Wednesday, August 09, 2006

St. Edith Stein

The Mind of St. Edith Stein: “Inklings of Vatican II and John Paul II”

Her last major work was to be a commentary on the great mystic and collaborator of St. Teresa of Avila in the reform of Carmel, St. John of the Cross.[1] She had the following trenchant remark to make in the unfinished manuscript’s Introduction entitled "Meaning and Basis of the Science of the Cross":

“There are naturally recognizable signs indicating that human nature as it actually exists is in a state of depravity. This includes the inability to assimilate and react to facts according to their true value. . . .This lack of sensibility is particularly painful in the religious sphere. Many Christians feel depressed because the events of the Gospel do not—or do no longer—impress them as they ought and fail to affect and shape their lives. The example of the saints shows how it ought to be: where there is truly living faith there Christian doctrine and the mighty deeds of God are the content of life which shape everything and before which everything else must give way. . . If a saintly soul thus assimilates the truths of faith they become the science of the saints. If the mystery of the Cross becomes its inner form it grows into the science of the Cross.”

Stein estimated that Christians are depressed because they do not "react to facts according to their true value." Unfortunately, they share in a "lack of sensibility" to reality because they show less than a "truly living faith."

This estimate of the situation does not flow from pessimism. Stein was writing her study on Saint John of the Cross during World War II, and our generation is painfully aware of how paralysis among believers in the face of that war’s atrocities has spawned other problems in our midst. One need only reread the Vatican’s recent declaration "We remember" on the Shoah to appreciate how sad a break-down in morale occurred among Catholic believers back then.

Stein gives the reader an antidote. She claims that if "Christian doctrine and the mighty deeds of God. . .[were] the content of [their] life" they would react to events most differently. What is lacking is assimilation on the part of those who by the rebirth of baptism are expected to take an active part in the Church which has engendered them to eternal life.

In fact, Stein uses the word "assimilate" twice, and here is the nub of the question and her challenge. She would call upon the Church today to give more effective ways to assimilation of the riches of the faith. Ever an alert pedagogue, the former "Fraülein Doktor" who now as Saint Edith will give added credibility to an intellectual apostolate among Catholics, reminds us that effective catechetical methods and outreach is essential to vibrant participation by Catholics in all happenings of life, be they directly related to their church or be they found in the mainstream of secular life. But, if believers die of hunger for want of proper understanding of the teachings transmitted to them from Christ and his preaching of the Good News of Salvation, the world will lack the proper leaven Christianity can give. In parallel fashion, Stein tells us the reserves of holiness in our world will diminish too: there will be no science of the Cross at work because those who are called to be saints will hardly craft it into that "inner form" she would educe out of the "truths of the faith." The blockage they suffer and the lost contact with Gospel values will stunt their growth. In this connection it is very suitable to delve into the life of a true saint of our times, Stein, to see some of the ways she tried to take seriously knowledge of the faith and to transmit her grasp of it to her contemporaries.

Intellectual Tools to Describe this “Assimilation: Thomistic Metaphysics and Phenomenology.

(“Inklings” of John Paul II)

“Being the type to insist on acquaintance with the best exemplar of a particular field of knowledge, she turned to the system of reflection most popularly acclaimed by Catholics at that time, viz., Thomism. She translated an important work of St. Thomas into German, the "Questions on the Truth," and as she did it she devised fine linguistic rendering of the medieval genius’ teaching in contemporary German. But she did not stop there. She worked at building bridges between Thomism, the then reigning Catholic expression of the philosophia perennis and Phenomenology as a cutting edge trend in modern philosophical thinking.” This was the vision and work of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.

Irreducibility of the Woman as “I”

“Along with St. Thomas and Aristotle, Stein acknowledged that there are traits unique to the human soul, abilities (or at least dispositional traits) that are shared by every member of the species. Rationality, and along with it free choice, belong to every human being and so to every woman as a human person. But if the soul is the form of the body, and the form of humanity is individuated by being united with this body or that one, Stein reasoned that the woman’s soul will have a spiritual quality distinct from the man’s soul. She did not argue that biology is destiny, but that the physical differences between men and women profoundly mark their personalities. The woman’s body stamps her soul with particular qualities that are common to all women but different from distinctively masculine traits. Stein saw these differences as complementary and not hierarchical in value, and so they should be recognized and celebrated rather than minimized and deplored. There are two ways of being human, as man or as woman.
Stein supported her view both by philosophical appeal to the intimacy of the body/soul relationship and to psychological theories that focus on personality types, rather than on behavior alone. She considered the differences between males and females to be evident even to common sense, and so in need of little argument. Her thesis would be denied by many feminists today, but probably not by anyone who has children of both genders. The differences between girls and boys are evident and seem totally resistant to manipulation. Nature has a stubborn way of asserting herself in total disregard for our theories.

