Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

by María Ruiz Scaperlanda

Started: 20 July 2007
Finished: 1 January 2008

It is not an accident that I finished this book today, nor that I selected it to be my first book of the year to review. Privately, I’m dedicating this year to St. Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, if you prefer to call her by her Carmelite name. I have personal reasons for preferring her given name—I would say her ‘Christian’ name except that she wasn’t born Christian. She was Jewish by birth and Catholic by conversion. However, I do love the name she selected as well. Teresa of Ávila was her inspiration and is also mine; I consider both to be my dear, dear senior sisters-in-faith. When I read their writings, I not only feel very close to them—I feel as if I have actually met them and conversed with them. Perhaps some would call that the over-active workings of my imagination; I call it Faith.

Although I did start this book back in July, I read most of the book this past November and December. I cannot remember when I bought it, but it was within the past few years. My knowledge of, and interest in, Edith Stein is fivefold. First, she is a female and I always prefer female saints because I can more readily identify with them. Second, she was highly intelligent, a thinker, a philosopher and a writer—my favorite type of person. Third, she is a convert and while my first preference would be for a re-vert, I am still looking for such a saint; therefore, in the meanwhile I shall have to be content with those who find their way to us from other faiths. Fourth, she lived and died during the rise and fall of the Third Reich, a period in history which I find absolutely fascinating. And finally, I have come to have a special love for Edith for three personal reasons: my oldest daughter has chosen her to be her Confirmation patron, my sister took her name when she was recently clothed a Third Order Carmelite and, last but not least, my maternal grandmother and favorite aunt are named Edith.

God works behind the scenes in simple, mysterious ways. A few short years ago, I had never heard of Edith Stein. She came upon me quietly in a little documentary which was examining how the Church selected, determined and investigated its canonical saints. When I told my mother about Meg’s choice of a Confirmation saint at a recent family gathering I sensed rather than saw or heard her surprise. She had never heard of Edith Stein. And I had forgotten—until that moment—what my maternal grandmother’s first name was. I never met her and my mother rarely speaks of her own mother. Edith is not a very common name today, but it must have been once. It was an epiphany moment for both us—my deceased grandmother’s name coming alive again through my daughter’s choice of a Confirmation saint.

And how did Meg come to choose Edith Stein? When she was much younger she had considered Mother Cabrini and then later St. Philomena, but neither saint had particularly ‘stuck’—at least not in the way her sister’s choice had taken hold of her right from the first. (Michelle chose St. Maximilian Kolbe as a very young child and has never wavered in that choice.) When it came time for Meg to write a paper on her saint for her Confirmation class she was still searching. Had I bought this book for that reason? I don’t remember.

I do recall telling Meg, however, that I thought Edith the perfect saint for her—mostly because she’s brainy, like my Meggie.

‘For Edith Stein, whose entire life was a quest for truth and meaning, her hidden world held the key to what was invisible to the eye – long before Truth had a name. Stein herself realized this after becoming a Christian. In a letter to a Benedictine nun friend, she said, “Whoever seeks after the truth is seeking after God, whether consciously or unconsciously.” ‘ (p59)

Knowing my little girl as I have since birth, I would describe her also as ‘a seeker after truth’. It is my prayer that St. Edith will assist her in that quest.

Although I have not said much about this book in particular, it is a charming and easy-to-read introduction to the saint. As she was such an intelligent woman and so much of her life was lived in her mind, no book can do her justice which does not take into account her philosophical and theological development. Scaperlander’s book does this in an accessible manner. This is the perfect introduction to a very complex woman, powerful saint and – I believe – future doctor of the Church. If you read no other book on this saint, read this one. Let me know if you'd like to borrow my copy!


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