“I no longer have a life of my own,” she wrote at the beginning of the First World War, having done a nursing course and gone to serve in an Austrian field hospital. This was a hard time for her, during which she looked after the sick in the typhus ward, worked in an operating theatre, and saw young people die. When the hospital was dissolved, in 1916, she followed Husserl as his assistant to the German city of Freiburg, where she passed her doctorate summa cum laude (with the utmost distinction) in 1917, after writing a thesis on “The Problem of Empathy.”
During this period she went to Frankfurt Cathedral and saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot. “Towards the end of her dissertation she wrote: “There have been people who believed that a sudden change had occurred within them and that this was a result of God’s grace.” How could she come to such a conclusion?
Edith Stein had been good friends with Husserl’s Göttingen assistant, Adolf Reinach, and his wife.
When Reinach fell in Flanders in November 1917, Edith went to Göttingen to visit his widow. The Reinachs had converted to Protestantism. Edith felt uneasy about meeting the young widow at first, but was surprised when she actually met with a woman of faith. “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”
In the summer of 1921. she spent several weeks in Bergzabern (in the Palatinate) on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl’s. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.” Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: “My longing for truth was a single prayer.”
On 1 January 1922 Edith Stein was baptized. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, when Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham. Edith Stein stood by the baptismal font, wearing Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ white wedding cloak. “I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.”