharing in Christ’s cross and sustain me on my way with the bread of the Eucharist.


The Divine Praises

Blessed be God.
Blessed be his holy name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Blessed be the name of Jesus.
Blessed be his most Sacred Heart.
Blessed be his most Precious Blood
Blessed be Jesus in the holy sacrament of the altar.
Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
Blessed be the great mother of God, Mary most holy.
Blessed be her holy and immaculate conception.
Blessed be her glorious assumption.
Blessed be the name of Mary, virgin and mother.
Blessed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.
Blessed be God in his angels and in his saints.


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