Saint Edith Stein and the Meaning of the Cross
by Freda Mary Oben
A Jewish friend who had seemed to be quite ecumenical-minded surprised me one day by saying, “You know, for most Jews, the cross does not mean Christ. Turn the beams about and you have a swastika. Jews relate the cross not only to the Holocaust but to all the persecution down through the centuries -- the crusades, ghettos, pogroms, expulsions from native homelands, forced conversions -- you name it!”
Edith Stein was born Jewish. What did the cross mean to her?
She was born in Germany in 1891, on the most holy Jewish day of the year, the Day of Atonement, which fell in that year on October twelfth. The Jewish community, after a twenty-four hour fast, listens in delight to the blowing of the Shofar -- a beautiful sound from the horn. This end of their sacred liturgy not only signals that they can eat but announces a new birth into life and freedom from sin.
It is easily understood that Edith’s own passion for the cross is a flowering of the seeds first planted by the Jewish faith in redemption. Yet, through her conversion in 1922 and martyrdom just twenty years later, she becomes a sign of both faiths. She is that “new person born through Christ’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile on the cross” (Eph 2:14-16). And she becomes thereby a symbol of the sacred link between the two faiths.
Edith had experienced personally what redemption means when she accepted the Catholic faith. She had been an atheist from the age of fourteen to twenty-one years, and she always remembered somewhat sadly her “radical sins of disbelief”. She writes that the person turned away from God can refuse to turn back to Him even if touched by Him. But, if in hearing God’s word, the person accepts the faith, then God sees the penitent in Christ and accepts Christ’s expiation for his/her sins. The convert is justified in Christ and through baptism becomes a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Immediately after her own conversion, Edith had wanted to become a religious. However, her spiritual director counseled her not to do this: her mother was suffering deeply from Edith’s conversion and Edith had an important role to play as a laywoman in both philosophy and education.
Response to Anti-Semitism
By 1930, Hitler was outspoken in his flagrant anti-Semitism. Edith’s response can be found in a letter of that time: her only answer to conditions that she was otherwise powerless to change is her urgent cry to enact an inner holocaustum. But three years later when Hitler became the Reichchancellor, she wrote another letter, one that has been widely recognized and acclaimed. The first economic boycott against the Jews had just taken place in April. Was it Edith’s intellectual and spiritual genius that urged her to write to Pope Pius XI, pleading with him to issue an encyclical condemning the Jewish persecution? She prophesied that what would happen to Jews would eventually happen to Catholics as well.
After writing this letter, she traveled to the Benedictine abbey in Beuron for the week of Easter, as was her habit each year. On the way she stopped at the Carmel in Cologne for the holy hour on the eve of the first Friday. She tells us in an essay “The Road to Carmel”,
I talked with the Savior and told Him that I knew that it was His Cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this; but that those who did, would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. He should only show me how. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know. (Posselt, Edith Stein 116)
She was at that time a professor at the German Scientific Institute of Pedagogy in Muenster. Her last lecture before this Easter holiday had been on February 25. When she returned, her teaching post had been canceled. The Institute was Catholic, but, as all educational sites, under state control. After all, she was born Jewish. Now, as for all German Jews, the crisis in her life severely escalated. Looking back at that time, she assures a friend, “for those who love Him, God turns everything to the good”. Yet she also confesses, “Never have I prayed the Divine Office of the Martyrs, which recurs so frequently during the Easter cycle, with greater fervor than I did at that time” (Stein, Self-Portrait 223).
Now in 1933, she wondered if, after almost twelve years since her baptism, she might not be free to enter the religious life. On the thirtieth of April, she went to pray at St. Ludgeri Church in Muenster, which was observing thirteen consecutive hours of devotion to the Good Shepherd. She promised herself not to leave the church until she had made a decision. She writes, “After the final blessing had been pronounced, I had the assurance of the Good Shepherd” (Posselt 118).
She knew that she had to help carry the cross being laid on the Jews and that she had to share in their destiny. She knew that she had to spend her life in the prayer of expiation for the sins being shed and for the safety of the humanity she so loved. Carmel was the place for her. Of course, it had been a reading of the autobiography of Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite order, which had finally carried her into the Church. But for Edith, Carmel excels as an order because of its unique identification with the Crucified Christ.
She explains this clearly. All persons are united in the Mystical Body of Christ. His suffering continues in us because Christ is in His members; thus we are enabled to share in His redemptive action. This is true in all religious life, but it is especially true of the Carmelite who stands as proxy for the salvation of sinners, freely and joyfully.
