“I gradually worked myself into real despair…I could no longer cross the street without wishing that a car would run over me…and I would not come out alive…”
These are the words of Edith Stein, otherwise known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross describing one of her more serious bouts with depression. That she struggled with this condition is not surprising given her continuous experiences of hardship and failure and general sense of existential futility (before she became a Catholic). Genes influence the development of depression yes, but so do life experiences.
In 1916 at the age of twenty-five Edith graduated with a PhD in Philosophy. Because she was a woman she wasn’t allowed to complete the work necessary to obtain prestigious university teaching positions. Later as a Catholic, she accepted a lecturing position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster but was soon forced to resign because of Hitler’s edicts against Jews. Talents, ambitions, career, and how she thought she was going to contribute to the world all disappeared because of her gender, race, and the historical times in which she lived.
Characteristic of Edith Stein was her unrelenting pursuit of truth. This included an openness to the existence of God as an avowed atheist. Even when in the throes of a year-long depression, when most atheists would interpret their state as one more sign of the non-existence of God and futility of life, she continued to pursue truth. She eventually found Truth and the Truth enlightened her great mind.
Seeing the signs of the times in 1939 and knowing her days were numbered, St. Benedicta of the Cross, rather than bemoan her fate or the fate of her people, wrote “The Life of a Jewish Family” to do her part to preserve her culture. She then finished up her study on St. John of the Cross and entitled her paper, “The Science of the Cross.”
On August 9, 1942, Edith Stein and her sister Rosa, both Carmelite nuns, were gassed in Auschwitz along with 12,000 others that day. Her last public words reflected her lifelong steel-faced persistence despite opposition, prejudice, and depression. They were to her sister as they were escorted down the street after being taken from their convent home by Hitler’s soldiers. “Come, we are going [to die] for our people.” Her words were reminiscent of Isaiah, “The Lord GOD is my help therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Isaiah 50:7
St. Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us that we may persevere in all our emotional and mental crosses and stay focused on Truth. Happy Feast Day! (August 9th)
A biography of Edith Stein is found at: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19981011_edith_stein_en.html
Picture by author unknown, public domain, on wikimedia commons.