I picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated, and did not stop ’til I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, “That is the truth” (Recollection of Sr. Teresia Renata Posselt, O.C.D., Edith Stein’s novice mistress).
Sr. Teresia Renata Posselt’s direct quotation of Edith’s description of what occurred during one of the summer nights in 1921 that so radically changed her life cannot be traced to any written account. As elsewhere, Sr. Teresia claims that “Edith tells us,” and it seems she is quoting from memory by harking back to words uttered afterward by Sr. Teresa Benedicta in the Cologne Carmel.
The sequence of events given indicates the completion of Edith’s reading of St. Teresa’s Life at Bad Bergzabern [in the home of her friends Hedwig Conrad-Martius and husband, Hans Theodor Conrad]. There is no reason not to accept as authentic the famous and oft-quoted accolade “That is the truth” applied by Edith to what she read in St. Teresa’s account of “the mercies of God.” Internal evidence in St. Teresa’s book shows there is a “vision of the truth” in its final chapter:
This is the complete truth; for even though afterward I may want to rejoice over that happiness or be sad about that pain, it is not in my power to do so; just as a prudent person is unable to delight in or grieve over a dream that was had. The Lord has now awakened my soul from that which, because I was not mortified or dead to the things of the world, caused me such feelings; and His Majesty does not want my soul to become blind again (The Book of Her Life, Chap. 40, no. 22).
This would have left a poignant impression on Edith as she was bringing her reading to a close. St. Teresa’s use of the four-waters metaphor to explain prayer elsewhere in her Life (well water, waterwheel, stream, downpour of rain) could also have made a distinct appeal to Edith’s phenomenological sensitivities, thus adding to her admiration for the first woman Doctor of the Church.
After a peripatetic destiny once she finished reading it, the actual book read by Edith has come back to Bad Bergzabern and can be viewed there in the parish church.
Sr. Teresia Posselt tells us what happened next:
Day was breaking. Edith hardly noticed it. God’s hand was upon her and she did not turn from him. In the morning she went into the town to buy two things: a Catholic catechism and a missal. She studied them until she had mastered their contents. Then for the first time she went into a Catholic church, the parish church at Bergzabern to hear Mass. Edith said later:
Nothing was strange to me. Thanks to my previous study, I understood even the smallest ceremonies. The priest, a saintly-looking old man, went to the altar and offered the holy sacrifice reverently and devoutly. After Mass I waited until he made his thanksgiving. I followed him to the presbytery and asked him without more ado for baptism. He looked astonished and answered that one had to be prepared before being received into the Church. “How long have you been receiving instruction and who has been giving it?” The only reply I could make was, “Please, your reverence, test my knowledge” [Recollection of Sr. Teresia Posselt, O.C.D.].
This was the start of a theological discussion ranging over the entire doctrine of the Catholic Church. Edith never failed in her answers. The priest, astonished by what he saw of the workings of divine grace in Edith’s heart, could not refuse her baptism.
The purchase of both a “Catholic catechism and a missal” sounds characteristic of Edith: not just as a sequel to her reading a book that contained mystical teaching on prayer and the truth, but as vehicles of the official texts of the church she decided she would join in order to be a Catholic like St. Teresa.
It is difficult to calculate how much time elapsed between her purchase of these sources of both information and devotion, and her attending Mass in the church of Bad Bergzabern.
The pastor of that church was Fr. Eugen Breitling, seventy years old at the time. He initiated her steps toward baptism. Most likely there would have been more than one session between the Fräulein Doctor and the pastor of Bad Bergzabern in their “discussion ranging over the entire doctrine of the Catholic Church.” No less than a comprehensive examination of the tenets of that faith would have been expected of her, and her own thoroughgoing honesty would have spurred Edith on to a full perusal with Fr. Breitling of all she intended to embrace.
The direct quotation “Nothing was strange to me […] test my knowledge” is owed exclusively to Sr. Teresia Renata as one can surmise from the phrase “Edith said later.”
Nothing in the description sounds implausible: the eagerness Edith showed to receive the sacrament(s) of initiation is shared by other converts.
Fr. Breitling’s cautious reply that “one had to be prepared before being received into the church” reflects usual pastoral practices. It is interesting to note there is no mention of the Jewish origins of Edith in this respect since the docudrama “Stations of an Exceptional Life” (U.S. video vers. 1996) puts words in the mouth of the priest to that effect.
Father John Sullivan, O.C.D.
Chapter 7, The Convert
Gleanings, nos. 2–6
Note: St. Edith Stein was baptized Sunday, 1 January 1922 in the parish church of Bad Bergzabern. On Thursday, 2 February 1922, she received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the house chapel of Bishop Ludwig Sebastian of Speyer.
Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Posselt, T 2005, Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, translated from the German by Batzdorff S, Koeppel J, and Sullivan J, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Featured image: Edith Stein, ca. 1920. Image credit: Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
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