Feminine Empathy in Two Daughters of Israel

Female Empathy artwork

St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), “Yeshua” Hebrew for Jesus, and the
Blessed Mother by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1640 to 1650)

On the feast of St. John of the Cross, 1934, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (St. Edith Stein) highlighted the age-old battle between good and evil, sin and death:

The sight of the world in which we live, the need and misery, and an abyss of human malice, again and again, dampens jubilation over the victory of light. The world is still deluged by mire, and still but a small flock has escaped from it to the highest mountain peaks. The battle between Christ and the Antichrist is not yet over. The followers of Christ have their place in this battle, and their chief weapon is the cross.1

This reflection is written in honor of all those engaged in the battle between good and evil; therefore, in honor of us all. Our culture is no more the result of the sins of previous ages than the result of original sin. In attempting to redefine the “good, the true, and the beautiful” as the practical, utilitarian, and lustful cravings of inordinate desire, women suffer far more intimately than men. They suffer through the distortion of the divine reason for their maternal nature: to love and, by this love, to bring forth life.

I write this reflection with the happy knowledge that in the heart of my Ann Arbor convent—the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a community founded on the cusp of the Third Millennium, and under the fatherly influence of the great Pope St. John Paul II—women are spending their lives in search of authentic feminine beauty. They seek this divine calling by their maternal prayer, and by teaching and loving God’s children. In these Sisters’ hearts—so like the heart of a religious woman of the last century, St. Edith Stein—daily witness is given of the humble maid of Nazareth whose “yes” to God brought forth the Savior of all humanity.

A favorite meditation of mine is that our Savior, our Jesus, not only assumed a face, a smile, and a human heart like His Mother’s, but also that He learned how to love women through the experience of his Mother’s virtues. Not only did He singularly acquire her genetic inheritance, but from her breast, He drew in the best of the Chosen People’s heritage—a heritage that Edith Stein would also imbibe in the milk of her mother. Edith Stein would raise this inheritance to the heights of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” by embracing that fullness—the Son of Israel. In Mother Mary and St. Edith Stein, two daughters of Israel, femininity shines forth to all women with their multi-layered psyches saved … and raised by the call to authentic motherhood, the vocation written on every feminine heart.

Woven throughout the writings of the gifted philosopher, Edith Stein, is the compelling message of a woman’s inherent dignity, and her entrustment via her feminine heart. Edith Stein, however, understands the dangerous fault which lies close to a woman’s heart, namely, to attempt to possess the one to whom she gives her love, and to pay for, or force, if necessary, a reciprocal love by giving her very soul. “The deepest longing {of woman is} to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other completely” but she must never “lose her soul in the process.”2 Who of us has not known a woman who sold her dignity in the false hope of buying a commitment from “a lover”?

But God created one woman whose immaculate goodness provided His Son with a fleshly home in which to assume a human body in the likeness of all humanity, as His mission would need flesh and blood to be fulfilled. His would be the fulfillment of an age old promise, carried through the generations of the Chosen People. Edith Stein, herself Jewish, would eventually give her feminine “yes” to God and, in the likeness of an earlier Jewish maiden, Mary, she would do so through her empathetic sacrifice given to save her people.

At first glance, it might seem that Edith Stein lived her life surrounded by women—and in large measure she did! But her academic studies and professional life found her establishing deep friendships with a host of men, living and dead: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, and Martin Heidegger. Still, it was the closeness of Edith Stein’s relationship with her mother who she admitted to be the most influential relationship.3 We might ponder which caused Edith Stein the greatest suffering: the effect her conversion to Catholicism had on her mother, or her own martyrdom in the Auschwitz-Birchenau camp. Throughout her life, Edith Stein’s mother cherished a particular love for her youngest daughter, born on the “Day of Atonement, the most solemn of all Jewish holidays.” This was the day on which, in Edith Stein’s words, “the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, taking along the sacrifices to be offered in atonement for himself and all the people.”4

From such a closeness of spirit flows Edith Stein’s teaching: that a woman should look to her own mother for insight into what it means to be woman.5 In Frau Stein, whom I believe to have been a Marian image for her daughter, Edith Stein glimpsed her ideal of womanhood. In her, too, Edith Stein saw the maternal vocation which was already being handed over by many women of that time in exchange for the lure of glamour and fame. To counter this, Edith Stein taught that “the work of a mother is hidden for the most part, and even its rewards are intangible.”6 Elsewhere, she continued:

