Saint Edith Stein

Footsteps to Truth

“Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God.”
– Saint Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

While the general story of Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [1891–1942]) might be well known, her kind of concern for truth in all its depths and dimensions requires serious attention. “Truth” to her, from just prior to the initiation of her philosophical studies in 1913 until her conversion to Catholicism on January 1, 1922, referred fundamentally to an objective reality outside of the mind which can be known by the mind. She desired to know clearly and with certitude answers to the most fundamental questions of life: Who am I? What is my origin? Where ought I to be going? How do I get there? What is really real?

Edith Stein never gave up her search for this kind of truth by means of natural reason. However, recognizing the need for a means to truth beyond unaided human reason, she was led to Christianity and eventually to Catholicism (and the Carmelites). When she exclaimed at the conclusion of her reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, “That is the truth,” she was signifying by “truth” not merely an ultimate, permanent reality, but also a loving relationship with Truth, a personal Supreme Being known as Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Since this Truth was also the Way and the Life, Edith lived the need to love all human persons whom she encountered: family, students, colleagues, and friends, as well as her Carmelite sisters after her entry into the monastery of Cologne in 1933.

Edith Stein discovered in her life as a lay Catholic and as a professed religious Catholic the clear and certain answers to the foundational questions of life which she had sought through natural reason alone many years earlier. She learned that the Catholic faith does not in any way suppress reason, but builds upon it and expands its scope. She learned that there is a reality known as Christian philosophy. She learned that only awareness of a personal Ultimate Reality whom one can know and love provides the kind of meaningful direction and hope in life which is conducive to authentic human happiness. If she were alive somewhere in Western culture today, she could describe to her students and audiences how and why a relativistic-secularist life is rudderless, failing to recognize its origin and its destiny, and failing to respect human life. She learned that this creates an environment which potentially terrorizes all of humanity. Of course, she confronted this kind of world long before her death at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.

Edith Stein’s intensive search for truth led her to philosophy, then to the realization of a means to truth beyond human reason, and eventually to Christianity en route to Catholicism. However, her future as an outstanding philosopher and a saint in the Catholic Church was quite unpredictable when in 1906 at the age of fifteen she dropped out of high school and discontinued her prayer life. After her strict (and obviously wise) mother approved her request for “a break from school,” Edith spent the next year living with her oldest sister and husband and their three children. But she returned to school and in 1911 entered the University of Breslau (which was then in Germany and is now in Poland) to study German history. She remained a student there until transferring to the University of Gottingen in 1913; this became the location of what might be called the first of her three “conversions.”

Before considering Edith’s paths to truth, attention will be turned to some clarification of what, in fact, she was seeking. It appears questionable whether at this time she is most accurately to be considered an atheist, an agnostic, or just a person indifferent to religion.1 In any case, she was not actually practicing the Jewish faith in which she had been raised. Nonetheless, it is said that she had an unquenchable thirst for truth. Obviously, the term “truth” conveys multiple meanings. What was hers? We can identify it most accurately as a perfectly clear and absolutely certain and realistic basis for responding to the most fundamental questions of human living: personal identity (who am I?), the origin of my life (where did I come from?), the proper destiny of my life (how do I get there?), and the nature of reality in general (what is really real?).

Especially to be noticed in Edith Stein’s search for truth is her quest for an objective reality outside her own mind yet knowable by the human mind. This is important, especially in the twenty-first century in Western culture, which has become what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called “relativistic secularism.” This signifies the presumption that there is no God, and that the only certain principle is that all truth and good are relative to what individual persons think, feel, and decide. That is, since there is no Supreme Being, human beings represent the crest of earthly existence and are responsible for creating what is true, good, and beautiful — rather than discovering what is outside the mind, and conforming one’s thoughts and living in accord with this reality. Only in discovering what is real outside the mind did Edith have confidence that she could find a basis for directing her thoughts and actions.

