A young woman in search of truth
Emmereskekappelle is a small square, 11th-century chapel in the
cathedral of Speyer. In its centre stands the baptismal font. There is
also a bust of Edith Stein with the inscription: Jew, atheist,
Christian, martyr. This summarizes what John Paul II said in his
homily for her beatification on 1 May 1987 in the stadium of Cologne,
and in Rome in St Peter's Square on 11 October 1998 for the canonization
of Edith, Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
young woman in search of the truth'
Pope also spoke of Edith Stein as "a young woman in search of the
truth", "the whole truth above and beyond mankind, with a
heart that long remained restless and unsatisfied 'until it finally
found peace in God'".
reading her autobiography, one realizes how real her search was, but it
always followed the train of logic, intelligence and grace which would
lead her to surrender totally to Christ and to the experiences that gave
life to her masterpiece: Studie Über Joannes a Cruce: Kreuzeswissen-
schaft (The Science of the Cross: A Phenomenological Study of the
Life and Teaching of St John of the Cross). Here St Edith reveals
herself as a woman who has reached the height of spirituality, a teacher
who reached the highest state of mysticism (cf. H.-B. Geri, Edith
Stein, Vita, Filosofia, Mistica, ed. Morcelliana, Brescia 1998).
even in her philosophical works, most of which were published in the Opera
Omnia by Citta Nuova between 1968 and 1998, one can detect a certain
drive in her exalted spirit that spurred her to search for the truth
beyond the limits of the created being and human reason, a truth which
Edith finally found in Christ and in Christ Crucified.
was the discovery she made during her stay in Bergzabern in the summer
of 1921, when she read the autobiography of the Life of St Teresa of
Avila. But she was already aware of this in 1917 before the
testimony of faith of her friend Anna Reinach, whose husband Adolf, also
a good philosopher, had died in the war.
was my first encounter with the Cross", she would later say,
"my first experience of the divine power that emanates from the
Cross and communicates itself to those who embrace it. For the first
time I was granted to contemplate the Church in the full brightness of
her reality, born from the saving passion of Christ in his triumph over
the power of death. That was the moment when my disbelief collapsed,
Judaism faded, and Christ rose radiantly before my eyes: Christ in the
mystery of his Cross!" (Teresia Renata de Spiritu Santo, Edith
Stein, Brescia 1959, p. 122).
was to continue on this "noble path" of St John of the Cross
and St Teresa of Avila until 9 August 1942, when in the Lager of
Auschwitz-Birkenau she was sent to her death in the gas chamber, then
cremated: a martyr of Judaism on the tide of historical events, and a
martyr of fidelity to Christ on the way of the Cross. In St Peter's
Square on that morning of 11 October, the grace and truth of her life
shone brightly as an extension of the crucified Christ's glory.
the path of St Thomas Aquinas
might wonder whether Edith was also guided by St Thomas Aquinas, beloved
doctor of the Church and faithfully followed by St John of the Cross.
Some have called her a “crucified philosopher” (cf. J. Boulet,
Edith Stein, Milan, ed. Paoline, 1998). A mystical
affinity may have formed between her and the Angelic Doctor, who
channelled his highest metaphysical and theological speculative
reflections in contemplation of Christ in the tabernacle and on the
is well known, however, that after her conversion and baptism, while she
was teaching German and literature (1922-1932) in schools run by the
Dominican Sisters in Speyer, in a peaceful and prayerful setting, Edith
committed herself totally to becoming acquainted with Catholic thought.
started, as was natural for her, with the writings of St Thomas (cf. E.
Stein, Endliches und Ewiges Sein [Finite and Eternal Being]).
In this study she received help from Fr Erich Przywara, S.J., formerly a
student at the Institute of St Anselm in Rome of the famous Benedictine,
Joseph Gredt (the author of a Latin text which was a torment and
sustenance for different generations of philosophy students). As Edith
herself wrote, "St Thomas found in her a reverent and docile
disciple, but whose intellect, however, was not a tabula rasa,
since it already had an indelible mark which could not be removed"
(Finite and Eternal Being, p. 31).
she participated at the Festschift in honour of Husserl's 70th
birthday in 1929, writing on The Phenomenology of Husserl and the
Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, she observed: "It is
not at all easy, when one comes from the speculative world of Edmund
Husserl, to find a way that leads to that of St Thomas" (cf.
Italian translation by A. Ales Bello in "Memoir Domenicane",
1976, p. 277). Nevertheless, Edith faced this task with intelligence and
persevered to accomplish it.
1932 she translated St Thomas' Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate ,”On
Truth”) into German. Having edited the Latin edition for the Casa
Marietti publishing house in Turin 50 years ago, and benfiting from all
that was being done by the Edizioni Studio Domenicano of Bologna which
published the Italian translation, I am well aware of that wise choice
made by Edith, of that reservoir of thought which she wanted to make
accessible to the cultured people of her time who were strangers to
Scholasticism, and many of them, even to Latin.
this reason she thought it would be well not only to do a literal
translation but rather a recasting, almost a rethinking, of the text.