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.7

Anyone who would have arrived at such a depth of Christian understanding could hardly be far from surrendering self, and following this Christ. As is frequently the case, the Holy Spirit used virtuous friends to propel Edith Stein’s spiritual growth. During a point in which she was not practicing her own Jewish faith, Edith Stein noticed a woman praying in the Frankfurt Cathedral, and was impressed by her piety, present even when nothing seemed to be going on in the church.8 Later, Edith Stein would visit the widow of a dear friend, Adolf Reinach, who had died in combat in Flanders. She was stunned by the young wife’s faith-filled acceptance, and remarked: “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—Christ, the Mystery of the Cross.”9

Two years later, upon reading St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography in one night’s frenzy, Edith Stein calmly acclaimed aloud “this is Truth”—and her heart knew an ache for the baptismal waters and the Eucharistic union.10 She possessed, in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: “a longing for God.”11 Like Mary, the mother she had so recently come to cherish, Edith Stein had become “an open vessel of longing, in which life becomes prayer, and prayer becomes life.”12 Mary was, indeed, leading her daughter along their Jewish road to fulfillment. As Susanne M. Batzdorff wrote about her Aunt Edith Stein: “In following her conscience on the road to Christianity, she felt that her honesty pursued her Jewish path to its ultimate goal.”13 However, she quickly adds: “It remains impossible, from the Jewish perspective, to see a Jew’s conversion to Christianity that way.”14

To understand this last statement more clearly, I asked a Jewish convert how a Jewish family would view a son or daughter’s conversion to Christianity. His answer follows:

When a family member leaves the faith, that family member is considered dead. Prayers for the dead must be said for the person abandoning the faith, and the orthodox Jew must sit shiva (mourn for 7 days) in the same way a physical death of a close relative would involve. My wife, Stephanie, reminded me of a reform Rabbi’s response to our intermarrying which was basically “so you’re going to make certain there are no new Jewish souls born into the world. This has happened to the Jews many times, and it will happen again, and we will survive.” Such a statement gives an idea of the intensity of the response that is REQUIRED, even as mirrored by a reform Jew who doesn’t follow most of the laws and precepts. St. Edith’s family was, however, much more culturally Jewish, than observant in an orthodox way, but we need to understand St. Edith’s actions (and my own for that matter) in the context of the requirement that she be considered dead.15

Yet, this is not all! Edith Stein would, in a matter of a few years, also enter Carmel with the knowledge that her family would see this as a double betrayal. Both her conversion, and her entrance into the convent, came at a time when Christians were intensifying the persecution of Jews. Frau Stein would ask in desperation:

Why did you have to come to know {Christianity}? I don’t want to say anything against him {Jesus}. He may have been a very good man. But why did he make himself into God?16

Except for Edith Stein’s sister, Rosa, who converted after their mother’s death, the Stein family would not grasp that it was the very sufferings of the Jewish people that had led Edith Stein, as the sacrificial lamb, into Carmel. She would suffer twice over, too: as a Jew for her people, and as a Christian in imitation of Christ. As a Carmelite novice, she received the name which means “Teresa, gifted by the Cross.”

Since her own Jewish mother would never come to understand the deepest part of her heart, Edith Stein turned to Christ’s Mother, who rewarded her with an encompassing personal intimacy. Like Mary, Edith Stein would have faithfully prayed the ubiquitous Shema Yisrael each morning upon opening her eyes, and again at the close of each day.17 With Mary, Edith Stein would build an ontology of women which would later be taken up, and disseminated to the world, by Pope St. John Paul II. Thus, it had to be from Mary that Edith Stein would learn the universal realm which is home to woman’s heart. She writes:

Women’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and it is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body—this is closely related to the vocation of motherhood.18

A brilliant German priest, theologian, and candidate for the cardinalate, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, used this theme in his teaching:

The Church is feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift, and passes it on. … The Church …will always let the Lord give her own meaning, and will penetrate it ever more deeply in a humble love that says “Yes” to service: “Respexit humilitatem ancillae suae” (He has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden).”19

Our Heavenly Mother’s Magnificat is a song whose music echoes throughout the history of Christianity. Edith Stein would sing it, too, in her own words, that “the deepest longing of woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other completely.”20 She continues: “Only God can bestow Himself upon a person so that He fulfills this {other} being completely, and loses nothing of Himself in so doing. That is why total surrender, which is the principle of religious life, is simultaneously the only adequate fulfillment possible for woman’s yearning.”21