She writes that Carmelite prayer wins grace for souls. Only a participation in Christ’s Passion can help to save humanity, and she desires a share in that. She describes prayer as the highest human action, “the highest achievement of which the human spirit is capable” (Stein, The Hidden Life 38).
Edith Stein has written beautiful essays defining Carmelite spirituality. In one, “The Marriage of the Lamb” (Stein, The Hidden Life 99), we find:
The spouse whom she [the Carmelite] chooses is the Lamb that was slain. If she is to enter into heavenly glory with Him she must allow herself to be fastened to His cross. The three vows are the nails. The more willingly she stretches herself out on the cross and endures the blows of the hammer, the more deeply will she experience the reality of her union with the Crucified. Then being crucified itself becomes for her the marriage feast.
A Jesuit priest has witnessed that three weeks before her death, “She spoke about the vocation of a Carmelite, how she must represent love in a world of hate” (Herbstrith, Edith Stein 128).
How was her Jewish family responding to all this? Of course, their pain was a great part of her anguish. Her conversion had been difficult enough for them, but her entry into Carmel in 1933, at the very time when their fate as a people was so threatened, seemed to be absolute betrayal. Edith tried to explain to them that she would always be part of the family and of the Jewish people and that being behind cloistered walls would not protect her. Their inability to accept this constituted her cross.
And it was through the Crucified Christ that she found the necessary strength to endure this anguish. She writes in a poem, “Das Wort vom Kreuz” (“Word from the Cross”) that God strengthens what seems to the world like foolishness. This is her hope, the hope of her life. Her impassioned poetry expresses the inner holocaustum for which she had prayed. In “Jesus von Nazareth”, she exults in Christ’s deep humanity and love; He holds the answer to the riddle of her being and to the question of suffering. She asks, “Christ, who suffers for me in this world? Who died for me freely out of Love? I know of no one but Jesus the Crucified and Resurrected” (Herbstrith, Beten Mit Edith Stein 25, 27).
Sacrifice Necessary to Overcome Evil
Edith writes of evil as a created spirit who chooses to behave perversely, a spirit who can only be counteracted by God’s spirit of love. She was, after all, suffering as a German and a Christian as well as a Jew. Toward the end of her life she said to a priest, “Who is expiating for what is happening to the Jewish people because of the German people? Who is turning this horrible guilt to a blessing for both peoples?” (Herbstrith, Edith Stein 134). In a letter of 1938, she writes
I also 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. That is such a great comfort (Stein, Self-Portrait 291).
But we know that her suffering was also great. By 1938, many of her family had emigrated, and she feared for those remaining in Germany. However, her prayers were for all humanity: that Germany would be delivered from the Anti-Christ -- Hitler -- and that the world would find peace. As a Red Cross nurse during World War I, she had learned the misery of war, the bitter torment of both soldiers and civilians. Now, from visitors at the grill of the Echt Carmel to which she had been transferred for safety, she heard enough to realize some of the horror then happening. In poetic prayer, “To God, the Father”, she writes of deeply troubled and lonely souls:
Bless all the hearts, the clouded ones, Lord, above all,
Bring healing to the sick.
To those in torture, peace.
Teach those who had to carry their beloved to the grave, to forget.
Leave none in agony of guilt on all the earth.
(Batzdorff, Edith Stein Selected Writings 81)
But, she tells us in the essay “The Mystery of the Cross” that Christ came because of sin and evil: “The mystery of the Incarnation is closely linked to the mystery of iniquity” (Graef, Writings of Edith Stein 22). The crib is surrounded by martyrs, for Christ’s way is “from the crib to the cross”. We are asked to follow Him, to become His allies in His fight against evil. Voluntary suffering in expiation of human sins unites us to the Lord. To such prayerful souls Christ gives His spirit and life, His power, meaning and guidance. For it is in His redemptive action that we participate; “The entire sum of human failures from the first Fall up to the Day of Judgment must be blotted out by a corresponding measure of expiation” (Stein, The Hidden Life 91). The cross is “that sign which stands upright for all eternity as the only way to heaven” (Batzdorff, An Edith Stein Daybook 33). By expiatory prayer, we win citizenry in heaven for others as well as for ourselves.