When she entered the Carmel of Cologne a year later at age 42, Peter
Wust, professor of philosophy at Minster, dedicated a long
article to her in a Cologne newspaper in which among other things he
wrote: "Removed from the noisy materialism of the century, she was
steeped in Aquinas' ontology, studying the voluminous work Quaestiones
Disputatae de Veritate and translating page after page of it, in
such a way as to give the impression of one who wished to gaze upon the
greatest medieval phenomenologist who championed being in the face of
contemporary phenomenology, still ensnared in subjectivism, as a clear
mirror of her mind" (cf. Teresia Renata de Spiritu Sancto, op.
cit, pp. 234-236).
biographer, who was also her novice mistress, asserts that Husserl
himself, then elderly, wished to be notified of the ceremony in which
she would take the habit, and asked that a souvenir picture be obtained
for him, regretting that he was unable to attend in person (cf. ibid.,
pp. 244-245). We are told by the same biographer that shortly after the
habit ceremony, the Carmelite superiors arranged for Edith to continue
her philosophical studies which had already born fruit in 1937 with her
work: Finite and Eternal Being which, due to political events at
the time, could not be printed even though the proofs were ready.
walking in the shadow of the Cross
keenly felt the oncoming tide of Nazi persecution which would seek her out even at
the Carmel. In 1938, hearing the increasingly alarming news of the
struggle against the Jews throughout Germany, she commented: "It is
the shadow of the Cross that is falling upon my people...", and on
an image she wrote the act of offering her life for the conversion of
the Jewish people (cf. ibid., pp. 255, 285-286, 324-325, 340-341,
she continued to work on the book Finite and Eternal Being, whose
index she had prepared, Edith's spirit soared increasingly to Christ
crucified, the revelation of God's love and glory. In 1941 and 1942 she
wrote the work which most closely reflects her soul, Kreuzesswissenschaft,
“The Science of the Cross”, with the intention of
presenting in a unified manner the doctrine and life of St John of the
Cross, on the occasion of the fourth centenary after his birth. She
wrote the last pages on the morning of 2 August 1942 in the Carmel of
Echt in The Netherlands, where she had been moved in 1938 in the hope of
protecting her from the Nazi rage.
that afternoon, the Gestapo burst into the monastery, seized her and
took her away. It is not far-fetched to say that on that road which
ended at Auschwitz, she would have thought about the Christ of St John
of the Cross, and of St Thomas' Eternal Being.
is also significant to note that a few years later (1946-1948), the
priest Karol Wojtyta would have studied at the same school of the same
two great masters at the Pontifical Athenaeum Angelicum in Rome, and
would complete his doctoral course with a thesis on the theological and
spiritual doctrine of St John of the Cross.
Husserl and St Thomas
interest in the question of being became particularly vivid in 1929 when
she wanted to "attempt a synthesis", as she wrote in the
subtitle of her book, The Phenomenology of Husserl and the Philosophy
of St Thomas, between the teacher to whom she had been a disciple
and later assistant at Fribourg University, and the Angelic Doctor whose
work she had devoted herself to studying to be enlightened on the faith.
Fr Pier Paolo Ruffinengo clearly explained in a detailed article on Edith
Stein e il Problema dell'Essere ("Annali Chieresi", the
annual journal of the St Thomas Aquinas Institute of Philosophy in
Chieri, Turin, 1995, pp. 23-59), by comparing the two, Edith noted and
emphasized several convergences based on the fact that both considered
philosophy to be an exact science that starts with the knowledge of
reality through the senses and develops in intellectual activity.
immediately noted, however, a fundamental difference between Husserl,
who remained confined (Rosmini would have said "huddled") in
subjectivity and therefore egocentrism, and St Thomas, who instead
strove with his whole being toward the objective truth which is found in
things and which is realized in life in relation to the first Truth,
source of every other truth: God. The result is a theocentric
both philosophers valued reason as being instrumental in the search for
truth, but Husserl claims it has no connection with faith; for St
Thomas, instead, it is a path which is distinguished, without
necessarily being in opposition to it, from that of a supernatural path
which enables us to reach the heart of the infinite Truth and helps us
same play of convergences and divergences is found again in the concept
of intuition, of abstraction, the intellectual capacity to receive
"essences" and not to state or create them, and hence, in the
affirmation of a sane realism that opposes every form of idealism or
this topic Edith also makes an exact evaluation on the positions taken
by Martin Heidegger, her colleague as an assistant and disciple of
Husserl in Fribourg for two or three years, and in particular of his
most important work, Sein and Zeit (Being and Time), but
also of various others (cf. E Stein, La Ricerca delta Verità,
edited by A. Ales Bello, Rome 1993, pp. 152-226, containing texts on
Heidegger in A.M. Pezella's Italian translation). She did this
especially by surpassing classical ontology, which would not have
tackled "the radical problem of being, that is, of the difference
between being and essence, limiting herself to understanding the being (ens)
as ens creatum, while God, as ens infinitum, is the ens
but anyway always ens...".
