Edith Stein: Seeker of Truth in a World devoid of Light, Part I

Edith Stein:
Seeker of Truth in a World devoid of Light
Part I

by
Brad Kronen

Honoring the feast day of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, August 9th

Edith Stein Lay Clothes

An image of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross also known as Saint Edith Stein.  The image depicts Edith holding the coat of arms representing the Carmelite Order in one hand while the other holds the theoretical tome of “Philosophy”.  She wears a yellow Star of David with the German word “Jude” in the middle, meaning “Jew” along with the barbed wire perimeter and outer watch tower of the Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz can be seen in the background.

 

I have always been fascinated by authoritative figures within the realm of organized religion who come from backgrounds that are anything but religious or where they begin life following a faith with a foundation that seems almost diametrically opposed from the one they come to eventually embrace. Thus is the case with a Jewish woman born as Edith Stein who would eventually become the Catholic saint named Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. 

 

Within Catholicism’s School of Saints, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is truly unique.  Although reaching the highest level of Catholic spirituality, as a canonized saint Edith’s identity is still closely intertwined with her religion of birth given the fact Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’ life ended in Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi extermination centers established during the Second World War which were built with the intent of annihilating the Jewish people as a whole.

 

But Edith Stein’s unconventional uniqueness as a Catholic saint isn’t solely because she was born into an observant Jewish family and eventually became a Catholic cloistered nun.  Two other factors contribute to this 20th century saint’s exceptional nature both as a major religious figure as well as an inspirational feminist.

 

Edith was born to a family of dedicated Jews but that was not her chosen religion at the time she made the decision to become a Catholic.  In her late teens, Stein broke from her native faith of Judaism when she began to subscribe to a belief system that was anything but religious by becoming an adamant atheist. She maintained her stance in the disbelief in the existence of a Higher Power until the age of 30 but her world perspective and inner spirituality were completely altered when Edith came upon the writings of the 16th century mystic, Teresa of Avila.

 

From a religious perspective Stein’s very atypical path of spiritual evolution is more than intriguing,  but the woman who died as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a feminist icon of inspiration as well when considering she earned a doctoral degree in Philosophy, and was the second woman ever to accomplish that level of academic achievement in Germany’s history. Stein’s accomplishment is even more impressive with the added distinction that her doctoral degree was bestowed with summa cum laude honors from the University of Freiburg in 1916.  Alongside her contributions to Philosophy,  Edith Stein additionally was a well reputed lecturer of Women’s Issues throughout the 1920’s, a time in Western History when the phrase “Women’s Issue” was just a euphemistic way of describing a menstrual cycle and nothing more.


Clearly this was a woman of innovative intellect who forged her own path of spiritual evolution by merging philosophy, religion, and even ecstasy all into one  holistic state of consciousness and applying that transcendant dynamic to both her world view as well as her day to day life..

 

And she did so all within the traditional constructs of organized religion.

 

But even with that said, Edith Stein would find herself placed at a point in time where the world around her would be in fierce opposition not only to her intellectual brilliance  brought about by religious growth and exapansion but to her very existence as well.   A world bereft of any goodwill towards men that was utterly devoid of Love’s light.

 

 

The Early Jewish Life of a  Saint

 

Edith Stein Child

Edith Stein at age 2 circa 1893

 


Edith Hedwig Stein
was born on October 12th, 1891 to a religiously observant Jewish family in what was then Germany that is now Poland.  She was the youngest of 11 children and was born on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar known as the “Day of Atonement” or in Hebrew “Yom Kippur“.   Interestingly, Stein was born in Breslau, a Prussian town where another Jewish intellectual of renown also hailed from, the Nobel Laureate insidiously dubbed the “Father of Chemical Warfare”, Fritz Haber.

 

Edith’s father, Siegfried Stein, was a successful lumber merchant in Breslau but died while Edith was still a toddler, leaving her mother, Auguste, to take over the family business.  It was Auguste Stein’s determined goal that her children were each to be educated to their highest level of ability.  By all accounts Edith was a precociously bright child, jumping ahead grades during her elementary years.

