The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:04:20

Edith Stein, Jewess, Carmelite nun, phenomenologist, personalist, feminist, patroness

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 10, 2012

Yesterday, August 9, was the feast day of Edith Stein, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, one of the patron saints and philosophical forebears of the Personal Project. The Vatican has a good short biography here.  Born to a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, she was part of the circle of brilliant students who, in the early years of the 20th century, gathered in Göttingen around Edmund Husserl, Adolf Reinach and Max Scheler to study phenomenology.  Later (partly through Scheler's influence) she converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun, and ultimately died a martyr for her faith in Auschwitz.

Jules and I were in Rome on the great day of her Canonization in 1998.

Apart from the shared training in phenomenological realism, we find inspiration in Edith Stein's fundamentally personalist approach to philosophy and to life.  Her doctoral dissertation was on the problem of empathy.  Later she delved into study of the philosophical foundations of psychology.  

Her religious life, too, had a conspicuously personalist emphasis. Note this milestone on her journey toward faith:

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."

She is here struck not by the truth of dogma, but by the possibility of "intimate conversation" between an ordinary person and God.  Another milestone was her meeting with Adolf Reinach's wife soon after he'd been killed in war. (Both he and his wife had recently been converted to Christianity.)

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."

Again, what appeals to this supreme intellectual is not the objective, rational content of faith, but its personal dimension—its power to touch and transform human lives.

Another key moment—one identified by Pope John Paul II as clear evidence of her conscious martyrdom—came when she saw that none of her arguments availed to convince her esteemed Professor Husserl of the truth that was so luminous to her.  She wrote these beautiful words, revealing at once the ardor of her desire to impart truth and her realization that it could only be done by way of her own personal suffering, a gift of self, in love:

Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.

For Edith, as for us (at least in aspiration!), personal life, intellectual life and religious life are bound up together:

Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: "My longing for truth was a single prayer.

A propos of my post the other day about recent developments in Catholic understanding regarding women and marriage, it's interesting to note that before her conversion, Edith Stein was (by her own description) "a radical suffragette."  Her early attraction to philosophy was linked to a keen interest in "women's issues."  This interest continued after her conversion and throughout her professional life as a teacher before she entered Carmel.  One of her best known books is a collection of essays called WomanWoman is noteworthy both for its openness to the valid insights of femininism and its effort to bring them into critical engagement with Christianity and tradition.  Look at this line, for example:

Thus the participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society, private or public, precisely if the specificially feminine ethos would be preserved.

She suffered personally the problem of social injustices against women.  Though she had earned a doctorate summa cum laude from a prestigious university, she could not become a professor of philosophy in Germany, because she was a woman.  Instead, she humbly accepted a teaching position at a convent school for girls.

Like John Paul II, Edith Stein sees that woman's subordination to man is not the "original order" for human life, but a punishment for her fall from grace.

Woman's labor in childbirth and man's struggle for existence resulted from the Fall.  The woman is punished further by subjugation to the man.  That he will not be a good master can be seen in his attempt to shift responsibility for the sin from himself onto his wife.  The serene community of love has ended.

She doesn't go as far as the future Pope in recognizing that, in the order of grace, this subjugation is overcome by the "mutual subjection" of husband and wife.  She still grants a certain "pre-eminence" in the social order to men.  But by her deeply intelligent and faith-filled grappling with these questions, she was certainly among those who helped the Church to a new and deeper appropriation of the mystery of the dignity of women.  

Watch how freely and boldly she critiques some Pauline passages about women.

Here, even more strongly than in the Letter to the Corinthians, one has the impression that the original order and the redemptive order are subordinated by the order of fallen nature, and that the Apostle still expresses himself distinctly as a Jew in the spirit of the law...What is said here is not to be considered as binding for the principal teaching on the relationship of the sexes.  It contradicts too strongly the words and the whole custom of the Lord who had women among his closest companions, and who showed at every turn in His redemptive work that He was as concerned about the soul of woman as the soul of man.  It even contradicts that passage of Paul himself which possibly expresses most purely the spirit of the gospel. "The law was our schoolmaster until Christ came to teach that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under the tutelage of the law...There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female.  For you are all one in Christ Jesus." [Emphasis hers]

Here one senses not irreverence, not arrogance, but lively confidence in the unity of Truth and the freedom we have been given in Christ.  There, too, she is a model for the Personal Project.

St. Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.