Edith Stein: God Has Freed Me from a Depressing Life
From Husserlian phenomenology to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Every now and then come critical or monographic works concerning the most popular figures or most widely read works that mark a fresh start, most diligently studied or analyzed.
With regard to the immense bibliography on the life and writings of Edith Stein (1891-1942) , a protagonist of German philosophy in the epoch of Husserlian phenomenology, Francesco Salvarani's book on her (Edith Stein. La grande figlia d'Israele, della Chiesa e del Carmelo,Milan, Edizioni Ares, 2009, € 25, afterword by Angela Ales Bello), achieves both an updated existential investigation and a "vertical" scrutiny of a rare vocation to holiness. Not for nothing did this book require of its author, a priest from Emilia and a former lecturer in literature and philosophy, 20 years of work.
Edith Stein, the 11th child of a deeply religious Jewish couple, whose lively and brilliant intelligence was evident from her childhood, very soon showed an inclination for a rationalistic vision of life. This was followed by a clean break with religion ("in full awareness and by my own free choice I stopped praying").
Having reached adulthood, in 1911 she enrolled in the faculty of German studies, history and psychology at the University of Breslau and, on discovering the phenomenological current of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), moved to the Gottingen University to take his courses (she was later to become his assistant and disciple and even edited some of his writings after his death).
Husserl had recently asserted a new concept of truth as a return to things in themselves, "phenomena" rather than mere appearances, countering objective hypothetical realities, "phenomena", as original manifestations of the conscience verified through events or elements in their pure form, essence and idea.
The phenomenological procedure therefore demands the preliminary suspension of every opinion or prejudice, of all common sense or scientific knowledge, which is why every theory is placed in parentheses and the phenomenon emerges in its authenticity or, one might say, "in flesh and blood".
It is true that towards the end Husserl sought to develop his philosophy in a transcendental sense, from which terrain Stein distanced herself; but it also remains true that his "doctrine", understood in its totality, led many of his students to the Christian faith. To this dimension Stein — the first of them and more intensely than others — entrusted her existence.
At Göttingen Edith also encountered Max Scheler, a philosopher — a convert, who was to direct his young friend and colleague's attention to Catholicism — as well as Adolf Reinach, the philosopher of law.
When the bomb of Serbian regicide exploded, the resulting Great War was to see her working with the Red Cross, contrary to her mother's wishes, and yet continuing, among the sick, the doctors, transfers and travels, to write her thesis: "On the problem of empathy". She defended it at Fribourg with Husserl in 1917, obtaining summa cum laude.
On the way to Fribourg, she stopped off to stay with a friend in Frankfurt.
"We entered the cathedral for a few minutes, and while we were there in respectful silence, a woman came in with a shopping basket and knelt briefly in a pew to say a short prayer. People enter synagogues and Protestant churches only for religious functions. Here, on the contrary, someone entered an empty church, in the midst of her daily routine, as if to take part in an intimate conversation". This memory, which lived on in her mind, was to bear fruit.
Everything accelerated with the death of her friend Reinach. On visiting his widow, whom she had expected to find overwhelmed by grief or despair, Edith was on the contrary impressed by her serenity. What was not in Stein's plans was in the plan of God. She realized this in returning to the speculative key of her phenomenology, of a philosophy of history of whose limits she was aware. It was a history which, she felt, was itself only minimally in human hands: "I am getting nearer and nearer to an absolutely positive Christianity. It has freed me from a depressing life, giving me the strength to accept life once again and with gratitude".
On her way to conversion, in her wide reading Edith Stein came across Kierkegaard in the Training in Christianity (which she did not agree with) and Teresa of Avila — precisely as a reaction to the pages of the Danish philosopher.
One summer night in 1921, holding in her hands a biography of the Saint, she exclaimed: "This is the truth!".
Something new and definitive took place within her, in the deepest clarity of her spirit, at the end of her assiduous and demanding search. Edith read her own destiny in that of Teresa. Her future was written: to become a Christian, a Catholic, a Carmelite: despite the haughty, at times lacerating opposition of her mother, who was to reach the point of turning her out of the house, anguish and death.
On New Year's Day in 1922, she was baptized, on 2 February the following year she was confirmed, but it was only on the evening of 14 October 1933, that she was admitted to the ever more deeply desired cloister.
In the meantime — learning from St Thomas "that it was possible to put knowledge at the service of God", she accepted to teach in Speyer, concerning herself with the most underprivileged social classes. She lectured in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, combining phenomenology and the spirit of scholastic philosophy, divulgation and the quest for the Divine will; she also accepted a post as lecturer at Munster after she was forbidden to teach in Speyer.
Hitler had already come to power and since his battle against the Jews could not but include hatred of Christianity, in Edith Stein this was summed up in a double persecution.
Not even after crossing the threshold of the Carmelite convent was she safe: on 2 August 1942, with her sister Rosa, she was arrested by the S.S. and taken by force to the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Weekly Edition in English
28 April 2010, page 13
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