by MARIE ROSS
When we think of saints, we may conjure up an image of other-worldly types, somewhat divorced from reality and prone to mystical experiences alien to lesser mortals.
The reality cannot be further from the truth.
Edith Stein was an unlikely person to have ever become Christian, let alone a saint. The youngest of 11 children of a middle-class Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, Edith’s expected future lay within her family and community. Yet this precocious, intelligent and gifted child was destined to make her mark in this world in a most unexpected way.
She was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (now Poland). She died on August 9, 1942, in a gas chamber at Auschwitz death camp.
Religion played a role in the life of the Stein family, as Frau Stein was a devout woman, but the rest of the family were more liberal free-thinkers for whom religion played a minor role.
Edith’s enquiring, questioning mind and precocious nature saw her attending school at a young age. Already she was beginning to seek the answers to questions that would shape the rest of her life.
By the time she was 16, Edith had decided that she no longer had need of a “personal God” and stopped praying. Religious observance was continued only out of respect for her mother, for it no longer had any meaning.
Some writers have been uncomfortable about her atheism, preferring to gloss over it as agnosticism, or ignoring it. This is a mistake, as this period was most important for her life of enquiry and discovery.
In Edith Stein’s story, the simple faith of her childhood was to be radically transformed, leading her to the core of the truth in the heart of God.
It was not a simple process, nor did it happen overnight. In her new-found atheism, Edith rejected the Jewishness of her upbringing, yet retained a sense that there was more to human existence than mere existence itself.
Unlike most atheists, the question for her was never one of, “Is there a God?” but, “What is the truth?”
In 1911, university careers for women were rare. Only the best and brightest could enrol. Edith knew early on that she wanted to become a teacher, and enrolled at the University of Breslau. Initially studying German and history, she soon turned to psychology, attracted by its focus on the workings of the human mind and the insights into the human experience using the soul as the centre of the person. Hoping to eventually research this question from the viewpoint of cognitive psychology, Edith became disappointed by the quantitative approach based on natural sciences that aimed at proving the non-existence of the soul, regarding it as “irrational and mythological”.
Dissatisfied with such thinking, she pursued her research until coming across Logical Investigations by Edmund Husserl. Husserl was the most prominent philosopher in Germany, pioneering a new school of thought known as “Phenomenology” — “a philosophy in which human consciousness seeks to perceive objects in themselves as they exist outside a person’s own subjective consciousness”.
Here at last was the way to truth for Edith. She transferred to the University of Göttingen to study under Husserl and qualified with a PhD in philosophy in 1916. She was his most talented pupil. Barred from teaching in university because she was a woman, she became Husserl’s assistant at the Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg and, at the same time, taught in girls’ schools.
Her conversion to Christianity, and later to Catholicism, was not based on one single event or person. Husserl’s phenomenology, although with atheistic roots, nevertheless was instrumental in several of his students becoming Christian. For Edith, it was a natural progression, but with other factors being involved, such as her friendships with Catholic colleagues such as the philosopher Max Scheler, and reading an autobiography of St Teresa of Avila.
She read the autobiography of Teresa of Avila in one night. In it she found the direction of the truth she had been searching for. Her period of atheism had ended.
In 1922 she was baptised and began teaching in a Dominican girl’s school in Speyer, as well as immersing herself in Catholic philosophy and literature. Gradually she devoted her whole life to God, and made the decision to join a religious order.
Initially she was rejected several times by the Dominicans and the Carmelites. She was invaluable as a teacher and lecturer, travelling to different cities and teaching in a variety of institutions around the country before convincing her spiritual director of her wish to enter the Carmelite order.
She entered the Carmelite order in Cologne and took on the name Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
n Journey of discovery
The following 12 years were highly productive, as she turned out several books of spiritual philosophy. For the first time, Edith could draw together her Jewish background and philosophical career into her Catholic life, acknowledging their close link to each other. For the first time she could appreciate the connection she had with religion through her Jewish upbringing and how it tied in with Catholicism, bringing her to a closer understanding of God.
Much could be written about the depth of Edith’s spiritual philosophy. She was a vital, active, intelligent woman who enjoyed life, was noted as a superb educator, concerned with social justice (she worked as a volunteer nurse during the First World War), a political commentator, feminist (she promoted the value of women as nurturers in the workplace and the home, supported the right to vote and campaigned for women to be allowed to teach in universities), an academic, teacher and philosopher.
Family and friends were central to her life, along with her dedication of her life to God. She was a woman of prayer, a mystic who transformed herself into a loving child of God.
Edith remained open to discovery, never discounting other ways of thinking simply because they did not accord with hers. She remained open minded, because it was truth that mattered.
The truth did not lie in atheism, psychology or philosophy alone, but was part of the journey of discovery that led her to the truth.
She wrote: “We are a spiritually impoverished generation; we search in all the places the Spirit ever flowed in the hope of finding water. And that is a valid impulse. For if the Spirit is living and never dies, he must still be present wherever he once was active forming human life and the work of human hands. Not in a trail of monuments . . . but in a secret, mysterious life. He is like a small but carefully tended spark, ready to flare, glow, and burst into flame the moment he feels the first enkindling breath.”
Edith Stein was beatified on May 11, 1987, by Pope John Paul II. She was canonised St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on October 11, 1998, and declared co-patroness of Europe in 1999.
— This article was first published in the June edition of the quarterly Helensville parish magazine Together as One. Marie Ross is a parishioner of Helensville parish.
by MARIE ROSS