Edith Stein—Convert, Nun, Martyr

Edith Stein is one of those people whose entire life seems to be a sign. She was born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in 1891 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the youngest of eleven children in a devout Jewish family.

When she was not yet two years old her father died suddenly, leaving Edith’s mother to raise the seven remaining children (four had died in childhood) and to manage the family business. Brought up on the Psalms and Proverbs, Stein considered her mother a living example of the strong woman of Proverbs 31, who rises early to care for her family and trade in the marketplace. By her teenage years, Stein no longer practiced her Jewish faith and considered herself an atheist, but she continued to admire her mother’s attitude of total openness toward God.

Like many before and since, Edith Stein came to Christianity through the study of philosophy. One of the first women to be admitted to university studies in Germany, she moved from the University of Breslau to the University of Gottingen in order to study with Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Stein’s philosophical studies encouraged her openness to the possibility of transcendent realities, and her atheism began to crumble under the influence of her friends who had converted to Christianity.

During the summer of 1921, at the age of twenty-nine, Stein was vacationing with friends but found herself alone for the evening. She picked up, seemingly by chance, the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite Order. She read it in one sitting, decided that the Catholic faith was true, and went out the next day to buy a missal and a copy of the Catholic catechism. She was baptized the following January, but her desire immediately to enter the Carmelites was delayed for a time. Her advisers saw that her conversion and claustration would be a double blow to her mother, and they knew the Church could benefit enormously from her contributions as a speaker and writer.

Stein eventually became a leading voice in the Catholic Women’s Movement in Germany, speaking at conferences and helping to formulate the principles behind the movement. By the time Hitler rose to power in early 1933, Stein was well-known in the German academic community. Hitler’s growing popularity, and the increasing pressure on the Jewish people, prompted her to request an audience with the pope in the spring of 1933. She hoped that a special encyclical might help counteract the mounting tide of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic confusion, her request was not granted. By March of that year, Stein’s colleagues at the Educational Institute in Munster realized that they could protect her no longer, and so offered her a teaching position in South America. Since this would mean that her mother, now eighty-four, would never see her again, Stein felt that the time had come to fulfill her long-standing desire to enter religious life.

While on a trip during Holy Week of 1933, Edith stopped in Cologne at the Carmelite convent during the service for Holy Thursday. She attended it with a friend, and by her own account, the homily moved her very deeply. She wrote:

I told [our Lord] that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.

On October 15, just after her forty-second birthday, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

A Carmel Among the Nazis

Stein’s family saw her entry into the convent as a betrayal, and as coming at the worst possible time, just when Jewish persecution was intensifying. Christianity was the religion of their oppressors; they couldn’t understand what it meant to her. When Stein’s mother heard of her decision to enter the convent, she was crushed. “Why did you have to get to know him [Jesus Christ]? He was a good man—I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?” It was only after her mother’s death in 1936 that Stein’s sister Rosa felt free to be baptized as a Catholic as well.

Stein remained in Cologne for five years, participating in the life of the community with great joy while continuing her scholarly work. After the terror of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the nuns in Cologne feared for Stein’s safety and decided to send her secretly to the Carmel in Echt, the Netherlands. Her sister Rosa later joined her there as a Third Order Carmelite, serving as the convent portress. When Holland fell to the Nazis, Edith and Rosa Stein were in danger again, and plans were made to move them to Switzerland. Before these could be finalized, the Dutch bishops issued an encyclical attacking the anti-Semitic atrocities of the Nazi regime. The Gestapo retaliated immediately by rounding up all Roman Catholic Jews to be sent to the death camps. Edith and Rosa Stein were arrested on August 2, 1942. When Rosa seemed disoriented as they were led away from the convent, Edith gently encouraged her, “Come, Rosa. We go for our people.” The sisters were deported to Auschwitz and executed just a week later. Edith Stein was fifty years old.

Reports from those who were close to Sister Teresa Benedicta in those final days show her to have been a woman of remarkable interior strength, giving courage to her fellow travelers and helping to feed and bathe the little ones when even their mothers had given up hope and were neglecting them. One woman who survived the war has written a description of Stein during the time their group was awaiting transportation to “the East.” “Maybe the best way I can explain it is that she carried so much pain that it hurt to see her smile. . . . In my opinion, she was thinking about the suffering that lay ahead.

Not her own suffering—she was far too resigned for that—but the suffering that was in store for the others. Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind: a Pieta without the Christ.” Although she did not seek death, Stein had often expressed her willingness to offer herself along with the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of her people, the Jews, and also for the sake of their persecutors. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 1, 1987.

