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 In her book originally published in 1955, Miss Graef drew on previously unpublished material supplied by Sister Benedicta's friends.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 book group. 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 discussion.
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