Edith Stein loved to contemplate Mary as virgin spouse—a title which she herself would don upon reception to the Carmelite woolen habit and large crucifix: “There was woven between the soul of the divine Child, and the soul of the Virgin Mother, the bond of the most intimate unity, which we call betrothal.”22 Mary could do this because she, being the new Eve, imitated the original Eve in standing “by the side” of her “Adam,” and becoming “the mother of all the living,” at the steep cost of radical vulnerability before God.23 As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger teaches:

The grain of wheat does not remain alone, for it includes the maternal mystery of the soil—Mary, the holy soil of the Church, as the Fathers so wonderfully call her, is an essential part of Christ … {who} became man in the “soil” of his Mother.24

One of the most quoted passages from Edith Stein reveals Mary, the new Eve, as prototype of pure womanhood:

The soul of a woman must, therefore, be expansive and open to all human beings; it must be quiet so that no small, weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses, self-contained, so that no invasions from without can imperil the inner life; empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.25

A woman’s soul must be expansive—thus a type of universal motherhood that knows no bounds. It must be quiet and warm because it is holding the life of another within itself, and providing the security and peace for the other’s growth. A woman’s soul must be self-contained, and yet, empty of self—it must be entrusted to God, so that it may be entrusted with God.

As if in a flame of divine irony, Kristallnacht ensued on November 9, 1938—this “Night of the Broken Glass.” In the darkness, almost two hundred synagogues were destroyed, over eight thousand Jewish shops were sacked and looted, and tens of thousands of Jews disappeared into concentration camps. Edith Stein’s empathy impelled her to write to Pope Pius XI with her request that he issue an encyclical to help stop the Nazis’ terror.26 The Holy Father responded by sending her a family blessing, but no encyclical. Edith Stein realized her hope for a miracle might not find fulfillment. Her heart would now resonate, more united than ever, with another Jewish mother upon her realization that her Son’s life on earth would be exacted by those in power. Edith Stein became another icon of tangible empathy and self-sacrificing oblation.

If being a “support” to others was commensurate with being a “companion,” and to “help another develop” was the maternal role, then Edith Stein, as Sr. Teresa Benedicta, now exuded maternal sympathy.27 She poured it out unconditionally in prayer, in her study and writing, in the pensive facial expression that her Sisters noticed.28 Baroness Gertrud von le Fort, the distinguished author and defender of authentic womanhood, would later write that “to have seen the face of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was to remember it always; only twice in her life had she experienced the impression of looking at a saint—with Edith Stein and with Pope Pius X.”29

Edith Stein’s heart was carrying the cross that others did not yet fully grasp. If she was to be faithful to woman’s calling in the spousal dimension, she willed to share in the life—and death—of Christ. Though Edith Stein had always shone with woman’s “special genius for friendship,” it was at this time that she would pledge her heroic fidelity to this Divine Friend, to all her brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith, and to all held in the Catholic embrace.30 She would now live what she had promised Our Lord on Holy Thursday of 1933 when she had attended the Liturgy in Cologne at the Carmelite convent:

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. And at the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard.31

A question might arise: how do we suffer for and with others, and what makes such suffering transformational? Edith Stein’s answer is found in empathy, or the process by which “human beings comprehend the psychic life of others.”32 It forms an unflinching encounter with alterity (otherness) by which we refuse to reduce the “other” to the “same.” Edith Stein gives two ways by which this reduction might occur.33 The first involves assimilation by imitation, wherein I negate my own experience, and replace it with the other person’s experience. The second is suppression or negation of the other’s experience by appropriation, or reinterpretation of the other’s experiences with “self,” as the standard. Let us look more closely at these two cases.

In the first, I deny my first love of, say, classical music to replace it with your personal cravings for pop or jazz. In the second, I take your valid appreciation of jazz, and attempt to explain it away as a distortion or ignorance of what I label “good music.” Thus, I come away with the belief that you actually prefer classical works whenever you hear them. Obviously, neither of these experiences reflect truth. At best, we might consider them a form of “false empathy” or certainly a manhandled manipulation of truth.