This was the mindset of Edith Stein during her college years that led her to the study of phenomenology under the guidance of Edmund Husserl, a professor of philosophy at the University of Gottingen and the founder of the modern phenomenological movement. In fact, she eventually earned a doctoral degree and served as an assistant to Husserl, whose original goal by means of his phenomenological method was “‘to clarify and thereby find the ultimate basis of all knowledge,’”2 by means of discovering the essences of things (an essence being that which makes a thing to be the kind of thing that it is). This fit Edith’s personal agenda and explains her “conversion” to philosophy at this early stage in her life. However, disappointment in Husserl soon became prevalent among his graduate students, including Edith, when the “Master” (as he was called) turned toward idealism. That is, for various reasons, Husserl came to believe and began to teach that truth is found within the human mind rather than in things outside of the mind. The emphasis now was on the subjectivity of truth, signifying an incapability of the mind by means of the phenomenological method to know the relationship between the ideas in the mind and things outside the mind.3

Edith Stein’s disillusionment with Husserl’s subjective turn was soon accompanied by disappointment which extended to philosophy, in general. That is, she began to wonder whether — and to believe that — natural reason is simply incapable of leading a person to what is ultimately (finally) true and real with the kind of certitude for which she longed. This moved her toward a second conversion in her search for truth in view of her principle that something beyond natural reason is required for attaining the kinds of answers to the kinds of questions which she sought. This “something” had to be religious faith. But what religion and what kind of faith was needed?4

Edith had by this time encountered the philosophy professor Max Scheler, who was then a Catholic, but whose Catholicism, as such, seemed not to resonate with her. Nonetheless, she says that he shook “‘the barriers of rationalistic prejudices’ as she encountered the world of [religious] faith.” She began to embrace the Christian faith under the influence of Scheler’s lectures,5 a direction qualitatively enhanced soon by a visit with the widow of another philosophy professor, Adolf Reinach. He had been killed in battle during World War I in November, 1917. His widow Anne, a Christian, invited Edith to visit her; the latter was astounded by her courage, associating it with the Cross of Christ. In Edith’s own words, “‘This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine strength that it inspires in those who bear it. For the first time I saw before my eyes the Church, born of Christ’s redemptive suffering, victorious over the sting of death. It was the moment in which my unbelief was shattered. Judaism paled and Christ radiated before me: Christ in the mystery of the Cross.’”6

Edith’s turn to Christianity led to a third major conversion, this on a visit to the home of fellow philosopher, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, who, with her husband, ran a large fruit farm and invited Edith to stay at their home while they were on vacation. Browsing in Hedwig’s substantial library one evening, Edith (in her own words) “‘picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated and did not stop until I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, That is the truth.’” The practical effect was evident immediately; after reading most of the night, Edith went out the next morning and bought a Catholic catechism and a missal. After studying them thoroughly, she attended Mass at a Catholic church. After Mass, she approached the priest and requested that he baptize her. He probably explained that the process didn’t work quite that way. But Edith persisted, requesting that he test her knowledge. He did so and baptized her on January 1, 1922. She was confirmed on February 2 in Speyer.7

A very notable feature of Edith Stein’s conversion to Catholicism is directly connected to the manner in which it occurred: the reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. MacIntyre summarizes the nature of this two-fold conversion: “What Stein decided immediately in responding to Teresa’s autobiography was to follow that path that Teresa had described; that is, the Carmelite path. And, because a Carmelite is only within the Catholic Church, her decision was from the outset both to become a Catholic and to become a Carmelite.”8 However, the latter was delayed — from 1921 to 1933, in fact. There are two reasons: her mother’s seriously negative response to Edith’s becoming a Catholic and Edith’s fear for her health, and the recommendations of two consecutive spiritual directors.9 Instead of a life with the Carmelites, Edith became a professional teacher and lecturer. Some years earlier she had failed to obtain a university professorship, not for a lack of qualifications but because of gender bias: men only. However, she was welcomed in 1927 to the faculty of a girls’ high school (and teacher education institute) conducted by the Dominican nuns of Magdalena in Speyer. Although she was not a nun, “she managed to mimic a monastic life years before her entrance into Carmel.” She took “private vows” and lived in a room adjacent to the nuns’ quarters, attended daily Mass, and prayed the Divine Office and meditated with the nuns.10