points out that the being proposed by Heidegger is reduced to the
idea of being, which should be discovered and taken up not only in man,
but in all the things of the world and in the spirits that can exist
beyond the visible world and in God himself, in whom being and knowing
identify (cf. P.P. Ruffinengo, op. cit., p. 40).
the direction of a Christian ontology
reality, the dimension of the ontology which Edith studied and wanted to
rewrite in the light of St Thomas is that of a Christian philosophy,
re-presented by Leo XIII; of this she is a convinced supporter, but one
who wants to enrich it, taking into account the elements emerging from
the new currents which, far from the illusory attempts to return to
Kant, were once again focused on the study of being as a philosophy of
the essences of the phenomenology of Husserl and Scheler as well as of
Heidegger's philosophy of being, of which she was familiar.
does not hesitate to talk about Christian philosophy, although she knows
of the ongoing disputes on this subject even within Catholic circles.
She describes their possible meanings, especially in reference to what
resulted from the Colloquy of Juvisy, organized by the Société
Thomiste on 12 September 1933, not regretting the position taken by
Maritain (cf. Finite and Eternal Being).
her part, Edith developed her own discourse on the "being" in
question for more than 500 pages of Finite and Eternal Being,
bearing in mind the analogia entis, starting with the experience
of Husserl's "I am”, but going back to the eternal
Being who is in himself, from himself and for himself, and to
whom every participant being in creation tends: therefore, the source,
outlet and foundation of being, which philosophy holds up as Author, and
faith, as Creator and Redeemer.
are two ways which make it possible to reach the finality expressed by
Edith in the subtitle of her work: "For an elevation to the sense
of Being". Thus, she proceeds, "taking up Aristotelian and
medieval metaphysics rethought in a phenomenological key, then goes on
to arguments and discourses which, for Edith, belong to Christian
philosophy: the creation and the divine Word, the essence of angels, the
image of the Trinity in creation, the soul's vocation to eternal life.
In short, something which intends to renew in a modern key the medieval Summas,
to end with the paragraph: Unity of the human race: Christ the one
Head and the one Body; in other words: humanity finds the beginning
of its unity in Christ, and in Christ the Redeemer, every individual
finds the meaning and ontological foundation of his own
individuality" (P.P. Ruffinengo, op. cit, pp. 49-50).
the gallery of an Encyclical
can we say? In our opinion, Edith accomplished a great task by linking
ontology with Christology, causing a light to flash before the eyes of
believers and non-believers in Christ, illuminating the Alpha and
Omega of heaven and earth, the reference point of all thinking,
the foundation before every phenomenon (according to the
language of Fides et Ratio, n. 83).
is certainly no lack of reservations and criticisms of certain aspects
of Stein's interpretation of the Thomist philosophy on being, which
perhaps lacks a deep treatment of the actus essendi which would
have followed the work of Fabro, Geiger and Gilson (cf. L. Vigone, Introduzione
al Pensiero Filosofico di Edith Stein, Rome 1991, pp. 92-96; B.
Mondin, Filosofia Cristiana, Fenomenologia e Metafisica secondo Edith
Stein, in "Aquinas", 1944, 2, pp. 377-386; A. Ales Bello, Edith
Stein Interprete di San Tommaso net Secolo XX, in “Leggere San
Tommaso Oggi”, Quaderni di Koinonia, Florence 1992, pp. 18-27;
P.P. Ruffinengo, op. cit, pp. 50-55).
in all, it was no small undertaking to unify, in the course of philosophia
perennis, the currents of modern phenomenology with medieval
thought. Yet one cannot but admire the attempt to achieve this great
undertaking and acknowledge that "she made her contribution with
the analysis of temporality and the becoming of the I, using the
Aristotelian-Thomist conceptual plexis of act and power which refer to a
Being who is only Act" (P.P. Ruffinengo, op. cit., p.
is something magnificent which I personally do not think can be
forgotten by the history of philosophy or left out by philosophers and
theologians who want to follow the useful working directions indicated
by the Encyclical Fides et Ratio. Where Edith is expressly cited
(how could she have imagined that this would happen?) is on the page
where the work of modern Christian thinkers is praised, those who are
judged worthy to "take their place beside the masters of ancient
philosophy"; next to Newman, Rosmini, Maritain and Gilson in the
Western hemisphere (Chapter VI, n. 74).
It is impossible
not to be pleased by the recognition given her, as well as to these
other four great figures to whom we are all indebted. What a great
surprise for us (and for them) to find them all together, not at an
academy, but in an Encyclical!