Intercession for Others in the Mystical Body
Edith Stein terms this prayer of expiation as Stellvertretung, i.e., acting as proxy. This means praying for pardon of another person’s sins: first, that God will permit the grace of contrition to the sinner; second, that we can immolate for the other’s sin, even bear the punishment due in justice to the other. We can do so even for our enemies, for God gives us the strength to do so. “The Being of God, the life of God, the essence of God, these are all love” (Stein, Thoughts 5). And, “The darker it gets around us here, the more we must open our hearts to the light from above” (Batzdorff, Daybook 31).
To understand Christ and to be united to Him, the soul must experience an inner crucifixion. To win this union, the soul must undergo death. Each person finds this inner union with Christ only by living a deep interior life, for it is in the soul’s inmost depths that one can surrender freely to this union. Our saint writes that such surrender is the highest form of freedom itself. God respects the soul’s freedom because He wants to be Lord of the soul through this free gift of love. And, by giving self totally to God for love of neighbor, in imitation of Christ Crucified, the person relives the Trinitarian life of mutual surrender. Thus, by a penitential spirit, we are united to God and to others in God.
We can understand the history of salvation only by viewing humanity as one unique, great individual in the process of growth starting and ending in Christ. For, “He created man in His image, an image which He had designed from the beginning, to realize it eventually in His own person.” Christ is “the total plenitude of humanity” and each of us is created to imitate this fullness. The effort of each individual and of the common efforts of the entire human family is needed to win the fullness of total humanity. Yet it is the grace that flows from Christ that enables us to do so. For He is the “head” of total creation and His grace flows into this creation, His body. We cannot find our way to God without Him.
Christ is also the “head” of the redeemed human race, for He atoned for the sins of all people and “the life of grace overflows from Him into all those who he redeemed”. Thus total humanity becomes the Mystical Body of Christ. She writes, “And it seems to me that it pertains to the meaning of the Mystical Body of Christ that there is nothing human -- sin excepted -- that does not pertain to the vital unity of this body.” (Stein, Finite and Eternal Being 520-27). Edith fervently believed that total revelation is found only in the Catholic Church; yet, she also could not believe that salvation itself depends on the outer limits of any one church. Her thought clearly preceded by many years the declaration of Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate, on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions.
Edith Stein’s total offering of self is based on her reverence for each person as an image of God, for her offering embraces those of every religion, culture, and race. She had a natural, rich empathy with all persons. Her concept of human solidarity is in keeping with the Biblical account of humanity created as one family. She writes that we are conditioned to dislike or hate those different from ourselves. Much of her early work was political in nature, stressing the concept of humane community and the exercise of human rights.
Even her poetry carries this theme passionately. In “Der Naechste” (“Our Neighbor”), she exclaims: “But of our brother? -- the seedy, unformed person so utterly unlike us in heritage, upbringing, race, color of skin? Jesus, who could have thought that love for God could be so hard.” (Herbstrith, Beten 23).
Edith offers herself for God’s glory in her will, written in 1939. A misunderstanding of the wording in this document has caused much tension in the Jewish community. It is important to note that the will is directed to Der Herr (God) and not to Der Herr Jesu (Jesus), and Edith always stressed the importance of precise wording. In her will, she prays for the peace of the world, for the deliverance of Germany, for the Church and its orders, for the honoring of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Christ, for the safety of her own family, and that all Jewish people will turn from disbelief to belief in God.
Before Hitler’s rise to power, many Jews in Germany had become “assimilated” and even agnostic. Members of Edith’s family were so. And she always remembered sadly her own period of atheism, “her radical sin of disbelief”. Perhaps she was thinking in her will that God was calling His Chosen People back to Him, as did many of the Jews themselves.
Edith’s prayer was answered on all counts. She died for both her Jewish people and for the Church. First, she was arrested through a direct response of the Nazi authorities to a pastoral letter read from all Catholic pulpits in Holland on July 26, 1942. The bishops were protesting the deportation of the Jews and the forced exclusion of baptized Jewish children from Catholic schools. Edith was arrested the following Sunday, August 2, along with all Jews baptized as Catholics. The chief Nazi authority, Dr. Seys-Inquaart, stated plainly in his newspaper on the following day that the National Socialists considered Jewish Catholics as their chief enemies to be removed from Holland as quickly as possible. This reprisal was a clear declaration of Fides odium -- hatred of the Church.
When she was picked up at the Echt Carmel with her sister Rosa, who had become a Catholic and was serving the Carmelites as portress, Edith said “Come, we will go for our people” (Stein, Briefauslese 136). Before her deportation to Auschwitz, she was given the opportunity to make a further appeal, but she answered that the purpose of her life would be lost if she did not share the destiny of her Jewish brethren. She died on August 9, shortly after their arrival at Auschwitz, as a Jew and as a Christian.