During these years (1923–31) of teaching and lecturing throughout Europe, Edith met the Jesuit Father Erich Pryzwara, who asked her to translate some letters of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–90) and The Disputed Questions on Truth by St. Thomas Aquinas. The latter, in particular, reawakened her former commitment to philosophy. In conjunction with this study and translation of St. Thomas, she recognized “‘that God can be served through scholarship;’” that religious faith serves as a path to truth; and that faith expands the scope of philosophy. Concerning the last point, she became critically aware that “there are realms of truth from which philosophy must remain excluded apart from faith.” That is, religious faith provides issues about which one can (and a Christian should) philosophize — thus, an entrance into the realm of “Christian philosophy.” In becoming aware of the interrelationships between phenomenology and the thought of Aquinas, she became increasingly appreciative of the manner in which theology broadened the scope of philosophy — and the horizon for her reach for truth.11

As noted above, Edith Stein’s personal quest for the truth had led her to the study of philosophy that consisted of a search for an objective reality outside the mind, yet knowable by the mind. Her theoretical interest in this mode of truth was matched by her practical interest: she wished to know the real meaning of human living and how to attain it. A goal was necessary, and it could not be located without an awareness of what is really real: being, not created by the human mind, but existing outside the mind and independently of it. The path of her search had taken her from philosophy to the need for faith, to Christianity, to Catholicism. She now was certain, not only of the existence of a Supreme Being, but of a personal God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Just as an introduction to theology had broadened her view of philosophy and philosophical pursuits, so had this experience and knowledge broadened her understanding of “truth.” Her search for the truth characteristic of her earlier endeavors must now be continued, but expanded. How? A key to her new appreciation is exemplified in her own words: “‘Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously,’” and, since God is Love as well as Truth, all truth must be fused with love.

The union of truth and love in the context of the Catholic life was emphasized by Pope John Paul II at the Mass of Canonization for Edith Stein at the Vatican on October 11, 1998: “ʻTruth and love need each other. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a witness to this. [She] says to us all: Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive life.’”12 Edith herself states clearly the practical implication of her newly extended and deepened vision of truth, one for which philosophy had initially paved the way: “‘If God is within us and if God is love, it cannot be otherwise than that we love our brothers and sisters. Therefore our love of human beings is the measure of our love of God. For the Christian, there is no such thing as a stranger. At any time it is our neighbor who stands before us, the one who needs us the most . . . ’”13 While remaining fully aware of a philosophical view of truth as abstract (and empirical) knowledge, Edith embraced and exemplified most courageously the truth of love that is relationship, particularly “‘in mystical friendship with God and with him whom God had sent, Jesus Christ.’”14

Edith Stein left the school of the Dominican nuns in Speyer in 1931, but continued her teaching career in 1932, this time at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Munster. This opportunity to work in teacher education brought her closer to the area of philosophy of education, an area in which she contributed significantly from a classical appreciation of the field. However, the appointment at Munster would last only one year due to a government decree under the Nazi regime in April, 1933.15 Plaudits for her efforts as a teacher and public lecturer from 1923–33 are extraordinary. It seems worth pausing here to reflect very briefly on what contributed to her effectiveness in addition to her clarity of mind and expression, and her concern for the well-being of her students and all persons. That intangible factor is her very being. One of her former students from the Dominican School in Speyer puts it very succinctly: “‘none of us has forgotten the magic of her personality. We saw her every day at Mass up front in the chapel on her kneeler, and we began to get an inkling of what it means to bring faith and conduct into perfect harmony. To us at that critical age [17] she provided an example simply by her bearing . . . she was a still and silent person who led us only by what she was’” (emphasis added).16 This might remind us of the age-old principle that we influence people more by what we do than by what we say, and more by who we are than by what we do. In any case, Edith Stein taught through her words, her life, and her being.

