Teresa Benedicta of the Cross may be one of the best known Catholic converts of the twentieth century. She was born Edith Stein on Yom Kippur and was raised Jewish, but she abandoned a faith life at an early age.
Her life’s love became the study of philosophy—and she was good at it; her doctoral dissertation on empathy drew acclaim. Then, in the summer before she turned thirty, she read Saint Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, which shook her to her core. After reading the book, she told herself, “This is truth.” She knew her path ahead would be as a Catholic, and was baptized on New Year’s Day 1922.
Edith’s initial plan after her conversion was to become a Carmelite nun. But rather than withdrawing from the world, she was called to use her intellect for God’s glory. She embarked on an ambitious schedule of teaching, writing, lecturing, and translating the works of Catholic philosophers. Then, in 1932, that livelihood was taken from her when people of Jewish descent were barred from working in German universities. She entered a Carmelite monastery in Cologne in 1933, where she continued her philosophical writings. She chose the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in honor of Teresa of Avila, who was so key to her conversion, and because, as she put it, “I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf.”
Teresa Benedicta continued her scholarly work in the convent for five years. With the Nazi threat intensifying, she was sent to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands in late 1938, where her sister, Rosa, also a convert, later joined her. It was there that she completed her final work, The Science of the Cross, a study of Saint John of the Cross’ writings.
Less than two years later, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. In August 1942, Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were among more than two hundred Jewish converts who were arrested. The sisters were sent to Auschwitz, where it is believed they were gassed shortly after their arrival.
People come to Christ and the Cross in different ways and at different times. For some, like Teresa, conversion is the result of intellectual pursuits. For others, it’s an outstretched hand in a time of trouble. Remember that we always represent the face of Christ to non-believers. Make sure the face you show is full of love and compassion.
“When you seek truth, you seek God whether you know it or not.”
—Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Invite a non-Christian or non-practicing Catholic friend to volunteer with you at a homeless shelter or food pantry. Or attend a lecture together at your parish.