Last year a little book named Waiting on God attracted great attention inside and outside the Church. It comprised a selection from the writings of a young, highly intelligent French Jewess, Simone Weil, who died in England in 1943. The most interesting pages were taken from her letters to a French Dominican priest, whose answers are lacking. In them Mlle Weil professes an ardent love for the proletariat and a zeal for self-sacrifice, which she attempted to put into action by taking employment first in a factory and later at the Headquarters of the Free French in London; she was consumptive and hastened her death by going short of food in sympathy for her countrymen under the occupation. She seemed to accept the main truths of Christianity, but died unbaptised leaving a copious apologia which can be reduced to two themes: a distaste for the exclusive and authoritative tone of the Church and for the unworthiness of some of its members, and a conviction that God would tell her as He had St Paul in an unmistakable and personal way when He required her submission. Some readers, among them the present writer, are unable to silence the suspicion that this apologia could be starkly summarised: "The Church isn't quite good enough for *me*, but, of course, if God really insists . . . "
At almost the same time there appeared another book, Edith Stein, by Sister Teresia de Spiritu Sancto, ODC. It is the biography, or rather the first sketch for a biography, of a highly intelligent German Jewess, who was known for the last eight years of her life as Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, ODC. It has been admirably compiled from her own and her friends' accounts and reveals a life which has remarkable similarities to Mlle Weil's and still more remarkable contrasts. It might be a useful exercise to make a line-for-line comparison between the two women, but it is an ungracious habit to praise one thing while disparaging another. Suffice to say that those who have been dismayed by the vogue of Mlle Weil may find a prompt restorative in Edith Stein.
She was born at Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of seven children who were left fatherless when Edith was three years old. Thenceforward the mother assumed control of the family and the family business--the masculine occupation of timber merchant--and managed it prosperously until the early thirties when industry was breaking down throughout Germany. The matriarch was devoutly and rigidly orthodox in religion. The children were in various degrees infected by the scepticism of their period, Edith most of all. From the moment she began to think until her twenty-second year she was dogmatically atheist. There was nothing recognisably Jewish in her appearance but she was Jewish at heart and even after her conversion to Christianity she could happily pray beside her mother in the synagogue.
The early chapters of the book give a charming picture of German Jewry in its heyday under the Empire, the period of Edith's adolescence. The Steins were well-to-do, living in solid, unostentatious comfort, patriotic--indeed thoroughly Prussian--in sympathies, highly respectful of the Kultur which their race had done so much to establish. They associated only with Jews, chiefly with their own kin, but they regarded themselves as being as German as the Junkers. They were a distinct part of the nation, Jewish Germans rather than German Jews, with little sympathy for Zionism or international socialism; the antithesis of the Nazi bogey. This was the world, now vanished without trace, in which Edith grew up.
She was a bright, pretty, affectionate child; the only fault imputed to her was excessive ambition. German education under the Kaiser was formidably efficient. She set all her precocious intellect and energies into surmounting its various grades and was brilliantly successful. At adolescence she was possessed by what is described as a thirst for knowledge, but which is perhaps better called a thirst for truth. All her intellectual force was early canalized into philosophy and she began her quest of the universities for a master who would show her the way of truth; the quest which found its final satisfaction in Carmel.
At Gottingen she found a group of students and teachers gathered round Edmund Husserl, whose writing she already knew. Their philosophical system is called the Phenomenological School. Edith soon established herself in the inner circle of disciples both by her quick comprehension and her original speculations, and in 1916 when he was appointed Professor at Freiburg, the master summoned Edith to be his personal assistant. In order to accept this post she left the Red Cross in which she had devotedly served since the outbreak of war. But first she had another task. At Gottingen Husserl had for his colleague Adolph Reinach, an apostate Lutheran who returned to his faith while in the army. Reinach was killed and Edith accepted the task of arranging his manuscript writings. She was now 26 years old but had never given any thought to Christianity. The phenomenologists had broken down her crude rationalism; many of them had begun to move towards Catholicism, but it had not occurred to Edith to examine the credentials of the Church. Reinach had stated shortly before his death that he would teach philosophy in future only as a means of leading men to God. No doubt among the papers which Edith now perused, there were indications of this change of heart, but what impressed her was the behaviour of his widow. Edith could see nothing but absolute loss in the premature end of a brilliant academic career. Frau Reinach (who later became a Catholic) accepted it with resignation and hope and for the first time Edith encountered Christian Faith in action; she noted the phenomenon in her accurate mind.
After the war, in a vastly changed world, the German universities made an attempt to re-establish the old life. Edith became 'Fraulein Doktor' with a growing reputation as a philosopher but the slim, simple appearance of a young girl; she wrote a thesis on the Soul which was a plain acknowledgement of the religious basis of life. Some of her friends supposed her to be already a Christian. But her conversion was delayed until she chose at random from the shelf of a friend St Teresa of Avila's Life of herself. Edith read the book straight through and concluded: 'That is the Truth.' She then set about instructing herself in the practical, thorough way in which she did everything. She bought a catechism and a missal and studied them. Then for the first time in her life she went to Mass and understood every phrase and gesture. After Mass she followed the priest to the presbytery and asked for baptism.
'Who has instructed you and for how long?' 'Test my knowledge.' The subsequent discussion ranged over the whole field of Catholic theology. Edith's answers were satisfactory and she was baptised on New Year's Day, 1922. There can have been few conversions so cool and impersonal. Contrast it with Pascal's. But this was no mere intellectual acceptance of a philosophical system. It was the start of a new life of devotion and prayer.
The effects of this huge change on Edith's mother, sisters, and friends, the transition of the popular lecturer to Carmelite nun with the first turbulence of the German disaster in the background, are briefly but beautifully told. As the Nazis came to power, Edith was moved, as was hoped for her safety, to a sister house in Holland. The Nazis came there too. Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce went calmly about her duties. Permission was sought, and obtained too late, to transfer her to safety in Switzerland.
On Sunday 26 July 1942, the Archbishop of Utrecht issued a pastoral condemning the persecution of the Jews. Retribution was immediate. All Catholic priests and religious with Jewish connections were rounded up by the SS. On 1 August Edith was arrested and driven off with the other victims of the Terror; somewhere, quite soon probably, she was killed in one of the extermination camps in the east. Attempts have been made to sift the various conflicting reports of people who saw her or thought they saw her during her last journey. Nothing is certain except the fact of her death. She disappeared bodily in the total, hellish darkness.
Her spirit shines out, very clear and lonely; a brilliant
intelligence; a pure, disciplined will; a single motive power, the Grace of
God. The circumstances of her death touch us for they lie at the heart of
contemporary disaster. The aimless, impersonal wickedness which could drag
a victim from the holy silence of Carmel and drive her, stripped and
crowded, to the gas chamber and furnace, still lurks in the darkness. But
Edith's death is perhaps an irrelevant horror. Her life was completed in
Carmel. She did not sit, waiting on God. She went out alone and by the
God-given light of her intelligence and strength of purpose, she found Him.