Month: August 2013

The mystical imperative

A cold dusty winter edging into a cold green spring.

God told me to do it. Reading a report  which claims that  Pope Benedict XVI resigned after ‘a mystical experience’ in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an ‘absolute desire’ to remain alone with him in prayer.


In my experience  most religious institutions don’t care much for the mystical, not least because the mystical defies many of  our prized categories of rational or logical or realistic discourse. But  the great mystics in every  religious or faith tradition bear witness not only to the unknowability of  the Divine, they  also point to what is most unexpected and  unpredictable in  our life of prayer, that prayer is a dangerous activity that changes us and leads us into  places we would rather not  go.


Conversion of the heart is a human impossibility and yet this is how  God works, taking  from us the heart of stone and  giving us a heart that can bleed, suffer and rejoice.




A Month of Feasting

A very difficult and painful month with the  illness of someone who is family to me.

I wanted to get here last week and post about St  Teresa Benedicta of the Cross because I have taken several books out on my study table to do with the mystery and paradoxes of Edith Stein. For me she has always been close to  Simone Weil in her fierce questioning, searching intellect and the integrity of that life of duelling and dual identities. She  brings together so many oppositional influences and qualities, her  synthesising power was  so little understood.

“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.

Edith Stein was born on the  Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, in Breslau, Germany. Her father died when she was just two years old, she would never know him. Her mother was an astute  businesswoman and  devout in her  Jewish faith.

Like many other Jewish-German citizens, Edith Stein was  influenced by  both the  movement towards assimilation and the prevalent intellectual  secularism of Germany’s more prosperous classes. She  entered the University of  Breslau in 1911 as an agnostic, a free-thinker. She  became a member of the  Prussian Society for  Women’s Franchise and  wanted to study  philosophy rather than history. A new century, new ideas, dreams of equality and justice, the  philosophical lessons to be learned from history and the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. To look back on that optimism now  gives me a shrinking feeling of  horror, but who knew then what the 20th century held in store?

In 1913, Edith Stein transferred to the beautiful ancient university of Gottingen to study under the phenomenologist Edmund  Husserl.

To understand, the book  Edith Stein would later write, her Wissenschaft or Science of the Cross, I have had to go back to the  insight of Immanuel Kant and the distinction he drew between the  noumenal and the phenomenological as two separate realities. The noumenal world is the  world as it exists in itself. The  phenomenological world is this same reality as it is  perceived and  conceptualised and understood by us. We cannot perceive or understand the noumenal reality  independent of our ideas about it.

At that time, through the 18th and 19th centuries, reality was seen to be located in three-dimensional space, moving through absolute Newtonian time and explained  by natural causal laws. Now, in the 21st century,  we  have a different hypothesis: the theory of relativity has changed our notions of Euclidean space and Newtonian time, and quantum mechanics has replaced our notion of causal determinism with a probabilistic form of causation. But the noumenal reality still operates independently of  our theories about it.

Under Husserl, Edith Stein looked at what we  are able to  discover and know of the noumenal from experiential knowledge of the phenomenal. Would the  psychology of human experience lead to  the transcendent? Husserl himself gradually  moved towards what he called ‘intersubjective transcendentalism’. As the  First World War tore Europe apart, Edith Stein worked with Husserl as a teaching assistant and studied with him  from 1916 until 1922.

I have to remind myself  sometimes that  Freud  was working in Vienna at the same time. Psychology, the understanding of human consciousness and motivations and the problem of  emotional illness, did not exist yet. This work done under the shadow and tragedy of war is a fledgling science and discipline, the crux of  what would later become our major  field of  ‘knowing’ ourselves and others.

And Edith Stein begins with the problem of empathy, her  dissertation presented in 1916. She  does voluntary work as a Red Cross nurse in a military hospital working with wounded men needing post-operative care. She changes bedpans, applies bandages, wipes faces, sits with dying men.

Her life no longer seems her own when  faced with the suffering and death all around, and she  poses this question in her thesis: Are we prisoners of our selves, trapped only in a world of private sense perceptions, unable to communicate with one another, or can we truly know the experience of others as if it was our own experience?

She wants to go on and lecture in philosophy, but Husserl will not support her because she is a woman. Her thesis on ‘sentient causalty’ is rejected because  she is a woman. A door closes, as it did for many other women.

And she  turns in a different direction, something unexpected happens to her.

During long summer  holidays in Bad Bergzabern in 1921, she reads the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. This  is not as ‘instantaneous’ a  coincidence as it has often by made to sound, as we know from Stein’s letters and  writings. As a philosopher, she was profoundly influenced by the work of Max Scheler during his Catholic period and the heroic witness of her Catholic friend Anne Reinach, the widow of fellow philosopher Adolf Reinach, who fell in the war in November 1917.

As a convert myself, I  am always  enthralled by  accounts of conversion, often more gradual than sudden. Edith Stein took down, as if by chance, Teresa of Avila’s Life and stayed up all night reading it. I am inclined to believe she sought out this particular book, moved by inner promptings. The time was right, the receptivity was there.

In the morning she put down the book and said: ‘This is the truth.’

On January 1, 1922, she is baptised as a Roman Catholic.

She gives up her work with Husserl and  Heidigger to teach from 1923 until 1931 in a school run by Dominican nuns. While teaching, she translates Thomas Aquinas’ De Veritate and  studies Thomism in the hope of finding some bridge or passage between her  phenomenological understandings and Thomism.

In 1932, Edith Stein will  accept a lecturing position at a Catholic  institute, the Institute for Scientific  Pedagogy in Munster. Nazi anti-semitic legislation forces her to resign, but she does not go quietly.

She writes to Pope  Pius XI in 1933 and asked him to denounce the  Nazi regime. The  Pope does not answer. All of Europe, it seems, has fallen silent in the face of  the persecution of  Jews. And it is already too late.

As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews…But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.

Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself ‘Christian.’ For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. —Edith Stein, Letter to Pope Pius XI

Edith stein

A Jesuit Pope on the feast of St Ignatius

Via the Dish:


“Ask for the grace of shame; the shame that comes from the constant dialogue of mercy with Him; the shame that makes us blush before Jesus Christ; the shame that puts us in tune with the heart of Christ who is made sin for me; the shame that harmonizes our heart in tears and accompanies us in the daily following of “my Lord”.

And this always brings us, as individuals and as a Company, to humility, to living this great virtue. Humility that makes us understand, each day, that it is not for us to build the Kingdom of God, but it is always the grace of God working within us; humility that pushes us to put our whole being not at the service of ourselves and our own ideas, but at the service of Christ and of the Church, like clay pots, fragile, inadequate, insufficient, but having within them an immense treasure that we carry and that we communicate,”


Pope Francis at a mass today to celebrate the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.