 

Auguste Stein strongly encouraged her children to be “rational thinkers” and this would greatly influence Edith as a feminist, becoming, as she put it, a “radical suffragette” upon entering college.

 

Edith Stein 1920's

Edith Stein the “radical suffragette”
circa 1911

 

It was also at this time that Edith turned away from religion all together by becoming an atheist as earlier mentioned.  Instead of blindly following the dictates of a Higher Power without any questioning or rational analysis, Edith instead decided to focus on a path of higher education where the essence of what she considered to be “God” was replaced by her intellectual pursuit of “Truth”.

 

“Do not accept anything as Love that lacks Truth.” – Edith Stein

 

It was during her college years that Edith discovered a particular branch of study that not only dealt with Truth as an absolute but also applied that concept to alter one’s perception of the tangible and the intangible – Philosophy.

 

Phenomenology

 

While at the University of Freiburg, Edith studied under the tutelage of Edmund Husserl, the mathematician turned philosopher who established the philosophical study which examined various structures of consciousness and the phenomena each was associated with better known as Phenomenology.  Stein embraced Husserl’s teachings to such an extent that in a short period of time she went from being the philosopher’s top student to his right-hand teaching assistant.

 

Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl
Founder of the Philosophical School of Phenomenology
circa 1908

 


Where the Cartesian method of philosophical analysis saw the world as objects or sets of objects which acted and reacted amongst each other, phenomenology expanded a person’s perception of the world through various levels of consciousness with each level having its own distinct experiences or “phenomena”.

 

World War I


Edith’s college education was interrupted when in July of 1914, World War I began in Europe.  Rolling up her sleeves, Stein volunteered as a nurse for the Red Cross at an Austrian field hospital focusing on infectious diseases.  Assigned to the typhus ward, Edith witnessed first hand the horrors of war as well as the fragility of life as she helplessly watched  young soldiers succumb to the deadly disease.  Because of her ever-calm nature, Edith Stein’s efforts as a nurse during WWI earned her Germany’s Medal of Valor for Bravery.

 

 

Edith Stein Nurse World War I

During World War I Edith Stein volunteered as a nurse for the Red Cross and was assigned to the typhus ward at an Austrian field hospital.  Her ever present sense of calm displayed during WWI as a nurse earned Stein Germany’s Medal of Valor for Bravery.

 

With the First World War drawing to a close, Stein was able to complete her dissertation entitled “On the Problem of Empathy” and was awarded a doctoral degree from the University of Freiburg in 1916, complete with “summa cum laude” honors.  A notable achievement for any student but an academic distinction that was unheard of for a woman to attain at that time, given the fact Edith Stein was only the second woman in Germany’s history to earn a PhD.

 

Teresa of Avila – Mystical Visionary of the Carmelite Order


Stein’s perception of the world as she knew it became both transformed and transcended upon her encountering the “phenomena” of the medieval mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila. Some sources say Stein came across Teresa’s autobiography while house sitting for a friend, others say she found the mystic’s writing on a book shelf at a girl’s dormitory she was temporarily staying at while on a lecturing tour, either way Edith’s discovery of  the medieval mystic’s writings was an unplanned occurrence that was an act of fated Destiny, just the same, given the profound influence the Spanish saint’s words would have over Edith for the rest of her life.  She became so engrossed reading the Catholic nun’s autobiography  that she stayed up all night, completing the entire piece in one sitting.  According to Stein upon finishing Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, she said to herself “This is the Truth.”


Just as Phenomenology had various levels of consciousness, Teresa of Avila’s process of  connecting to a divine source was somewhat structurally similar to phenomenological principle, particularly regarding her discussion of the ascent of the soul and how it becomes closer and more in union with that which is God through Four Stages or “Devotions”:

1. Devotion of the Heart – involving mental prayer

2. Devotion of Peace – where human will is surrendered to God and mental processes such as memory and imagination are trained to no longer be used as tools of distraction.

3. Devotion of Union – where the soul is absorbed by God through supernatural means

4. Devotion of Ecstasy – where consciousness and awareness of the body disappear through the soul’s full absorption by God rendering a person to be left in an ecstatic state of bliss.


