Edith Stein: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Author: Fr Raimondo Spiazzi, O.P.


Fr. Raimondo Spiazzi, O.P.

A young woman in search of truth

The 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.

'A young woman in search of the truth'

The 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'".

On 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).

But 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.

This 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.

"It 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).

Edith 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.

On the path of St Thomas Aquinas

One 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 Cross.

It 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.

She 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).

When 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.

In 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.

For 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).

Her 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.

Always walking in the shadow of the Cross

Edith 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, etc.).

Although 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.

But 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.

It 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.

Between Husserl and St Thomas

Edith's 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.

As 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.

She 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 philosophy.

Moreover, 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 to live.

The 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 subjectivism.

On 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 enscreatum, while God, as ens infinitum, is the ens increatum, but anyway always ens...".

Edith 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).

In the direction of a Christian ontology

In 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.

Edith 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).

For 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 "Iam”, 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.

These 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).

In the gallery of an Encyclical

What 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).

There 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).

All 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. 55).

This 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!

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 September 2003, page 9

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