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"The way of faith gives us more than the way of philosophical thought: it gives us God, near to us as person, who loves us and deals with us mercifully, giving us that security which human knowledge cannot give. But the way of faith is dark".(1)
Edith Stein walked this dark road without flinching, secure as the baby who abandons itself to its father. By that dark way of faith she reached "the highest perfection of being, which is at once knowledge, the gift of the heart, and freedom of action"(2).
Born at Breslau on 12th October 1891, on the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the youngest of seven children, she did her first studies in philosophy in her native city. Later she moved to Gottingen to follow Edmund Husserl, philosophical genius and father of phenomenology. At his school Edith was to take no further interest in religion, retaining only the moral stamp of her Jewish upbringing. Through the study of phenomenology, however, she began gradually to discover the religious world and Christianity, later becoming a Catholic. A turning point in her life was her reading of the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila. On a mysterious June night in 1921, finding herself a guest in the house of a philosopher friend, she received a profound intuition of God-Truth. All became light for her: she was baptised on January 1st 1922, receiving at the same time a vocation to Carmel.
Twelve years were to pass, however, before she entered the Carmel of Cologne. This was a period of teaching, lecture tours and study, during which she matured interiorly. Perhaps she might not have succeeded in becoming a religious but for the political situation in Germany, and had not the increasingly anti-Semitic measures there made it impossible for her to continue her teaching at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster.
Despite family opposition Edith became a Carmelite nun, taking the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was quickly to feel the weight of the "cross" on her shoulders. Following the discovery by the authorities of her non-Aryan origins, she was no longer safe behind monastery walls; so in the early hours of New Year's Day 1939 she was taken to Holland, to the Carmel of Echt. It seemed a tranquil place, yet she had a premonition that she should not escape the destiny of her people. In fact while she was writing her book on the doctrine of St John of the Cross, significantly entitled The Science of the Cross, two officials of the occupation forces came to the monastery. She had to go with them, together with her sister Rose, also a convert, who had joined her in Echt.
Before being deported to Auschwitz, Edith was able to send a message to Carmel. Then with the convoy which brought them to Auschwitz, the Stein sisters entered the shadow of death. On August 9th, 1942, the holocaust of Edith reached its consummation in the gas chambers. Pope John Paul II who already in 1987 had publicly proclaimed the sanctity of this daughter of St Teresa, and the martyrdom of this Jewess returned to the bosom of the Church, on 11th October 1998 solemnly canonized her at Rome.
This brief biographical sketch reveals three distinct stages in the life of Edith Stein, the first being her childhood, adolescence, and her philosophical studies and work as assistant to Husserl. These were thirty important years, particularly for the human and religious development which ended in her conversion. The second stage covers twelve years of intense Christian life, of interior and intellectual maturing, of patient and hidden preparation for Carmel in absolute fidelity to the grace of vocation. With her entry to the Carmel of Cologne begins the third period of her life, a time of suffering and assimilation to Christ, which brought her to the heights of the mysticism of the Cross. This stage ends in the "white house" of the extermination camp with her supreme offering of her life for the Church, and for the salvation of the Jewish people. These three stages are marked in her by a great desire for totality, by a profound longing for the Absolute, and by a constant and impassioned seeking of the Truth, of God himself. This is the reason too why every step forward in her search for the Faith included also, almost of necessity, a burning desire for the most radical form of Christianity, namely the monastic life, in order to live it to the full.
Despite her religious upbringing Edith quickly lost her Jewish faith, under the influence of rationalistic teaching at school. This may be noted also in other young Jews - for example, in Simone Weil and Franz Rosenberg - and ought not to be attributed simply to family difficulties. The Jewish religion was presented to them solely in the form of ethical idealism, and they believed themselves within their rights to demonstrate its defects and weaknesses. Such a critical stance led Edith to a neutral position in regard to God, and a refusal of all religious practice. In the meantime she concentrated on the search for intellectual principles and values which she considered more elevated than those of the Jewish faith. This solitary research brought about a state of increasing tension, and of unremitting efforts to find solutions to existential questions; stress which lasted all through her years of study to the moment of her conversion.
On this difficult journey she met Edmund Husserl. Reading his Logiscye Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), she found in Phenomenology a most valid and apt philosophical system which was to sustain her in her search for Truth, unfolding before her new horizons of knowledge to which she was always open. Next we find her at Gottingen to pursue her studies at the school of the great German philosopher. Soon she became his most gifted student; and when she had brilliantly completed her studies with a doctorate summa cum laude, he took her on as his assistant and collaborator.
The phenomenological method had a positive influence on her research into the essence of things, freeing her from narrow preconceptions and leading her to a state of total impartiality (Voraussetzungslosigkeit) without which she would have been incapable of opening herself to the thought of God with that absolute objectivity of judgement so characteristic of her. Nevertheless it was not the mental processes of the young phenomenologist which disclosed to her the world of Faith, that "perfectly new world" hitherto to her "completely unknown", as she writes. Neither was it the circle in which she moved, the friends and colleagues of Husserl; chiefly Max Scheler and Adolph Reinach. She writes that Max Scheler, not long a convert, "did not lead me to the Faith, but he opened to me a new sphere of phenomena which I could not ignore. Not for nothing (in the Husserl school) was it constantly repeated that we must examine all things whatsoever without presuppositions, throwing away all blinkers. Thus collapsed the barriers of rationalistic prejudice in which I had unknowingly grown up, and the world of Faith unfolded suddenly before me".(3)
This new knowledge, however, resulted in pressing questions for Edith. She wanted to clarify the religious problem, to understand what relationship there could be (or there should be) between herself and God. To interpret this relationship as an abstraction seemed to her absurd, inclined as she was to relate everything to concrete reality. Should she then imagine the relationship idealistically or romantically? That could never be for her, always striving to grasp things in their deepest essence, without which nothing had value in her eyes. Would it not be easier then to discount the existence of God? But Edith was never one to choose the easy way. In her whole life she always chose the tough ascent.
