When I was a grad student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Edith Stein befriended me. She wasn’t Blessed Edith Stein yet, let alone Saint Edith Stein, but she was clearly a smart and holy woman, and I was grateful for her kindness. She taught me many things which I call her secrets, because she whispered them to me in the silence of some dark days. I share them now because she is a daughter of the Church, and since her canonization, her secrets belong to everyone.
At her beatification on May 1, 1987 (exactly 24 years before his own beatification on May 1, 2011), Pope Saint John Paul II said about her,
“We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting . . . and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God.”
Who was this woman so admired by St. John Paul II?
Edith was the last of 11 children born into a faithful Jewish family in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1891 on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Feast of the Atonement. Her father died when she was only two, and her mother kept the family together by taking over his lumber business. Edith, extremely bright and diligent, did well in school, but consciously decided to give up praying when she was 14, lost all faith in God, and labeled herself an agnostic and eventually an atheist.
She went to grad school in 1913 when she was 22, studying under (and later becoming the assistant to) Edmund Husserl, the great phenomenologist whose students kept, somehow, converting to Catholicism. Sure enough, Edith too converted in 1921 and was baptized on New Year’s Day, 1922 when she was 30 years old. She wanted to enter a Carmelite convent immediately, but was an obedient child of the Church and heeded the requests of those in authority to remain in the world and be a witness to the truth. This she did by translating works of Cardinal Newman and St. Thomas Aquinas, continuing to study philosophy, teaching girls in a Catholic Dominican high school, and speaking to groups of Catholic women.
Finally in 1933 when she was 42, Edith was allowed to pursue her dream of dedicating herself completely to God as a cloistered Carmelite nun, her work in the world havig been effectively ended by the rise of the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews. She entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne, Germany, where she lived peacefully until December 31, 1938, when she transferred in the dead of night to the Carmelites in Echt, Holland.
Four years later, in an act of heroic courage, the Dutch Bishops Conference had a letter condemning the Nazis read in all the churches. In retaliation, the Nazis in the Netherlands ordered all Jewish converts to Catholicism arrested. Edith, now Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, and her sister Rosa, who had converted and come to live with Edith in the Carmel as an extern sister, were taken away by the SS on August 2, 1942. Rosa was understandably frightened. Edith, having already offered herself to God as another Esther, gently invited Rosa, “Come, let us go for our people.”
One week later, on August 9, 1942, Edith and Rosa were gassed at Auschwitz.
Forty-five years later, I began my graduate studies in philosophy under Ralph McInerny (a big fan of Edith Stein, incidentally) at Notre Dame. It wasn’t the continuation of undergraduate camaraderie in the love of wisdom that I’d been anticipating. It was lonely, and soon it was also winter. I got depressed, and wished there was a way to exit stage left.
Enter Edith Stein. She had trod this same little way before me, and she had secrets to share, secrets which saved my sanity. Here they are, in the order in which she passed them along:
1. Academic pressures
Whatever one’s religious views, the desire to be hit by a bus in order to end the painful round of existence as a grad student is entirely normal, or at least not entirely unheard of. My relief was tremendous when I discovered that just as I said to myself, “I wouldn’t take my life, but if a bus would strike me down as I cross the street to campus, that would be a stroke of good fortune,” so too had Edith in her day. Really!
A sign that perhaps neither of us was cut out for the pressures of academic life at a big university, but also a sign that she and I were destined to be great friends. As C.S. Lewis so famously said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
2. Study of Aquinas
On the other hand, there is nothing to soothe the soul of a depressed philosopher like the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Edith had been formed in phenomenology, but when she became Catholic, she immediately set out to study St. Thomas. She appreciated the stream of papal endorsements through the centuries, which culminated in the Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici by Pope St. Pius X. There he said,
“We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Commonor Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest.”
Edith was no slacker. If the Church called her as a Catholic philosopher to the study of St. Thomas, then study him she would. And what did she find?
“A person who has lived for some time with the mind of St. Thomas—lucid, keen, calm, cautious—and dwelt in his world, will come to feel more and more that he is making right choices with ease and confidence….” (Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison, 1929). Moreover, as she wrote to a friend, her respect was due when St. Thomas would give her the answer to previously insoluble philosophical problems by providing one or another simple distinction.
3. Intellectual Custom
Still, Edith would have agreed wholeheartedly with Dr. Ron McArthur that intellectual custom does matter. She had been formed as a phenomenologist and she would always, to some extent, approach the perennial questions with that method. However much good will she brought to the study of St. Thomas (and she brought prodigious good will), she knew her limits. She lamented these limits, writing in 1934 to the Father Provincial of the Dominicans of Cologne, “Even more painful is the realization that it is too late to make up these deficiencies. I would be very happy not to have to do any more writing. But as long as my superiors are of the opinion that through my knowledge, I may be able and obligated to be of use to others, I shall have to accept the fact that the shortcomings, so well known to me, will also become apparent to others.”
4. Sweet Humility
This sweet humility left her wide open to receive the Truth. She said, in reference to her pre-conversion life, “Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and “My longing for truth was a single prayer.” So how did she, an ardent seeker of truth, and thus of God, finally find Him?
5. Best Friends
One of her most important secrets was that our best friends are the Blessed in Heaven. She learned that lesson at the exact moment of her conversion, which came about when, at the home of friends who were out for the evening, she chose from their library a book to read to pass the time. It was St. Teresa of Avila’s Book of Her Life, her autobiography, and Edith read it from beginning to end in one fell swoop. As she finished the last page in the early hours of the morning, she closed the book and declared, “This is the truth.”
I was already Catholic when I picked up Edith’s Essays on Woman in my first semester of grad school. A housemate had the book but wasn’t ready to dive in, and she loaned it to me. I was enthralled, and went on to read the biography of Edith written by her mother superior in the convent after Edith died.
In the biography I discovered, as Edith had in the big St. Teresa’s book, a true friend. Although I had learned to love the saints already, something about Edith grabbed me when I needed to be grabbed, drew me in and held me close.
The next secret Edith shared with me was about the freedom to pray and discern one’s vocation. Though I was already married and knew that was my primary vocation, I had yet to discover God’s plan for my philosophical studies. What Edith showed me was that I was free to choose what came next. And my freedom meant that I could follow her where she’d been leading the whole time – not into a position of prominence in philosophy, but into the Carmelite Order, which I entered soon after as a Third Order member. Like Edith herself, I felt a great relief and joy at my decision and entrance.
7. New Friends
At which point, after handing me over to Elizabeth of the Trinity who became my new best friend, Edith disappeared. After a few years, Elizabeth in her turn passed me off, and the story continues. As little St. Therese of Lisieux said to Servant of God Marcel Van, we need not complain about when or how the Saints find and befriend us. We can trust God’s timing. Edith knew this secret too, and wrote:
“Things were in God’s plan which I had not planned at all. I am coming to the living faith and conviction that – from God’s point of view – there is no chance and that the whole of my life, down to every detail, has been mapped out in God’s divine providence and makes complete and perfect sense in God’s all-seeing eyes.”
I think often of the lessons Edith taught me. Some are insights from her Essays on Woman and her Letters, but none have been more life-changing than the example she gave me by being there when I needed her, then retreating into the shadow of His wings when her job was done. She’s an introvert, I’ve decided, though in the warmth of her Carmelite community, at recreation she would laugh like a child until the tears ran down her cheeks. She found a joy in her hidden life which she’d never experienced in the public eye.
I pray she helps you, too, find your vocation and the mission God has for you, and whether introvert or extrovert, may you also laugh with delight until you cry.
St. Edith Stein, pray for us!