Edith Stein's Conversion Was No Coincidence

It Started Before Reading St. Teresa of Avila

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ROME, FEB. 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A new compilation of Edith Stein's completed works presents evidence that her conversion was influenced by more than just her reading of St. Teresa of Avila's autobiography.



Stein (1891-1942) was a Jewish philosopher and convert to Catholicism, who became a Carmelite and was later martyred at Auschwitz.

The story of her conversion up till now had been attributed to mere happenstance as she unwittingly stumbled upon the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Devouring the book overnight, she decided to convert to Catholicism when she finished it at dawn.

During the presentation of the complete works of Stein at the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, Father Ulrich Dobhan, a German Carmelite and expert on Stein who supervised the German edition of her works, presented his own findings about Stein's conversion. From his research, he believes that Stein already knew of the existence of St. Teresa of Avila's book and sought it out.

"During the summer semester of 1918, during Husserl's lectures at the University of Freiberg on the subject of Rudolf Otto's book, 'Das Heilige,' Edith probably read Teresa of Avila's name because it's mentioned in that book," Father Dobhan explained to ZENIT.

Later, on May 24 or 25, 1921, at the house of Anne Reinach and her sister-in-law Pauline, in Goettingen, Germany, Stein chose the autobiographical volume: "Life of St. Teresa of Avila" from their library.

The reading of St. Teresa's book was decisive in tipping Stein toward Catholicism instead of Protestantism, but Father Dobhan wants to clarify that "here we are not talking about the step from atheism to Christianity."

"The exclamation of 'This is the Truth!' that is generally put in the mouth of Stein upon reading the autobiography of the saint, does not correspond to what she said, nor does it reflect Stein's spiritual process," Father Dobhan clarified.

Stein's inquiry into Christianity had been maturing over time. As a philosopher, she was profoundly influenced by the work of Max Scheler during his Catholic period and the heroic witness of Anne Reinach, widow of fellow philosopher Adolf Reinach, who fell in the war in November 1917.

While not the sole source of her conversion, the book did lead to her decision to become a Carmelite, where upon entering she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonized by Pope John Paul II in October 1998, and made a co-patroness of Europe in October 1999.