As noticed, it seems clear enough that Edith’s call from God to become a Catholic and a Carmelite were virtually simultaneous. The circumstances of her conversion (through the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila) and her mode of life between her baptism on January 1, 1922, and her entrance into the Carmelite monastery at Cologne on October 14, 1933, support this contention. So do her own words in 1933: “For almost twelve years, Carmel had been my goal. . . . When on New Year’s Day 1922, I received the Sacrament of Baptism, I thought that this was merely the preparation for entering the Order.” She adds that “Lately this waiting had become very hard for me.” A few days following her arrival at the Cologne Carmel she admitted that she was “at the place where for the longest time I felt I belonged.” She experienced great joy in penetrating “more deeply into the spirit of the Order in accordance with the counsel of its holy Foundress to seek nothing in the cloister but God alone and the unreserved submission to His will.”17

Due to pressure from the Nazis, who were attacking Jews and their friends, and burning synagogues and destroying homes, Edith moved from the Carmel in Cologne to the one in Echt, Holland, on December 31, 1938. She immediately began learning Dutch (which became the seventh language which she spoke), and continued her research and writing. However, the end was near at hand when on July 26, 1942, a pastoral letter of the Dutch bishops condemning the deportation of Jews was read from the pulpits in Dutch Catholic churches. The result occurred quickly: the arrest of all Catholics of Jewish descent. Edith Stein and her sister Rosa (a lay assistant at the convent) were taken away from the Carmel in Echt, Holland, on August 2, 1942, at 5:00 PM. Edith’s calm demeanor and faithful resignation are clear. In a letter dated September, 1941, she wrote, “‘Not mine, but your will be done.’” Her last words remembered by those present at her departure are addressed to Rosa: “Come let us go for our people.” While the “details of Edith’s death will never be known,” it appears somewhat certain that she was murdered by the Nazis after arriving at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.18

In conclusion, it becomes clear that Christ’s proclamation that “The Truth will set you free” characterizes Edith Stein’s whole adult life and her death. Truth became for her not only an objective reality to be sought as a guide to living happily in accord with her philosophy, but also a relationship of love of all human beings in accord with her love of the Truth, Jesus Christ Himself. From her philosophical studies she learned a great deal about the world and human living, but also that natural reason was not sufficient to satisfy her craving for clear and certain answers to the ultimate meaning of life. Her encounter with St. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, led her to an appreciation of something called “Christian philosophy,” and the reality of Truth presented in Scripture and the Catholic Tradition.

Little or nothing has been said explicitly concerning Edith’s humility, but a few sentences of her own underline its centrality in her life and death. As a Catholic, Edith exercised great devotion to the Blessed Virgin and certainly was aware of her humility, which one can see reflected in these statements. For example, on the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, 1941, while sensing the beginning of the end, she wrote that “‘The Divine Child offers us his hand to renew our bridal bond. Let us hurry to clasp his hand. The Lord is my light and salvation — of whom shall I be afraid?’”19 Again, “‘Who surrenders unconditionally to the Lord will be chosen by him as an instrument for building his Kingdom.’”20 Finally, “‘I am only a tool of the Lord. I would like to lead to him anyone who comes to me.’”21 Edith Stein’s humble path from philosophy to Christianity to Catholicism led her from a conception of truth to a meeting with the Truth, the Way, and the Life.

Summary

Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891–1942) at the age of fifteen dropped out of high school and discontinued her prayer life. However, this was not a harbinger of her future. Born into a Jewish family with a strictly religious mother in Breslau, Germany (now a part of Poland), in 1891, Edith very early in life developed a thirst for the truth. She felt a need for a clear and certain grasp of objective reality as a guide to self-identity, and a knowledge of her origin and destiny. No longer influenced by her Jewish heritage in her early twenties, she turned to philosophy at the University of Gottingen under the tutelage of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. She excelled in philosophy, completing a doctoral degree with highest honors in 1916, and becoming Husserl’s assistant. However, Edith became disillusioned concerning philosophy as a means to her search for truth for two reasons: Husserl’s turn to idealism and, more generally, her (accurate) perception that natural reason alone was insufficient for her purposes. She began to recognize the need for Christian faith through her encounters with Professor Max Scheler and Anne Reinach, the wife of a philosophy professor who had been killed in World War I in 1917. Her eventual conversion to Catholicism occurred through a reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila — she determined that “That is the truth,” spurring a decision to become a Catholic . . . and a Carmelite.

