On Good Shepherd Sunday 1933, Edith Stein, having long harboured a desire to become a Carmelite, entered a church called St Ludger’s and knelt down to pray, saying, ‘I’m not leaving here until I have a clear-cut assurance whether I may now enter Carmel.’

She would later write that, ‘After the concluding blessing had been pronounced, I had the assurance of the Good Shepherd.’

For 12 years this was what she had wanted, and finally circumstances were such that maybe she would be able to surrender her life to God in this way.

But why the delay? Why did it take 12 years to come to this point? And what was happening now that meant she was finally able to see her desires met?

Edith Stein’s conversion to Catholicism came unexpectedly. She was born in Breslau, Prussia, in 1891 to a Jewish family and was raised by her mother, Auguste Stein, who worked tirelessly to care for her seven children—her husband, Edith’s father, having died of sunstroke when Edith was only three. Although her family were observant, Edith considered herself an atheist from 15 years old.

My longing for truth was a prayer in itself.

After graduating school, Edith went on to study German, history, psychology and philosophy at Breslau University and then Göttingen University, where she studied under renowned philosopher Edmund Husserl. She was an outstanding student, and everyone recognised her potential. She completed her doctorate under Husserl, exploring the nature of empathy, and graduated summa cum laude. She would go on to work as Husserl’s assistant in 1916, having served for two years as a nurse during the First World War.

What drove her from the very beginning was a deep thirst for truth. ‘My longing for truth was a prayer in itself,’ she would write of those years, recognising in that search the quest for God.

During the university vacations, she would often visit some friends and work picking fruit on their farm. As an academic, she found the manual labour relaxing for her mind. But one night while visiting these friends, she was invited to borrow a book from their shelves. For some reason, she picked the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila.

‘I began to read,’ she wrote later, ‘was at once captivated, and did not stop till I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, “This is the truth.”’

The very next morning she went into town and bought a Catholic catechism and a missal, and studied them intensely.

Edith never revealed what it was about that book that convinced her of the truth of the Catholic faith, only that it had. It was also in reading that book that she realised she wanted to become a Carmelite and give her life totally in ‘the Order of the Cross’.

This is the truth.

But she couldn’t yet pursue this desire, concerned primarily about how the news might affect her mother. Converting to Catholicism was hard enough on the elderly Auguste Stein; Edith knew that entering a convent would break her completely. Out of mercy, she refrained.

Her decision not to become a Carmelite straight away was also influenced by the advice of her spiritual director, Joseph Schwind, Canon of Speyer Cathedral, whom she began to consult in 1923. He believed that Edith had much to offer the world through the gift of her intellect, encouraging her not to enter Carmel but continue teaching. He did, however, arrange for her to live and teach in a Dominican convent school in Speyer, so that she was at least surrounded by religious life.

Edith Stein ca 1938 1939 2
St Teresa Benedict of the Cross (Edith Stein).

There is no doubt that she did contribute to the world through her teaching. Edith Stein became the first person to translate the Letters of John Henry Newman and St Thomas Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Truth into German. She was invited on lecture tours, where she spoke about philosophy and faith, and often about the vocation of womanhood and femininity in a social landscape that was rapidly changing.

After her spiritual director died—of a stroke in a confessional—she went on to teach at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster. Her new spiritual advisor, the Benedictine Abbot Raphael Walzer, also discouraged her from entering Carmel, believing she still had much to contribute.

In the background, however, National Socialism was rising. There were rumours and reports of the Third Reich targeting the Jews. Edith saw that her time as a teacher would soon come to an end.

The walls that had stood in my way had crumbled.

In a meeting with a fellow teacher at the institute about the political situation, the teacher tried to remain optimistic, encouraging her to simply not schedule classes and then come back in the autumn once everything had ‘settled down’. But Edith knew the truth: things would not settle down, and her Jewish descent meant she would be forcibly removed if she did not leave.

After this meeting, she wondered: ‘Might not now the time be ripe to enter Carmel?’

Time and again she had listened to her spiritual advisers—and not merely out of deference. She knew they were right, that she could contribute to scholarly research, and that her mother’s reaction was an important consideration. But now, without a future in teaching and research, what was there to do?

‘I had yielded,’ she wrote of her obedience to her spiritual advisers. ‘But now the walls that had stood in my way had crumbled.’

That year, after finishing her last lecture at the Münster Institute, she sought to join the Carmelites and was accepted.

When she told her mother, who would only live a few more years, Auguste Stein wept.

Edith took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

When tensions became increasingly intolerable in Nazi Germany, she was smuggled across the border to the Carmelite’s convent in Holland, where she wrote two of her most famous works: The Science of the Cross and Ways to Know God. Her sister, Rosa, also became a Carmelite nun and joined her in Holland.

But in 1942, after the Dutch bishops condemned Nazism, the Third Reich responded violently. Her convent was among those raided by the Gestapo and she was taken to Auschwitz. On 9 August, two days after her arrival, she was killed in a gas chamber with her sister.

Before her death, however, she would write about her journey to the Carmelites and what it was like to finally enter the order, saying, ‘At last it opened, and in deep peace I crossed the threshold into the House of the Lord.’

All quotes are taken from Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (2005).