Empathy, rather, is that Marian embrace of the entire world, which disallows my judging others while also gifting me with grace to comprehend others, even as I remain solidly grounded in my individual self. In the shadows of her own looming oblation, Edith Stein knew that “the mystery of the Cross is to take someone else’s suffering as your own, even while knowing that it is not your own. …It is to affirm that our common bond is in God and hence, {so is} our universal human dignity.”34

One dark night, in the confines of her convent, Sr. Teresa Benedicta covertly wrote out the following prayer: “All who want to be married to the Lamb must allow themselves to be fastened to the cross with him. Everyone marked by the blood of the Lamb is called to this, and that means all the baptized.”35 A bit later she would add, “I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. … Beneath the Cross, I understood the destiny of God’s people.”36

In Carmelite tradition, all religious write a final testament at some point in their lives. Sr. Teresa Benedicta penned hers in 1939:

I joyfully accept in advance the death God has appointed for me, in perfect submission to His most holy will. May the Lord accept my life and death for the honor and glory of His name, for the needs of His holy Church—especially for the preservation, sanctification, and final perfecting of our holy Order, and in particular for Carmel—for the Jewish people, that the Lord may be received by His own, and His Kingdom come in glory, for the deliverance of Germany, and peace throughout the world, and finally for all my relatives, living and dead, and all whom God has given me; may none of them be lost.37

As the Second World War progressed, the nuns in Cologne feared for Edith and Rosa Stein’s lives—Rosa had entered the faith, and the convent after the death of their mother. Due to the political situation, it had been deemed wiser that Rosa remain an extern in the Community. Efforts were secretly made to send both sisters to the Carmel in Echt, Holland. Shortly after they arrived, however, Holland, too, would fall into the powers of the Nazis, thus placing Edith and Rosa Stein once more in imminent danger. It was hoped that they would be able to escape to Switzerland, but before such plans could be finalized, the Dutch bishops issued an official letter attacking the anti-Semitic atrocities of the Nazi regime. In severe retaliation, the Gestapo rushed to round up all Roman Catholic Jews, and send them to the death camps. Edith and Rosa Stein were arrested on August 2, 1942. While Rosa seemed disoriented as they were being led away from the convent, Edith Stein gently encouraged her, “Come, Rosa. We go for our people.”38 Did Edith Stein recall her earlier words as she now walked along her Via Dolorosa?

Beneath the Cross, Mary has received the inheritance of her Son, as mother of the Redeemed, {she} has taken everyone into her heart. Like mother, like daughter. The inheritance is {every woman’s} as well.39

After being abducted from their convent, during that first week of August, the two sisters were put on trains, stuffed with other Jews, and taken to two concentration camps in the Netherlands: Amersfoort and Westerbork. Witnesses have testified to the great love which Edith Stein exercised among the prisoners struck down by their misery. Described as an “angel,” she calmed and comforted the women, washed and fed the children, while radiating serenity.40 A woman who lived through the horrors of the death camp would later give evidence to the Catholic nun whose brilliance and achievements had been whispered about as the train car opened and bodies fell out. She described Edith Stein’s expression:

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.41

Eventually, Edith and Rosa Stein were deported to Auschwitz. It is believed they were executed on the same day they arrived.

In June of 1994, my own sister, Sr. Mary Theresa Bogdanowicz, and I were given the unique gift of being able to trace our heritage back to our native Poland for the first time in 80 years. A priest in Warsaw had said to me, “Everywhere you walk is a cemetery.” True, but nothing would move me so deeply as the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As the Iron Curtain had only recently fallen, this camp retained its visible memory of horrific sufferings. Flea-infested straw remained stuffed between boards that had served as beds. Dried blood was still smeared on the wall of execution, and throughout the room of torture which held an assemblage of torture instruments. Our Polish guide carried a vigil candle which she lit and placed on one of the two crematoriums—still filled with human ashes—and wondered if her grandmother’s ashes were mixed therein.

Later, with leaden feet, we slowly made our way to the remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the “white and red houses” of death, and subsequent gas chambers, had done their evil work. The escalating effects of the war had found the camp’s two crematoriums incapable of keeping up. Thus, the prisoners were made to dig pits so that their own bodies could be burned in these massive graves. These pits still dotted the early nineties’ landscape.