Edith’s appreciation of truth expanded from a notion of objective reality (which she continued to pursue) to a need for loving relationships, especially with the Truth, who was also the Way and the Life, Christ Himself. However, out of concern for her mother (who was devastated by her conversion) and in deference to consecutive spiritual advisors, she delayed seeking immediate entrance into the Carmelites. Instead, but living the life of a nun in many ways, she taught from 1923–31 at a girls’ high school conducted by the Dominican nuns of St. Magdalena in Speyer, and from 1932–33 at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy at Munster in Germany. Due to pressure from the Nazis, she was forced to leave this position, which became the occasion for her entrance into the Carmelite monastery of Cologne in October, 1933. Again, because of Nazi persecution of Jews, she transferred to the Carmel in Echt, Netherlands, in December, 1938. Edith continued her writing in Echt, having previously encountered writings of John Henry Newman and St. Thomas Aquinas. While never relinquishing her attention to the phenomenological method of reflection, she developed a notion of Christian philosophy and also wrote in the area of mystical theology, especially concerning St. John of the Cross. However, due to Nazi reprisal to a pastoral letter of Dutch bishops concerning the deportation of Jews, she was removed from Echt on August 2, 1942, and died in Auschwitz on August 9 of that year. Edith Stein was beatified in 1987, canonized in 1998, and made a co-patroness of Europe in 1999 by Pope St. John Paul II.

  1. Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001), 49–52.
  2. Sarah Borden, Edith Stein, Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series (London, New York: Continuum, 2003), 21.
  3. See Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 60–64; Borden, Stein, 20–27; Sr. Teresia Renalta Posselt, OCD, Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2005), 31–34; Waltraud Herbstrith, OCD, Edith Stein: A Biography, trans. Fr. Bernard Bonowitz, OCSO (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992; 2nd English ed.), 33–45; Alasdair MacIntyre, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publications Inc., 2006), 63–67; Antonio Calcagno, The Philosophy of Edith Stein (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2007), 7–11; Hilda C. Graef, The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Work of Edith Stein (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955), 11–16, 23ff.
  4. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 58; Herbstrith, Biography, 46.
  5. Dianne Marie Traflet, Saint Edith Stein: A Spiritual Portrait (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2008), 36; Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 64–65; Herbstrith, Biography, 46–48.
  6. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 53–60; see also Traflet, Spiritual Portrait, 40–46; Herbstrith, Biography, 48–51; Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 75.
  7. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 63–65; see also Traflet, Spiritual Portrait, 17, 41–42; Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 80.
  8. MacIntyre, Philosophical Prologue, 168.
  9. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 65; Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 82–83; Traflet, Spiritual Portrait, 45–48; Graef, Scholar and Cross, 39.
  10. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 84; Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 65–73; Graef, Scholar and Cross, 39–46.
  11. Herbstrith, Biography, 82–87; Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 87–88.
  12. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 59–60.
  13. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 132–33.
  14. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 80.
  15. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 99, 108; Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 113, 114; Herbstrith, Biography, 106–14.
  16. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 69.
  17. Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 118, 120, 135, 159.
  18. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 132, 137–38, 145–53, 156; Posselt, Life of a Philosopher, 202–10.
  19. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 167.
  20. Scaperlanda, St. Teresa Benedicta, 133.
  21. Traflet, Spiritual Portrait, 52.
Peter M. Collins About Peter M. Collins

The teaching and research career of Peter M. Collins has been focused upon philosophy and education. For thirty-two years he was full-time faculty at Marquette University; he has also taught and lectured in other universities in the U.S. (including Guam), Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan. In addition to traditional lay students, he has taught priests, religious, and seminarians. The author of two books, his articles and reviews have appeared in about thirty different scholarly journals published across the globe. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the History of Philosophy and Pedagogy in Rockville, MA.

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