Edith Stein was an unlikely saint. A former Jewish-atheist bluestocking who died for the Faith as a Carmelite nun in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, Stein was impelled by a quenchless thirst for truth. God in His Mercy placed in her life friends who were themselves, in one way or another, “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), and who helped her draw near to the source of wisdom.
Although raised in a large, devout Jewish family, Stein strayed from God during her youth. She later said that she “consciously decided” to stop praying. As a university student, she passed through a phase of being—again, in her words—a “radical suffragette.” Soon, however, she began the arduous work of pursuing the truth, moving to the university at Göttingen to sit at the feet of Edmund Husserl. Stein’s life as the student and then as the graduate assistant of Husserl, with her consequent membership in the circle of ardent young philosophers Husserl had collected around himself, has been admirably told by Alasdair MacIntyre, whose Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 is a penetrating investigation of character as it relates to the search for truth.
At the heart of MacIntyre’s narrative, and, indeed, of Stein’s conversion, is the life, death, and philosophical inquiry of Adolf Reinach (1883-1917). Like other talented young philosophers of his generation—such as Max Scheler and Dietrich von Hildebrand—Reinach came to Göttingen to learn from Husserl, whose reflection upon our experience of ourselves as knowers of the world was then opening up what has since become a philosophical tradition in its own right, phenomenology.
As MacIntyre tells the story, Husserl appears to have been a difficult person from whom to learn. His prickly and abstracted character was smoothed out and compensated for by his wife, but not so much that his students were really comfortable with him. They called him “the Master,” feared disagreements with him, and learned to lower their expectations of his generosity. The forbidding role of the Professor in those days was only part of the oddness and angularity of German academic culture. MacIntyre writes of the “tiresome vanity” of Scheler, gently points out the rudeness of another member of the Husserl circle by saying that the “focused intensity of his conversational manner sometimes alienated listeners,” and sums up the misanthropy of Martin Heidegger by explaining that after he left the Husserl circle, he entered into “relationships only with those who [were] prepared to acknowledge his superiority.”
Adolf Reinach, to the contrary, was a model of the virtues necessary for the successful pursuit and sharing of wisdom. Both Reinach and his wife Anna were unstinting with the gift of their friendship, and for Stein, one of very few women pursuing higher studies in those days, Anna’s friendship seems to have been especially valuable. Reinach was known for his patient, teacherly expositions of Husserl’s turgid thought. He was generous with his time and encouraging with his advice for the young Stein, who occasionally struggled in the deep waters of the phenomenological style of philosophy. And, crucially, Reinach understood and practiced philosophy as a “cooperative enterprise,” as MacIntyre puts it. The past is littered with the debris of failed philosophies. Trustworthy teachers like Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas are few in number, their works are difficult to read, and the subjects they discuss take us to the very limits of reason’s range. Without the near-constant testing of our ideas and convictions against the sharp stone of a friend’s mind, we are much more likely to go astray than we are to find our way home to the truth.
The hidden life of wisdom enjoyed by Adolf Reinach, Edith Stein, and their fellow students for a few years in the early 1910s in Göttingen was a common life of friendship in pursuit of truth. Although the friendships were not destined to be prolonged into happy old age, they certainly did shape the lives of those who enjoyed them. Reinach, a dutiful subject of the Kaiser, went off to the Great War, won the Iron Cross, and was killed in action. But not before he had been baptized a Christian. He took with him to the front his New Testament, the Imitation of Christ, and Augustine’s Confessions. “I require only a few books,” Joseph de Maistre once memorably said. How very true, provided they be carefully chosen. From this spare but deep reading, Reinach nourished his reflection upon his experience of God, leaving behind notes for a book on faith and reason. Writing to his wife from the front, he testified to his conviction that this inquiry was crucial: “To do such work with humility is most important today, far more important than to fight this war. For what purpose has this horror if it does not lead human beings closer to God?”
Anna Reinach shared her husband’s firm and elevated faith. When Edith Stein visited her later that year, thinking to console her, she found instead that she was the one being consoled. As she later put it: “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me.” Not only did Anna Reinach embrace her husband’s Christian faith, but, in the years to come, so did three more of their family members, as well as their dear friend Edith.
It was the serendipitous encounter with the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila—found on a shelf in the home of another friend, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, in the summer of 1921—that enabled Edith Stein to take the next step. Her friends had gone out for the evening, leaving her at home to read. Although Conrad-Martius was herself also on the road to Christianity, she could not have anticipated the decisive effect that this reading would have on Stein: “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.”
The event is extraordinary not only because of the mystical reaching down through the veil of time by one Carmelite saint to another, but also because of what it reveals about the soil in which the seeds of conversion can germinate and grow. Here is a still-youthful philosopher, deeply thoughtful but not entirely tethered in her intellectual life, visiting an old friend and fellow student. She is comfortable in her friend’s home and with her books, books that have so often been the very matter of their conversation and are so many signs of the invaluable common possession which is their shared pursuit of truth. And here is God, using these dusty, dog-eared instruments, to gather back to himself a daughter. Just a few short months later, Edith Stein was baptized a Roman Catholic.
The balance of her life falls into two parts. For a decade, she taught in a secondary school run by Dominican sisters, while pursuing her own philosophical and theological reading, which now included the works of Bl. Cardinal Newman and St. Thomas Aquinas. Then, in 1933, she entered a Carmelite convent in Cologne, where she took the name Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross, moving five years later to a Carmel in the Netherlands so as to be further away from the Nazi persecutions. In August of 1942, as a reprisal to a bishop’s pastoral letter condemning their atrocities, the Nazis seized Stein, along with other Jewish-Christians in her convent (including her sister). Together they were sent to Auschwitz, where, mercifully, Stein was almost immediately killed.
How does a headstrong girl, in open rebellion from a good and honest family life, find her way back to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then discover the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ? As John Paul II put it, Stein is an “eloquent example of … interior renewal. A young woman in search of the truth has become a saint and martyr through the silent workings of divine grace.” Hurried and harried as we are, we stand to gain a valuable lesson from her life. The quiet, unpretentious, and hidden pursuit of wisdom is one of the great means by which God draws souls back to himself, and not merely the contemplative few, but also their friends, neighbors, and family members as well.
Stein once confessed that before becoming a Christian, she had thought that being devout meant “having one’s mind fixed on divine things only.” She subsequently learned, however, that “other things are expected of us in this world” and that “the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to get beyond himself in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.” To be authentic, the hidden life of wisdom must not be closed in on itself. Rather, it must be like a deep well in which water is kept pure and cool not for its own sake, but so as to be readily drawn upon by those who thirst.