Through struggles, nervous crises, misunderstandings and periods of intense suffering, Edith began to weigh up the three possible ways of living the Faith as presented by her environment Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism subjecting each to a rigorous and impartial evaluation.
Judaism: One of Edith's acquaintances, Philomena Steiger of Freiburg, remembers having seen her with the Old Testament in her hand, searching for an answer, especially in the prophetical books, to a deep inner disquiet. Also the Jewish philosopher and friend of Edith, Gertrude Koebner, remembered her serious efforts to return to the religion of her parents. After careful consideration she became convinced that Judaism did not meet her needs. Yet she was never to refute it, as did some other Jewish converts to Christianity. She remained ever respectful.
Protestantism: Not only through her friendship with Adolph Reinach and Hedwig Konrad Martius, focal point of the friends and colleagues of the Husserl circle, did Edith come in contact with Protestantism. The town of Gottingen itself had many evangelical churches and people who did not hide their Lutheran creed. In addition, Edith's predilection for the religious music of Bach undoubtedly gave her some idea of Protestant sentiment and mysticism. Far more important however was her encounter with the Christian response to grief, to the atrocities of the 1914-18 War, and her introduction to the strength of Christian hope, born of the Cross of Christ.
In 1917 she was at Freiburg, assistant to Husserl. One day she received news of the death of Adolph Reinach on the field of battle. His wife and other friends asked Edith to come and sort his papers and various philosophical writings. She hesitated at first, feeling she had no words to comfort his wife, believing her to be desperate in her grief. When she met the young widow, however, she was struck by her resigned, almost serene attitude. In this attitude Edith grasped immediately the strength of the Christian Faith. The gates of an unknown kingdom had suddenly been thrown open, the kingdom of Christian Hope. Relating this experience many years later to the Jesuit, Fr Hirschaum, she confessed: "This was my first meeting with the Cross, with the divine strength it brings to those who bear it. I saw for the first time within my reach the Church, born of the Redeemer's sufferings in his victory over the sting of death. It was at that moment that my incredulity was shattered and the light of Christ shone forth, Christ in the mystery of the Cross".
These words were spoken years later when Edith felt the full weight of the Cross bearing down on her persecuted people. Back in 1917 she had discovered from this experience that all her rationalistic and atheistic arguments were as nothing in comparison with the Christian Faith. Comparing herself with this deeply Christian woman, she realised that Christianity could offer her essential value-guides in the search for Truth. She realised the importance of faith in God, in order to free people from existential anguish, and to experience that "transcendental peace" which, in the phenomenology of Husserl, derives exclusively from the action of God in the soul. The serenity and trust of the widow Reinach had taught Edith that this "transcendental peace" is identical in the Christian Faith with the strength of the Cross of Christ, accepted in the hope of resurrection to immortal life. Only the meeting with Christ dead on the Cross can enable interior peace to be found and to sublimate suffering.
However Edith did not yet reach a decision. This was the beginning of a long period of
struggle, of crises which taxed to the utmost her intelligence and will. There were
dramatic moments of conflict with the past and with herself, to the extent that she felt
plunged into a "silence of death". She tried at times to flee from the action of
the Holy Spirit: "I can adhere to the Faith, seek it with all my strength, without
the need to practise it"(4) On the other hand
she is convinced: "When believers receive an order from God, whether in prayer or
through the representative of God, they must obey!"(5)
In June 1921 she went to Bergzabern, to the home of a friend Hedwig Konrad Martius, a regular meeting place of the Husserl past-pupils. (They no longer went to Freiburg where Husserl was teaching at the university, as they felt unable to follow his lead towards Transcendental Idealism). Edith discovered in the library the autobiography of the great Spanish mystic, the Book of the Life. Its reading had a profound effect on her: she closed the book exclaiming "This is the truth!", that "truth" she had sought so passionately for so many years.
We are told that Edith read and assimilated the whole book in a single night. That a person even so keenly intelligent as Edith should, in the space of a few hours, grasp so completely the spiritual world and the inner journey of the Saint, to the point where she (Edith) could reach immediately and decide to embrace Catholicism, seems highly improbable. It is perhaps more likely that on the night in question, she completed a previous reading of the Life with particular attention to the chapters on the experience of God. With the affirmation God is Truth as the terminal point of long suffering in the search for God, St Teresa of Avila in fact enriched Edith with the basic dimension of human existence which she had so earnestly sought. Everything is contained in the words "to walk in the truth, in the presence of Truth itself"(6). On that night Edith could finally say, with the holy Reformer of Carmel; "The truth so kindly revealed to my soul is Truth itself, without beginning or end. From this all other truths depend"(7). Her conversion to Catholicism then is the full and conscious acceptance of the one Truth, mystically experienced by Teresa, and so long and unconsciously sought by Edith.
Edith at once took the Spanish saint as her model in the new life of faith she wished
to follow, with a view also to becoming a Carmelite nun. In her genuine need always to
take the most radical road, the choice of Carmel seemed the only adequate response to
satisfy her desire for totality. Thirty years old, full of energy and enthusiasm, she
wished her faith to be an integral part of her life. Thus we may say that her journey of
faith coincides with her religious vocation.
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