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