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Posted by on Aug 13, 2007

Edith Stein – A Woman For All Seasons

August 9 is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was not only a Carmelite nun who went to her death at Auschwitz but also one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, Edith Stein.

The broad outlines of her life are well known. The cherished youngest child of a Jewish family, the brilliant atheist student of Edmund Husserl converts to the Catholic faith after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She tries unsuccessfully to get an audience with the Pope in order to encourage him to issue an encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism. Edith Stein joins the Carmelites and becomes Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as the Third Reich begins its restrictions on German Jews. Her order tries to protect her by moving her to the Netherlands. She is once again in danger after that fall of the country to Germany. The Dutch bishops issue a statement denouncing Nazi anti-Semitism. In response the Nazis round up Catholic Jews including Edith Stein and send them to Auschwitz where she was gassed to death within a week of arrival.

Edith Stein resonates deeply within the major human questions facing faith and society today. Her life and work dealt with the foundations of human self-awareness, the ability to know, and empathy. Relations between Christians and Jews, the identity of Jewish Christians, the response of the Catholic Church to the holocaust were personal issues for Edith Stein and are major social and religious challenges today.

At the turn of the century, while Freud was trying to understand neurosis in women, Edith Stein was among a vanguard of scholars interested in the nature of human understanding and consciousness. Today we would say that she was interested in neuroscience and psychiatry. Psychology was still a sub-discipline of philosophy. This focus on the nature of experience and awareness is called the study of phenomenology. One of her major contributions was the notion that we become aware of ourselves by experiencing the awareness and feelings of others. This is, of course, a great oversimplification. However, she rescued the ego from an encapsulated shell and posited that our sense of identity and awareness is the product of the experience of the other. The “I” is not something I create but is created in the process of interaction based on feeling what the other feels, knows, and senses.

The term in German is broader than our sense of empathy. It is an experience of oneness or solidarity, we might say. This solidarity with her Jewish identity did not leave Edith Stein and it was her wish that her baptism would not spare her from the fate of her fellow Jews. Her courage derived from a faith in the cross and hope in the resurrection for all people even those who put her and her family to death. The realization of the self in selfless service – from philosophy to a life that might have been called tragic if it had not been suffused with so much meaning.

If you have an interest in philosophy, I recommend Marianne Sawicki, Ph.D.’s Personal Connections: The Phenomenology of Edith Stein.

American Catholic has an easy to read summary St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

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