Happy Feast Day to this Incredible Woman: Edith Stein, philosopher, feminist, Saint, martyr

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Edith Stein, canonized St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Pope John Paul II in 1998, is the only woman philosopher acknowledged, among the likes of Church Fathers, Medieval Doctors, and more recent thinkers such as John Henry Newman and Jacques Maritain in John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio as a courageous thinker whose philosophical enquiry was enriched by engaging the data of faith.[1]

On the occasion of her canonization, the Pope says this about St. Teresa Benedica of the Cross:

The love of Christ was the fire that inflamed the life of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Long before she realized it, she was caught by this fire. At the beginning she devoted herself to freedom. For a long time Edith Stein was a seeker. Her mind never tired of searching and her heart always yearned for hope. She traveled the arduous path of philosophy with passionate enthusiasm. Eventually she was rewarded: she seized the truth. Or better: she was seized by it. Then she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ.

From that moment on, the incarnate Word was her One and All. Looking back as a Carmelite on this period of her life, she wrote to a Benedictine nun: “Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously.” [St. Teresa Benedicta] was able to understand that the love of Christ and human freedom are intertwined, because love and truth have an intrinsic relationship. The quest for truth and its expression in love did not seem at odds to her; on the contrary she realized that they call for one another.[2]

Edith Stein, seized by the love of Christ, understood the intimate relationship between love and truth. She took recourse to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a source of strength and consolation during the horrific period in human history instilled with Nazi ideology and crime.

Born in 1891 to a large devout Jewish family, Stein lost her father at the age of two but had a mother who provided an inspirational model of a well-balanced professional and domestic woman. Despite her religious upbringing, Stein identified with atheism by her teenage years. From 1913 to 1922 she studied and worked under Edmund Husserl, the father of the phenomenological school of philosophy. During this period she devoted her research to the topic of empathy.[3] Thanks to her friendship with Christian thinkers, as well as her reading of St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography,[4] she came into the Church on 1 January 1922. Dissuaded by her spiritual advisers from immediately entering religious life, she obtained a teaching position at St. Magdalen’s Convent, run by the Dominican nuns, in Spyer. She taught young women from 1923 to 1931. During her teaching stint, she familiarized herself with Catholic philosophy, primarily through the study of St. Thomas Aquinas, in order to bridge Catholic thought with phenomenology.[5]

From 1928 to 1932, Stein, hired by the Catholic Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, toured Europe as a lecturer for the Catholic Women’s Movement on the topic of woman’s nature and vocation as part of her collaboration with the reform of Catholic schools taking place in Germany. She had to resign her post in 1933 due to anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazi government.[6] In 1933, Edith Stein entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery, Our Lady of Peace, in Cologne and took the religious name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Sadly, her mother never accepted her conversion to Catholicism nor did she communicate with her daughter ever again once Stein made her religious vows.[7] To avoid growing Nazi threat she was eventually transferred to a Carmel in Echt, Netherlands. During her time in Echt, she taught the sisters Latin and philosophy. This move, however, proved vain. As punishment for the Dutch Bishop’s Conference 20 July 1942 public statement condemning Nazism, the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts who had previously been spared. Along with two hundred and forty-three baptized Jews living in the Netherlands, Stein was arrested by the SS on 2 August 1942. She died in Auschwitz on 7 August 1942 by poisonous gas.

Check out Bishop Robert Barron’s video on St. Edith Stein.

St. Edith Stein, pray for us!

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[1] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on the Relationship between Faith and Reason Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998)§74.

[2] John Paul II, Homily for the Canonization of Edith Stein (11 October 1998), § 5-6.

[3] Stein’s doctoral dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy (1916)She wrote her dissertation during her studies as a philosophy student at the University of Göttingen under Edmund Husserl and prior to her conversion to Catholicism. In her dissertation, Stein provides an analysis of the phenomenon of empathy, one of the basic forms of intersubjectivity upon which more complex forms of interpersonal relationships are built. Within this analysis, she offers a philosophy of emotions as constitutive elements of the personality while linking them to values.

[4] Stein attributes her conversion to her reading of St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. She read St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography in one sitting and, upon finishing it, said, “This is truth.” Freda Mary Oben, Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint, (New York: Alba House, 1988), 17.

[5] In 1929, Stein published “Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison,”[5] a comparative study of phenomenology and Thomism aimed at uncovering the continuities and discontinuities in these two schools of thought and at reconciling apparent paradoxes. Dr. John Gueguen’s essay “St. Edith Stein on Phenomenology and Scholasticism: Toward Rapprochement of Classical and Modern Philosophy.” John Gueguen, “St. Edith Stein on Phenomenology and Scholasticism: Toward Rapprochement of Classical and Modern Philosophy,” (Normal: Illinois State University, 2003).

[6] Edith Stein, “Letter to Pope Pius XI,” (20 April 1933), trans. Suzanne Batzdorff, http://www.baltimorecarmel.org/saints/Stein/letter%20to%20pope.htm.

[7] “Edith Stein went to Breslau for the last time, to say goodbye to her mother and her family. Her last day at home was her birthday, 12 October 1933, which was also the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Edith went to the synagogue with her mother. It was a hard day for the two women. “Why did you become acquainted with it [Christianity]?” her mother asked. “I don’t want to say anything against him. He may have been a very good person. But why did he make himself God?” Edith’s mother cried. The following day Edith was on the train to Cologne. “I did not feel any passionate joy. What I had just experienced was too terrible. But I felt a profound peace—in the safe haven of God’s will”. From now on she wrote to her mother every week, though she never received any replies.” “Edith Stein: Daughter of Israel, Philosopher, Carmelite, Martyr,” L’Osservatore Romano Weekly English English, 14 October 1998, p. 2.

 

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