A Valiant Woman

Early in May, Edith Stein will be beatified. Who was this remarkable woman?

German newspapers have been reporting unofficially that, during the first days of May of this year, Pope John Paul II will arrive in the city of Cologne to beatify Edith Stein, noted German philosopher and Catholic feminist who was martyred at Auschwitz in 1942. We can now expect full details on this coming event, for, on January 26, the Vatican formally approved her beatification, which is now expected to take place on May 1.

To understand fully Stein’s life and work, they must be considered as a unit. We gain insight of her personhood as it is reflected in her writings, which range through psychology, phenomenology, Christian philosophy, education, feminism, and mysticism. On the other hand, a knowledge of her life and the course it took better enables us to understand her writings.

Bare facts cannot reveal the dynamism of Stein’s life, its organic quality and sheer drama. She can be described as a Jewish heroine as well as a saintly Christian.

After conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in 1922, she retired to teach at a quiet convent school even though she was already known and respected as assistant to Edmund Husserl, founder of the school of phenomenology, and for her own writings. When the world about her was torn between the hater and the hated by the onset of National Socialism, she freely offered up her life in love, in pure imitation of Christ’s redemptive action.

She deliberately stayed in Germany rather than escape to freedom, although she was fully aware of the danger. For, in 1933, hers was a lone voice raised in petition to Pope Pius XI for an encyclical on behalf of the Jews. By now she was known throughout Europe as a scholar and feminist. She became a Carmelite and entered the Carmel in Cologne. She prayed for world peace; she prayed for the salvation of the oppressor, the Nazi, as well as the welfare of the oppressed, the Jew.

Her lectures concerning women were given during 1928 to 1933, the last five years before her entry into the convent. In her talks, she directed herself to woman’s nature and vocation: what she was created for, how she can achieve the perfect state of being intended for her as a woman, and how education can help this formation.

Basic to her ontology of the woman is her belief that the human species is a dual one: feminine and masculine. And regardless of varying individualities and types of women, woman must be considered as one species. She therefore concerns herself with the “essence” of the woman. Her line of thought was influenced by both Husserl and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Stein utilizes the phenomenological method to go beyond the transitory to the essential. But her analysis of woman’s being, emotions, needs, intuitions, etc. are highly Thomistic in content. (Of course, Husserl himself was influenced by Aquinas.)

It is especially important to establish the affinity of Stein’s concept of woman’s spiritual essence to the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of form: in accordance with the principle anima forma corporis, form being the spiritual essence of the body, giving the body its shape and structure, she writes that the essence of woman’s soul and body is a psychic singularity (seelische Eigenart).

Form also accounts for the sexual difference. In woman, the relationship of soul to body is more intense than it is in the man. Man is more cognitive, while woman’s strength lies in her emotional life. Because of this, woman is able to perceive the personal element in others more easily than does man, because the being of the “other” is exactly perceived through the emotions. This enables her to relate to the other’s whole being and to strive to develop humanity in others as well as in herself. This is woman’s deepest yearning.

However, because she strives for total fulfillment as a human being, she is less qualified for achievement in objective disciplines since this requires a one-sided concentration of faculties such as the man possesses. On the other hand, objective work saves the woman from excessive absorption in herself and from a desire to swallow those about her.

Herself a successful professional, Stein believed that woman has an adaptive equipment which enables her to perform the same work as the man. Yet there are places where she adheres to the traditional scriptural interpretation of sex roles: for instance, she writes that woman’s soul is designed to be subject to the man in obedience and support.

For Stein, it is the soul of woman which is the educable material. She declares that education is not the external possession of learning but rather the Gestalt which the human personality assumes under the process of this formation. Christ embodies the positive values of both male and female and is the perfection of personality; hence the human personality formed in the image of Christ attains the perfect Gestalt.

The ideal image of woman’s soul is that it be expansive, quiet, clear, warm, self-contained, empty of self and mistress over itself and its body. Only Mary and Eve were formed to the perfect Gestalt. In all other women, the embryo for this must be cultivated.

Each individual has a prescribed form within to be developed, for the physical-psychical disposition is already determined. This inherited form must be educated to the ideal Gestalt. The formative materials work with the Gestalt itself through the human heart and soul. In fact, they become the Gestalt. And here her spirituality predominates because she declares that the Gestalt is the soul itself.

Religious education is therefore the basis of education for woman because the factor of grace must enter to form the perfect Gestalt. God is the Master Educator. And since woman’s principal preoccupation is to nourish humanity and because it is only a proper relation to God which makes possible a right relation to others, religious education is the main component to women’s formation.

Woman is equipped physically and psychically as mother. However, psychically she is mother to all, and this is separate from her physical maternity. Therefore, maternity is both a natural and a supernatural vocation. To develop others as children of God, to help form them in the family, in society, and through professional life to their full humanity, is woman’s highest vocation whether she is married, unmarried or a religious.

Woman’s vocation is three-fold: human, feminine, and individual. She must be fulfilled as a human being and as an individual to be a full woman. She nourishes humanity, carrying her spiritual maternity into the world in all walks of life.

Stein stressed the importance of intellectual activity for woman, the need for intellectual training which had been highly neglected in the nineteenth-century type of masculine education. Indeed, she herself became the intellectual leader of the Catholic Woman’s Movement in Europe and their “voice.” She was asked to revise the Catholic educational structure for women at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy. She met with state officials in the cause of school reform.

Along with her emphasis on intellectual formation, she was concerned with the principles of student spontaneity and autonomy, value judgments, and an entirely new structure of vocational training to be started in early youth. Above all, she stressed that woman’s education be geared to her nature and vocation.

Because of her Jewish ancestry, her work came to an end when Hitler assumed power.

The contemporary woman looking for the good in this muddled world can be led well by Steinian philosophy. She affords a philosophy of life for the male as well. Indeed, she suggests that thorough study is also needed concerning the masculine nature and vocation. She writes: “God created humanity as man and woman, and He created both according to His own image. Only the purely developed masculine and feminine nature can yield the highest attainable likeness to God. Only in this fashion can there be brought about the strongest interpretation of all earthly and divine life.”

Stein gives proof to this concept by her own example. She adopted as her religious name one which clearly shows the history of her spiritual developments: Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She usually signed her letters as Benedicta or sometimes “B.” Its connotation, “blessed,” expresses her role for us today. God is blessing us through her.


Freda Mary Oben has written and lectured extensively on Edith Stein, and is the translator of her Essays on Woman.

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