Edith Stein's story is an example of the different development paths one's religiosity can take and the multiple reasons that can influence that path. Interest in the life and writings of Edith Stein has continued to grow since her death in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two. She is one of the most influential figures in contemporary Catholicism, especially amongst younger generations who are striving to find meaning in a world that is indifferent to many of the certainties of early times. Stein was born in Breslau (Wroclaw) in what was then German Silesia. Edith was reared in a large devout Jewish family headed by her widowed mother. The family's religious observances are noteworthy because of the trend amongst many German Jews of the day to become secularized. Stein was greatly influenced by her mother, who was a matriarchal figure with enormous energy. She lavished attention on her children and also kept a watchful eye on her business.
As a young girl Stein lost her religious convictions. She was a brilliant student and was supported in her intellectual endeavors by her family. At university she studied under the renowned phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. So impressed was Husserl that he made her his assistant, a position of some importance within the culture of German universities where the assistant to a professor is seen as the apprentice or even heir apparent to that particular school of thought.
It was through Husserl's former pupil Max Scheler that Stein came to the serious study of Catholicism, a path that would eventually lead to her conversion. Her interest was further aroused by her encounter with the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. So profound was the impact of these writings that Stein was baptized on New Year's Day in 1922. She maintained her academic interests and wrote on a variety of themes. Her most ambitious project was an attempt to synthesize the philosophical realism of Aquinas with the phenomenological insights that she was expert in. This process began with her translation of Aquinas's On Truth and culminated in the publication of one of her major works, Finite and Eternal Being.
From the 1930s two quite opposite forces dominated Edith's life. Rising antisemitism in Germany made it difficult for Jews to maintain a public life. By 1933 she had to relinquish all university teaching posts and for the rest of her life struggled to keep one step ahead of her Nazi tormentors. Edith's interest in the contemplative life was so strong that she entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne in 1933 making her final profession in 1938. With the situation for Jews in Germany becoming unbearable she transferred to a convent in Echt in the Netherlands. Here she almost completed her major treatise on suffering and the human condition, The Science of the Cross. In a Gestapo crackdown of Christians of Jewish origin she was arrested on August 2, 1942 and died about a week later later in Auschwitz. For many Christians today Stein's thought represents an approach that is especially relevant to those living in Western postindustrial societies. Stein's expertise in phenomenology provides a way of examining human experience without assumptions or preconditions. This close observation of the world leads Stein, and many of her followers, to a deeper contemplation of the order and system in the universe-the God waiting to be discovered. By understanding the human and the created world the human intellect naturally seeks to explore the domain in which all striving and longings find meaning.