Deep dispositions
Stein looked especially to the creation narratives of Genesis to draw out what she took to be the natural vocation of woman. Every woman, she claimed, is meant to be both a companion (her spousal vocation) and a mother. Because of her close connection with human birth and development, woman seeks and embraces whatever is living, personal, and whole. “To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.” Woman naturally focuses on what is human, and tends to give relationships a higher importance than work, success, reputation, etc. Here Stein’s thinking lines up with recent neo-feminist authors like Carol Gilligan who claim that women approach moral questions with more attention to the people affected by their actions and decisions than to abstract and impersonal considerations of duty, rights, and justice.
Woman is naturally more attuned to the individual, and hence to a concrete, particular person with all of his or her own needs and potential. Further, this maternal concern aims at the total development of the other person as a unity of body, soul, and spirit. No one aspect of the personality is to be sacrificed to any other. In particular, there is to be no divorcing of mind and body, treating persons (especially students) as if they were disembodied intellects.
The maternal aspect of woman’s vocation involves helping other persons develop to their fullest potential, and for those who are married, this will include their husbands as well as their children. Motherhood is a universal calling for women, and so not simply a task to be exercised with one’s biological children. Woman’s concern for the good of persons must extend to all those whose lives touch hers in some way.
Pope John Paul II raises this feminine vocation to truly cosmic proportions, looking to women for the rehumanization of a world dominated by hedonism and materialism. In The Gospel of Life he calls upon women to “teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.” This contribution of women, declares the Holy Father, is “an indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change,” for replacing the culture of death with the civilization of love.
In addition to this cultural or spiritual motherhood, Stein sees woman’s calling as including a spousal dimension, the role of companionship. This involves sharing the life of another, entering into it and making that person’s concerns one’s own. One might argue that this is a vocation for both men and women, and it is unlikely that Stein would deny that it is. But it may also be true that women have a special genius for friendship, perhaps because of their orientation to the human and personal, and a greater capacity for exercising empathy. Stein’s dissertation on the subject of empathy was completed some years prior to her lectures on women’s roles, but one can see its influence on that later work. She describes empathy as a clear awareness of another person, not simply of the content of his experience, but of his experience of that content. In empathy, one takes the place of the other without becoming strictly identical to him. It is not just understanding the experiences of the other, but in some sense taking them on as one’s own.
Obviously this ability to enter into another’s life is especially helpful within marriage, but it can and should be exercised in other relationships as well. For women who are single, or for those who have consecrated themselves wholly to God, this aspect of their vocation should take on a more universal scope, and will call for a more disinterested {that is to say a more divine} kind of love. Everyone who knew Edith Stein tells us that she was a living example of this capacity for empathy. Her spiritual director in the late '20s, Abbot Raphael Walzer, wrote that she possessed “a tender, even maternal, solicitude for others. She was plain and direct with ordinary people, learned with the scholars, a fellow-seeker with those searching for the truth. I could almost say she was a sinner with the sinners.”

* * * * * * * *

The Life of St. Edith Stein Canonized by John Paul II on October 11, 1998.

"We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting ... and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God." These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.
Who was this woman?

Edith Stein was born in Breslau on 12 October 1891, the youngest of 11, as her family were celebrating Yom Kippur, that most important Jewish festival, the Feast of Atonement. "More than anything else, this helped make the youngest child very precious to her mother." Being born on this day was like a foreshadowing to Edith, a future Carmelite nun.
In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to G6ttingen University, to study under the mentorship of Edmund Husserl. She became his pupil and teaching assistant, and he later tutored her for a doctorate. At the time, anyone who was interested in philosophy was fascinated by Husserl's new view of reality, whereby the world as we perceive it does not merely exist in a Kantian way, in our subjective perception. His pupils saw his philosophy as a return to objects: "back to things". Husserl's phenomenology unwittingly led many of his pupils to the Christian faith. In G6ttingen Edith Stein also met the philosopher Max Scheler, who directed her attention to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, she did not neglect her "bread-and-butter" studies and passed her degree with distinction in January 1915, though she did not follow it up with teacher training.
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."
Later, she wrote: "Things were in God's plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that - from God's point of view - there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God's divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God's all-seeing eyes."
In Autumn 1918 Edith Stein gave up her job as Husserl's teaching assistant. She wanted to work independently. It was not until 1930 that she saw Husserl again after her conversion, and she shared with him about her faith, as she would have liked him to become a Christian, too. Then she wrote down the amazing words: "Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust."
Edith Stein wanted to obtain a professorship, a goal that was impossible for a woman at the time. Husserl wrote the following reference: "Should academic careers be opened up to ladies, then I can recommend her whole-heartedly and as my first choice for admission to a professorship." Later, she was refused a professorship on account of her Jewishness.
Back in Breslau, Edith Stein began to write articles about the philosophical foundation of psychology. However, she also read the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. She felt that one could not just read a book like that, but had to put it into practice.