Writing About Women

Most of Edith Stein’s writing on women and women’s vocation stems from the decade of her professional life between her conversion and her entrance into the Carmelite community at Cologne. The importance of these essays cannot be overestimated, both in terms of their originality and level of insight, but also in terms of their wider influence. On a recent visit to the U.S., Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, himself a Jewish convert to Catholicism, called Edith Stein one of the greatest philosophers of our time. “Her best pupil,” he said, “is the Holy Father.” Anyone who has read the pope’s encyclical on The Dignity and Vocation of Woman, or his more recent Letter to Women, will see immediately how much they owe to Edith Stein’s pioneering work on this subject.

The motivation for these inquiries into the nature and vocation of women was, in Stein’s view, the need to educate women in a way that would be perfective of them, not just as generic human beings, but as women. Stein rejected the radical feminist claim that there are no important differences between men and women. As a philosopher looking for the basis of true femininity, she begins with what might be called an ontology of woman.

After her conversion to Catholicism, Stein had turned to an intense study of the great Catholic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. She was fascinated by St. Thomas’s view of the human person. Unlike the radical dualism of Descartes, which represents soul and body as two different and distinct entities, Thomas insisted upon the subsistent unity of the person, body and soul, since each natural substance is a composite of form and matter. Further, since matter is what distinguishes one human being from another, the body is essential to the person, not simply a machine or a shell for the soul that could be discarded without serious loss to the “real” self.

Woman’s Distinctive Soul

Along with St. Thomas and Aristotle, Stein acknowledged that there are traits unique to the human soul, abilities (or at least dispositional traits) that are shared by every member of the species. Rationality, and along with it free choice, belong to every human being and so to every woman as a human person. But if the soul is the form of the body, and the form of humanity is individuated by being united with this body or that one, Stein reasoned that the woman’s soul will have a spiritual quality distinct from the man’s soul. She did not argue that biology is destiny, but that the physical differences between men and women profoundly mark their personalities. The woman’s body stamps her soul with particular qualities that are common to all women but different from distinctively masculine traits. Stein saw these differences as complementary and not hierarchical in value, and so they should be recognized and celebrated rather than minimized and deplored. There are two ways of being human, as man or as woman.

Stein supported her view both by philosophical appeal to the intimacy of the body/soul relationship and to psychological theories that focus on personality types, rather than on behavior alone. She considered the differences between males and females to be evident even to common sense, and so in need of little argument. Her thesis would be denied by many feminists today, but probably not by anyone who has children of both genders. The differences between girls and boys is evident and seems totally resistant to manipulation. Nature has a stubborn way of asserting herself in total disregard for our theories.

Deep Dispositions

Stein looked especially to the creation narratives of Genesis to draw out what she took to be the natural vocation of woman. Every woman, she claimed, is meant to be both a companion (her spousal vocation) and a mother. Because of her close connection with human birth and development, woman seeks and embraces whatever is living, personal, and whole. “To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.” Woman naturally focuses on what is human, and tends to give relationships a higher importance than work, success, reputation, etc. Here Stein’s thinking lines up with recent neo-feminist authors like Carol Gilligan who claim that women approach moral questions with more attention to the people affected by their actions and decisions than to abstract and impersonal considerations of duty, rights, and justice.

Woman is naturally more attuned to the individual, and hence to a concrete, particular person with all of his or her own needs and potential. Further, this maternal concern aims at the total development of the other person as a unity of body, soul, and spirit. No one aspect of the personality is to be sacrificed to any other. In particular, there is to be no divorcing of mind and body, treating persons (especially students) as if they were disembodied intellects.

The maternal aspect of woman’s vocation involves helping other persons develop to their fullest potential, and for those who are married, this will include their husbands as well as their children. Motherhood is a universal calling for women, and so not simply a task to be exercised with one’s biological children. Woman’s concern for the good of persons must extend to all those whose lives touch hers in some way.

Pope John Paul II raises this feminine vocation to truly cosmic proportions, looking to women for the rehumanization of a world dominated by hedonism and materialism. In The Gospel of Life he calls upon women to “teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.” This contribution of women, declares the Holy Father, is “an indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change,” for replacing the culture of death with the civilization of love.

In addition to this cultural or spiritual motherhood, Stein sees woman’s calling as including a spousal dimension, the role of companionship. This involves sharing the life of another, entering into it and making that person’s concerns one’s own. One might argue that this is a vocation for both men and women, and it is unlikely that Stein would deny that it is. But it may also be true that women have a special genius for friendship, perhaps because of their orientation to the human and personal, and a greater capacity for exercising empathy. Stein’s dissertation on the subject of empathy was completed some years prior to her lectures on women’s roles, but one can see its influence on that later work. She describes empathy as a clear awareness of another person, not simply of the content of his experience, but of his experience of that content. In empathy, one takes the place of the other without becoming strictly identical to him. It is not just understanding the experiences of the other, but in some sense taking them on as one’s own.