Teresa of Avila believed that the basis of what we considered God was unto itself, the power of unconditional Love.


“It is Love alone that gives worth to all things.”

– Teresa of Avila

 

Following her introduction to the world of mysticism through the writings of Teresa of Avila, Edith knew that not only did she want to become a Catholic, she believed she was given a vocational calling to join the same religious order of nuns the great mystic belonged to, namely the cloistered Order of the Carmelites.

 

In 1922 at the age of 31, Edith Stein was baptized and later that year was confirmed, becoming a fully-fledged member of the Catholic faith. Stein wanted to then immediately begin the process of becoming a novitiate intent on eventually taking the many strict vows associated with joining the Carmelite Order, but was dissuaded from doing so by various mentors who felt her knowledge needed to be shared with the world, not hidden away within the cut off existence of cloistered convent life.  Those same mentors also suggested that the time had come for Edith to not only apply her brilliant mind to the analysis of other philosophers but to become a philosopher in her own right.

 

“…To pursue scholarship as a service to God. It was not until I had understood this that I seriously began to approach academic work again.” – Edith Stein

 

When considered from a feminist perspective, Stein’s reasoning quoted above is truly revolutionary.  It was expected that a European woman in the early 20th century deferred her own aspirations and goals to be of complete service to her husband and family.  If neither husband nor family were present, then that woman would subvert her aspired hopes to those whom she worked for or lived with.  By acknowledging she had unique thoughts of philosophical brilliance of her own making, it didn’t matter whether Edith was a Jew, a Catholic, a nun, or even a woman.  Her gifts of intellect needed to be put to constructive use if at the very least to honor and praise the Creator who bestowed them upon her.

To not do so was in effect allowing those gifts allotted from God to lay in total waste.

 

“Those who seek Truth, seek God, whether it is clear to them or not.” – Edith Stein

 

Dissuaded from cloistered religious life, for most of the 1920’s Edith Stein became a teacher at a school run by Dominican nuns while also lecturing and pursuing her own philosophical endeavors.

 

But not before grappling with that philosophical powerhouse of a force that is otherwise known as  Thomas Aquinas…


The Catholic Force that IS Thomas Aquinas


Saint Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Dominican monk and theologian, whose philosophical tenets are the basis of all Catholic doctrine.  As recently as 1914, the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Pius X publicly stated that anyone saying they understood the workings of Catholicism and its Church would be making a false claim if they were not also equally well familiar with the philosophical principles of Thomas Aquinas.

 

Thomas Aquinas

Since all Catholic doctrine has its basis in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, images of the 13th century Dominican monk often show one hand holding his own writing with the other holding a miniature building, representing the Catholic Church as one unified institution beneath his philosophical leadership.

 

How the Catholic Church views such existential heavy hitters as “reality” and “being” are foundationally based  in the core principles established by the school of philosophical thought established by Thomas Aquinas known as “Thomism”.

 

At the core of Thomism is a concept already previously mentioned that everyone should be at least semi familiar with – Truth.  And according to Thomas Aquinas, that which is Truth is to be accepted, no matter where it is found.

 

Returning once more to our early 20th century German seeker of Truth, as a newly baptized and confirmed Catholic in 1922 Edith Stein actively made the effort to not short circuit her philosophically brilliant mind by imposing upon herself the pressure of having to come up with her own independent philosophical theories and treatises immediately following her conversion. Instead, by day Edith began her career in academia by teaching Latin at a girl’s school run by Dominican nuns, by night she translated one of Thomas Aquinas’ formative works from its original Latin to German.   Originally completed in 1259, Aquinas’ piece was a  foundational staple of Thomism that familiarized Edith more thoroughly with Catholic doctrine and must have held great appeal for her by virtue of its title alone – “De Veritate” Latin words which in English translate to “Of Truth

 

The fascinating life story of the Jewish nun turned Catholic saint continues in Part II along with Brad’s astrological analysis of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross natal chart entitled “The Astrological Edith Stein”.

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