As Pope Francis calls believers to the peripheries, he has stressed that such places of obscurity are not only geographical locations. While the pope avoids any misplaced hyper-spiritualization of the actual physical fringes of society, he does comfortably broaden the term to include an existential dimension.
And so, the peripheries are not only localities in the world, but can also be dimensions within the human heart.
This reality is exemplified in the life, conversion, and martyrdom of the great St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose birth name was Edith Stein. The Catholic Church celebrated the saint’s feast day this past week. The holy day was an occasion to recount Edith Stein’s story, and to be inspired by her witness to truth and charity.
Edith was born into a large Jewish family in 1891. When she was a young child, her father died and her mother refused to re-marry. Instead, her mother worked as a single parent, which was uncommon at the time, and provided for the family through unrelenting determination and hard work.
This example of independence and tenacity greatly influenced Edith throughout her life.
Edith was very attentive to her studies, and was regularly noted for her brilliance. As a young woman, Edith could not intellectually find reasons to believe in God, and such beliefs became a periphery in her heart.
She became an ardent atheist but studied philosophy because she wanted to understand the mysteries and intrigue of life. During World War I, Edith served as a nurse and this experience led her to deeper reflections on sacrifice, suffering, misery, and hope.
The peripheries of her heart started to murmur, and Edith began to aggressively search for the meaning of life and for the purpose of things. She began to look and search for truth.
In her academic work, Edith was selected to serve as an assistant to Edmund Husserl, one of the founding scholars of phenomenology. The school of thought was a new approach within philosophy that studied the essence of things. The focus was less “that something exists” and more “what is the thing that exists?”
This approach was appealing to Edith in her desire for answers to the questions of life. Working for Husserl was a high distinction.
Regrettably, after her work with Husserl, Edith experienced blatant sexism and anti-Semitism in seeking university positions. She was passed over for job opportunities and promotions because she was a woman and a Jewish person. In spite of these barriers, Edith worked diligently and her keen insights and academic accomplishments helped to change these views and to establish her place as a philosopher and professor.
In 1922, Edith read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila through the night. The spiritual account rocked her world, and led her to the peripheries of her own heart. And there, in the avoidance of religious truth and its call to love and mercy, Edith found peace and consolation.
As the night ended with the reading of the spiritual classic and the morning dawned, Edith declared, “This is it. I found it.”
Edith found the truth. Her unbelief collapsed, and God was able to reveal to her his tenderness and mercy. Shortly afterwards, she accepted Christian baptism. Her mother did not understand, and there was tension between the two of them for many years. This was a great cross for Edith.
With time, Edith’s discipleship deepened, and she eventually felt called to become a Carmelite sister in Cologne, Germany. She took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, since she saw herself as someone like St. Teresa of Avila, and as one “blessed by the cross.”
Sister Teresa Benedicta understood the inner dynamism of a divine gift. She wrote essays on such phenomena. She knew that gifts were both a call to receive and to give, and she accepted that such an exchange was often accompanied by suffering.
The Carmelite nun understood the holy wisdom and heavenly treasures she found in the peripheries of her own heart, such as the meaning of life on earth, the path and victory of love, the consolation of being accepted and cherished, the nobility of sorrow, and the eternal reward of heaven.
Sister Teresa Benedicta was also aware of the summons that came with this divine knowledge. She felt the drive to live a holy life and to give testimony of the truth to others, especially to those who had dark peripheries in their own hearts.
The rise of the Nazi party and its growing persecution of the Jewish people and of Jewish converts to the Christian faith caused Sister Teresa Benedicta to transfer to a convent in the Netherlands. Her biological sister, Rose, also became a Carmelite sister and followed her.
After the heroic denunciation of the Nazi regime by the Dutch Bishops, the Gestapo sought out Jewish converts, and came for Sister Teresa Benedicta.
When they went to the convent and asked for Edith Stein, the mother superior informed them that there was no such person by that name. When they went the second time — and arrested Edith and her sister — they questioned the mother superior about her supposed lie.
“That is not Edith Stein. That is Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross!” she responded.
When Rose began to cry at their arrest, Sister Teresa Benedicta told her, “Come, Rose, we go for our people.” This persecution provided the saint with the opportunity to oppose bigotry and violence, and to give witness to the kindness and compassion that she had found in the peripheries of her heart.
Sister Teresa Benedicta lived about a week in Auschwitz before dying in the gas chamber. Survivors later remembered the Carmelite for her gentleness and heavenly peace in the midst of the hell of the death camp.
And this holy death, so powerful in itself, was also a reflection of her own spiritual journey – finding light in darkness – and is a continual witness to us today of the truths that have been placed in our own hearts and that we can find if we have the boldness to go to the peripheries and look for them.