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. Hedwig washer godmother. "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." From this moment on she was continually aware that she belonged to Christ not only spiritually, but also through her blood. At the Feast of the Purification of Mary - another day with an Old Testament reference - she was confirmed by the Bishop of Speyer in his private chapel.
After her conversion she went straight to Breslau: "Mother," she said, "I am a Catholic." The two women cried. Hedwig Conrad Martius wrote: "Behold, two Israelites indeed, in whom is no deceit!" (cf. John 1:47).

Immediately after her conversion she wanted to join a Carmelite convent. However, her spiritual mentors, Vicar-General Schwind of Speyer, and Erich Przywara SJ, [mentor in the metaphysics of the analogia entis of Urs von Balthasar] stopped her from doing so. Until Easter 1931 she held a position teaching German and history at the Dominican Sisters' school and teacher training college of St. Magdalen's Convent in Speyer. At the same time she was encouraged by Arch-Abbot Raphael Walzer of Beuron Abbey to accept extensive speaking engagements, mainly on women's issues. "During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I ... thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one's mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world... I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself' in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it."
She worked enormously hard, translating the letters and diaries of Cardinal Newman from his pre-Catholic period as well as Thomas Aquinas' Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate. The latter was a very free translation, for the sake of dialogue with modern philosophy. Erich Przywara also encouraged her to write her own philosophical works.
In 1931 Edith Stein left the convent school in Speyer and devoted herself to working for a professorship again, this time in Breslau and Freiburg, though her endeavours were in vain. It was then that she wrote Potency and Act, a study of the central concepts developed by Thomas Aquinas. Later, at the Carmelite Convent in Cologne, she rewrote this study to produce her main philosophical and theological oeuvre, Finite and Eternal Being. By then, however, it was no longer possible to print the book.

In 1932 she accepted a lectureship position at the Roman Catholic division of the German Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Munster, where she developed her anthropology. She successfully combined scholarship and faith in her work and her teaching, seeking to be a "tool of the Lord" in everything she taught. "If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him."

In 1933 darkness broke out over Germany. "I had heard of severe measures against Jews before. But now it dawned on me that God had laid his hand heavily on His people, and that the destiny of these people would also be mine." The Aryan Law of the Nazis made it impossible for Edith Stein to continue teaching. "If I can't go on here, then there are no longer any opportunities for me in Germany," she wrote; "I had become a stranger in the world."
The Arch-Abbot of Beuron, Walzer, now no longer stopped her from entering a Carmelite convent. While in Speyer, she had already taken a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. In 1933 she met with the prioress of the Carmelite Convent in Cologne. "Human activities cannot help us, but only the suffering of Christ. It is my desire to share in it."
When she made her eternal profession on 21 April 1938, she had the words of St. John of the Cross printed on her devotional picture: "Henceforth my only vocation is to love." Her final work was to be devoted to this author.
Edith Stein's entry into the Carmelite Order was not escapism. "Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for them, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone." In particular, she interceded to God for her people: "I keep thinking of Queen Esther who was taken away from her people precisely because God wanted her to plead with the king on behalf of her nation. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther, but the King who has chosen me is infinitely great and merciful. This is great comfort." (31 October 1938)
On 9 November 1938 the anti-Semitism of the Nazis became apparent to the whole world.
In Echt, Edith Stein hurriedly completed her study of "The Church's Teacher of Mysticism and the Father of the Carmelites, John of the Cross, on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of His Birth, 1542-1942." In 1941 she wrote to a friend, who was also a member of her order: "One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: 'Ave, Crux, Spes unica' (I welcome you, Cross, our only hope)." Her study on St. John of the Cross is entitled: "Kreuzeswissenschaft" (The Science of the Cross).
Edith Stein was arrested by the Gestapo on 2 August 1942, while she was in the chapel with the other sisters. She was to report within five minutes, together with her sister Rosa, who had also converted and was serving at the Echt Convent. Her last words to be heard in Echt were addressed to Rosa: "Come, we are going for our people."
Together with many other Jewish Christians, the two women were taken to a transit camp in Amersfoort and then to Westerbork. This was an act of retaliation against the letter of protest written by the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops against the pogroms and deportations of Jews. Edith commented, "I never knew that people could be like this, neither did I know that my brothers and sisters would have to suffer like this. ... I pray for them every hour. Will God hear my prayers? He will certainly hear them in their distress." Prof. Jan Nota, who was greatly attached to her, wrote later: "She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent."
On 7 August, early in the morning, 987 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. It was probably on 9 August that Sister Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, her sister and many other of her people were gassed.When Edith Stein was beatified in Cologne on 1 May 1987, the Church honoured "a daughter of Israel", as Pope John Paul II put it, "who, as a Catholic during Nazi persecution, remained faithful to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and, as a Jew, to her people in loving faithfulness" (underline mine).

[1] From John Sullivan, OCD. SYMPOSIUM INTERNATIONALE EDITH STEIN Rome - Teresianum1998.

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