Witness to Truth: In His Footsteps
Edith’s pilgrimage induced her to place herself not only into the shoes of the oppressed, but, in the very shoes of Christ, to walk in His footsteps to the end. For, “The path of human destiny is a path from Christ to Christ” (Herbstrith, Beten 25). She writes that we are called to become “an other Christ” for He is the perfect shape of the human soul. He epitomizes the total fullness of humanity; thus, in following Him, the person becomes fully human. For Christ is the perfect image of God as person, “the archetype of all personality and the embodiment of all value” (Stein, Essays on Woman 259). In following Christ, one finds oneself.
Edith describes her own life in the sentence: “The finger of the Almighty writes the lives of His saints so that we read and praise His wondrous works.” Her trust in His providential plan was absolute. She once wrote that, if she could only say one thing, it would be to entreat that we live peacefully in the hand of the Lord.
She means so much to us in this third millennium of Christianity because of her authentic witness to the truth and power of Christ. She understood literally God’s mandate to be holy because He is holy, to love Him totally, and to love our neighbors in Him. She is an example for scholars and scientists, that they not be led by confidence in intellect alone but by trust in faith. She offers hope to the atheist who is searching for truth.
Our saint leads us as individuals to perfect contrition and conversion, to a fuller development of ourselves as persons, to a right vocation, and to a more bountiful self-giving of life and talents to the Church and to the world. She tells us that, to shape the world for the coming of God’s Kingdom, we are responsible for all others as well as for ourselves. She inspires us to work for peace, freedom, and human justice. As a symbol of all oppression, she encourages those who do suffer oppression and prejudice throughout the world because of race, religion, and nationality.
For her holiness of spirit points not only to the reconciliation between Jews and Christians, but to an end of all bigotry and oppression. As John Paul II said at Auschwitz in 1979, “Where are the boundaries of hate, the boundaries of persecution of human being through human beings, the boundaries of horror?”
Christ died to reconcile all mankind. In a sermon of Saint Leo the Great, we find:
One and the same Christ is present, not only in the firstborn of all creation, but in all His saints as well…. And so all that the Son of God did and taught for the world’s reconciliation is not for us simply a matter of past history. Here and now we experience His power at work among us…. But it is not only the martyrs who share in His passion by their glorious courage; the same is true, by faith, of all who are born again in baptism (Liturgy of the Hours II, 660-61).
Edith’s empowerment was her total faith in the Crucified Christ. This fullness of faith allowed her to write, with simplicity and exquisite beauty, that her greatest joy lay in hope of the vision to come. Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was beatified in 1987, canonized in 1998, and named as co-patroness of Europe in 1999. We are encouraged to pray to her that she may help us on our journey through life and death to final resurrection.
Batzdorff, Susanne M. Edith Stein Selected Writings. Springfield: Templegate, 1990.
… An Edith Stein Daybook. Springfield: Templegate, 1992.
Herbstrith, Waltraud. Beten Mit Edith Stein. Bergen-Enkheim bei Frankfurt/M: Kaffke, 1974.
… Edith Stein. Mainz: Topos, 1993.
Liturgy of the Hours. International Commission on English in the Liturgy. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1975.
Posselt, Teresia Renata de Spiritu Sancto, OCD. Edith Stein. Eds. Susanne M. Batzdorff, Josephine Koeppel, John Sullivan, Maria Amata Neyer. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2005.
Stein, Edith. Briefauslese 1917-1942. Freiburg: Herder, 1967.
… Essays on Woman. Trans. Freda Mary Oben. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1996.
... Finite and Eternal Being. Trans. Kurt F. Reinhardt. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2002.
… Self-Portrait in Letters 1916-1942. Trans. Josephine Koeppel, OCD. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1993.
… The Hidden Life. Trans. Waltraut Stein. Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1992.
Freda Mary Oben, PhD, is a convert from Judaism, a lay Dominican (TOP), the mother of five and the grandmother of twelve. She received a doctorate from Catholic University of America in 1979, and taught at St. Joseph’s College, Howard University, and Washington Theological Union. Her four decades of research on Edith Stein has produced several published works, including a translation of Stein’s Essays on Woman (Institute of Carmelite Studies); Edith Stein Scholar, Feminist, Saint (Alba House); The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein (Alba House); and an album of tapes, Edith Stein A Saint for our Times (Institute of Carmelite Studies).
**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!
WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family www.wf-f.org.)
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)
Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.wf-f.org or to individual pages within our site.