Walking up to one such pit, my friend, Fr. Czeslaus Banaszkiewicz, motioned me to “step in … rub the soil between your hands.” Fragments of human bone became visible as the sand dispersed between my fingers. As I stood in silent awe, he whispered, “Look at the sign which displays the Star of David. It marks the pit wherein all Jews were cremated. Edith Stein, her sister Rosa, among their people … their ashes are scattered here. Are you able to translate the Polish words under the Jewish Star?” I looked. Painted in red over the white background were the words attributed to Edith Stein at this camp: “love will be our eternal life.”42

Though I would return to Poland in 2000, and revisit Auschwitz, the museum curators had, by this time, removed much of the gruesome—and yet sacred—reality. Birkenau’s pits had been filled, and the Jew’s sign was no longer. But I had seen them all, and I had memorized them forever. All because a woman, whose very ashes I may have held in my hands, had accepted the dehumanizing atrocities of the Nazis’ machine, and had turned them into love.

If, as this reflection has pondered, “the sight of the world in which we live, the need and misery, and an abyss of human malice, again and again dampens jubilation”43 by attempting to trade the authentic beauty of woman for the cravings of inordinate desire, then we are indeed embroiled in a war, as we seek authentic goodness, truth and beauty. Edith Stein reminds us:

The followers of Christ have their place in this battle, and their chief weapon is the cross. 44

But this concept has never been a foreign one to those who believe in Christ. Indeed, we can speak as one voice with St. Edith Stein:

One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards, and have said with all my heart: “Ave, Crux, Spes unica” (I welcome you, Cross, our only hope).”45

  1. Stein, Edith, The Hidden Life, ed. L. Gelber and Michael Linssen, trans. Waltraut Stein, vol. 4. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2014), 91.
  2. Stein, Edith, Essays on Woman, ed. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Freda Mary Oben, vol. 2. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), 53.
  3. Herbstrith, Waltraud, Edith Stein: A Biography, trans. Fr. Bernard Bonowitz (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 20.
  4. Ibid., 20f.
  5. Garcia, Laura, “Edith Stein – Convert, Nun, Martyr”, Crisis: June, 1997: 32-35
  6. Garcia, 32-35.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Stein, Edith, Life in a Jewish Family: An Autobiography, ed. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Josephine Koeppel, vol. 1. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1986), 401.
  9. Herbstrith, 56.
  10. Ibid., 65.
  11. Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 15.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Batzdorff, Susanne M., Edith Stein: Selected Writings (Springfield: Templegate Publisher, 1990), 117.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Block, Steve, email to author, 2014. Mr. Block is the father of one of our Sisters, who is, by the way, appropriately named Sr. Teresa Benedicta.
  16. Batzdorff, 28.
  17. You may remember this prayer being said in Aramaic in Mel Gibson’s film: The Passion of the Christ.
  18. Stein, Woman, 95.
  19. Ratzinger and von Balthasar, 140, 175.
  20. Stein, Woman, 53.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Stein, Hidden Life, 98.
  23. Mosley, Joanne, Edith Stein: Modern Saint and Martyr (Mahwah: HiddenSpring, 2006), 82.
  24. Ratzinger and von Balthasar, 14.
  25. Stein, Woman, 132f. Original emphasis.
  26. Batzdorff, 111.
  27. Stein, Woman, 46f.
  28. Herbstrith, 134.
  29. Oben, Freda Mary, “Edith Stein: Holiness in the Twentieth Century”, Spirituality Today, Summer 1983, 141-154.
  30. Garcia, 32-35.
  31. Posselt, Edith Stein, 100, qtd. In Garcia, 32-35. Author’s emphasis.
  32. Stein, Edith, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1989), 11.
  33. Horner, Frances, “Edith Stein on Empathy and Suffering”, Carmel Stream (March 26, 2011). Accessed May 12, 2015. carmelstream.com
  34. Ibid., original emphasis.
  35. Stein, The Hidden Life, 107.
  36. “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross,” the Holy See, Oct. 11, 1998, www.vatican.va.
  37. Herbstrith, 169.
  38. Ibid., 180.
  39. Mosley, 87.
  40. Herbstrith., 183.
  41. Ibid., 182f.
  42. Stein, Edith, The Science of the Cross: A Study of St. John of the Cross, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1960), 71.
  43. Stein, Hidden Life, 91.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Stein, Letter to Mother Engelmann, OCD, Dec. 1941, qtd. in “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.”
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP About Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP, is one of the four founders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As vocations director, she lectures on topics related to religious life and theology, speaking at youth conferences, parishes, to university students, religious women, priests, and seminarians. (www.sistersofmary.org)


  1. Dear Sister Joseph,

    Thank you for writing this article. Your research and inspiration are apparent with each word which in total are brilliant, beautiful, haunting and terrifying. God bless you.

  2. Avatar Jonathan Fleischmann says:

    Truly beautiful… Thank you!