Obviously this ability to enter into another’s life is especially helpful within marriage, but it can and should be exercised in other relationships as well. For women who are single, or for those who have consecrated themselves wholly to God, this aspect of their vocation should take on a more universal scope, and will call for a more disinterested (that is to say, a more divine) kind of love. Everyone who knew Edith Stein tells us that she was a living example of this capacity for empathy. Her spiritual director in the late ’20s, Abbot Raphael Walzer, wrote that she possessed “a tender, even maternal, solicitude for others. She was plain and direct with ordinary people, learned with the scholars, a fellow-seeker with those searching for the truth. I could almost say she was a sinner with the sinners.”

Women in the Professions

Women’s role within society concerned Stein very deeply. She was herself a professional woman, and she taught younger women at the secondary and later at the university level, just at the time when they are deciding what path their lives should take. Should women be confined to the domestic sphere, to “home and hearth”? Not at all, said Stein. She saw the gains made by the women’s movement in this respect to be positive, opening up the professions and political life to women and providing equal opportunity in these areas.

Stein translated Newman’s The Idea of a University into German, and she held that a liberal education can be just as helpful in the formation of women as in the formation of men. If some subjects are more naturally attractive or interesting to women, perhaps because of clear connections with the living and personal, others may be helpful correctives to an excessively personal outlook. Since domestic skills can be learned at home, Stein suggested a curriculum for university women that does not differ significantly from what would be offered for men. Still, she felt it is of utmost importance that teachers of women should know how to connect their subject matter with the particular concerns and sensitivities of women. She thought it very important that girls and women be taught primarily by women.

When asked whether the natural vocation of women ruled out certain professions as unsuitable for her, Stein answered: “One could say that in case of need, every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman.” It is likely that some professions will continue to attract more women than men, partly because of their strong human component. We might expect to find a large percentage of women drawn to fields like teaching, medicine, law, social work, psychology, etc. Obviously, not everyone can make a choice when entering the job market as to what sort of work they would find most attractive, and many women (along with many men) will work at jobs which are not especially suited to them. But every profession can be practiced in a feminine way; that is, every profession can be humanized, made more person-friendly, and brought into greater contact with human concerns.

So it is a good thing for the society that women should be found in every profession. Speaking on the role of women in national life, Stein urged, “The nation . . . doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” The same could be said about the factory, the office, the professions, the political sphere, as well as the school and the home.

Stein especially encouraged women to become involved in political life. The maternal concern of women, she felt, should lead to a deep interest in the life of the community, from the PTA to the presidency. Since the decisions made in the public square have a deep impact on the family and on human persons generally, women automatically have a big stake in them. In dark times, as in Edith Stein’s generation, but also in our own, women are especially called upon to speak out with courage and to make an impact beyond their own families and communities. For Stein, it is unlikely that this participation in public life will consist in a seizing of power. Rather she seems to have in mind a kind of public witness that women might offer.

Stein often urged women to look to their own mothers for insight into what it means to be a woman. Her own essays on women owe much to the example of her mother, and it is clear that she felt a deep love and friendship for her throughout her life. Stein encouraged every woman to seek to live out in her own life and circumstances the ideal of true womanhood. This means especially exercising that maternal vocation, which is given primarily to women, and which holds little in the way of glamour or attraction for many women today.

The work of a mother is hidden for the most part, and even its rewards are intangible. This is exactly why Edith Stein looked to women to preserve within human society those spiritual values that cannot be measured. It is not that the public achievements of women are unimportant, of course, but that women must not lose sight of those ends for which all other things are only the means. In one of her letters, Stein wrote: “On the question of relating to our fellowman—our neighbor’s spiritual need transcends every commandment. Everything else we do is a means to an end. But love is an end already, since God is love.”

In an address just before Hitler’s rise to power, Blessed Edith Stein urged a group of Catholic women to fight for these very truths: “Perhaps the moment has almost come for the Catholic woman to stand with Mary and with the Church under the cross.” It would be a shame to let her answer the call alone.


  • Laura L. Garcia

    Laura L. Garcia teaches philosophy at Boston College. She specializes in philosophical theology and metaphysics, and has taught at Calvin College, the University of Notre Dame, the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota), The Catholic University of America, Georgetown University and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

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