Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Edith Stein And The Science Of The Cross

by Freda Mary Oben, Ph.D


Edith Stein teaches us through her life and writings how we can be formed to holiness, a person who images God.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


20 -24

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, October 2002

We can picture a little German Jewess of the 1890s, sitting with her mother in a synagogue, formally dressed in black as they attended the Sabbath service. It is our Edith Stein, or little "Yitschel" as she was then called. Perhaps, she is listening to the words of the prophets or the psalmist as they admonish the faithful to be led by the holy spirit of God, to do good and avoid evil. Edith tells us that, even when she was growing up and had become somewhat skeptical about religious matters, she knew that it was more important to be good than to be smart. But in her teens, she fell away from the Jewish faith, and when she was in high school her wit was apt to be very caustic at times; the best that could be said for her critical way is that she could be "deliciously malicious."

At college, she found Christ, and after five years of hesitating as to what church to join, she became a Catholic, accepting him absolutely without reservation. Immediately she wanted to be a nun, but her spiritual director advised against that because, as a well-known philosopher, she was too valuable as a laywoman. She turned inward towards changing herself. Undergoing a real conversion, her entire personality changed. Instead of telling people off in that "delicious, malicious manner, " she developed a spirituality, which bade her look inwards. In a full attempt to imitate Christ, she became a holy woman. In fact, her definition of a holy person is to become "an other Christ." But, she writes, this invitation to holiness is for everyone, and it is a person's primary vocation.

Because she had turned to teaching young Catholic women and nuns, she analyzed not only woman's nature but also the man's, and the differences between them. Also, she applied her training under the master philosopher Edmund Husserl and her study of St. Thomas Aquinas and came up with answers pertaining to the constitution of the person. What makes a person? How is a person formed to best advantage according to the purpose of our Creator? What makes for personal happiness?

She writes that God has actually simplified this whole problem: He has created each human being as an image of himself. There is a seed within each of us pushing blindly towards fulfillment of this goal for which we are created. We can think of the plant, which reaches constantly for sun, air and water, which will flower to its own perfection. We, too have instilled that awaiting perfection = holiness = as a unique image of God.

Edith Stein is considered one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, even by our Holy Father who, like her, is the product of both phenomenology and scholasticism. One of the reasons he lauds her is that Stein exemplifies the journey taken by a modern day scientific agnostic into the world of faith: She describes herself as once guilty of the radical sin of disbelief, for, she tells us, at the age of fourteen and a half years, she "deliberately and consciously stopped praying" until her early twenties. But this self-declared atheist finally emphasizes that, in the confused and hungry world today, scientific answers are not enough: rather, the way of faith provides a wisdom that is unattainable through philosophy and reason alone. In her university course taught on the person, she developed a method of philosophical anthropology; here in her lecture notes, she tells us that faith has a double significance in scholarship: it is a measuring rod by which we are kept free from error; also, revealed truth is able to answer many questions which natural reason cannot. (See Introduction to Der Aufbau der menschlichen Person) (Structure of the Human Person). Even in her day, there was high promiscuity, personal alienation, stress, mental illness, and loneliness. Let us remember, she died through the so-called scientific methods of the gas chamber. And today, science is still killing off innocent lives, quite methodically.

How can we be formed to this holiness, this person who images God? Edith Stein teaches us how, through her life and writings. In her conversion, she experienced Christ Incarnate. She also tells us that the birth of Christ is an announcement of the struggle between good and evil. His birth must be followed by the cross. She writes in an essay "The Mystery of Christmas":

The Christian mysteries are an indivisible whole . . . Thus the way from Bethlehem leads inevitably to Golgotha, from the crib to the Cross. (Simon's) prophecy announced the Passion, the fight between light and darkness that already showed itself before the crib . . . The star of Bethlehem shines in the night of sin. The shadow of the Cross falls on the light that shines from the crib. This light is extinguished in the darkness of Good Friday, but it rises all the more brilliantly in the sun of grace on the morning of the Resurrection. The way of the incarnate Son of God leads through the Cross and Passion to the glory of the Resurrection. In His company the way of every one of us, indeed of all humanity, leads through suffering and death to this same glorious goal.

For, she writes, the teaching of the cross would be lost if it did not express one's own personal existence. Through love, we are each to combat evil, and love triumphs over evil. The amazing fact remains that it was an early awareness of this power of the Crucified Christ that worked her conversion. She tells us that her search for truth had been a constant prayer. Then she visited a Christian friend who had recently lost her husband, and in her friend's peace attained through acceptance of the cross, Edith met the Crucified Christ. At that moment, she tells us, Judaism paled and the Cross loomed high. She had been able to empathize with the participation of her friend in the redemptive power of Christ: this became her own personal driving force and the core of her philosophy of the person. In teaching us how to attain full personhood, she teaches us a Science of the Cross.

Why is this? First of all, we can perfect all of our personal faculties only by knowing, loving, and serving God. It is the only way to total perfection of our own unique personality, the very reason for which we are created as an image of God. So, God is the Supreme Educator. And Christ, as God's most perfect image, is the ideal personality — Gestalt — by which we are to be formed. She writes in Essays on Woman,

To begin with, where do we have the concrete image of total humanity? God's image walked amongst us in human form, in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ . . . We therefore achieve total humanity through Him and, simultaneously, the right personal attitude. Whoever looks to Him and is concentrated on Him sees God, the archetype of all personality and the embodiment of all value.

Frequently in her lectures and writings, Edith says that if there were only one thing to tell her audience and readers, it would be to counsel them to live as God's child, in his hands. This means to surrender oneself totally in perfect trust and humility. It means to do God's will, not one's own, to put all sorrows and hopes in his hand. Such surrender is the highest act of freedom available to the person. And, in keeping with her mentor St. Teresa of Avila, she writes that only by this emptying of self can one be filled by the presence of God. This free act of spiritual poverty is mandatory for union with God.

God resides in each one of us, and it is the Triune God. The divine life within us is the divine Trinitarian life. She writes in The Science of the Cross:

The soul in which God dwells by grace is no impersonal scene of the divine life but is itself drawn into this life. The divine life is three-personal life: it is overflowing love, in which the Father generates the Son and gives him his Being, while the Son embraces this Being and returns it to the Father; it is the love in which the Father and Son are one, both breathing the Holy Spirit. By grace this Spirit is shed abroad in men's hearts. Thus the soul lives its life of grace through the Holy Spirit, in Him it loves the Father with the love of the Son and the Son with the love of the Father.

What a powerful statement! She also writes that our meeting with the Crucified Christ within us creates a further kind of trinity: the intentions of Christ, ourselves, and those we serve. "One's own perfection, union with God, and works for the union of another person with God and his/her perfection absolutely belong together." Because, in our perfect love, we can act as proxy for Christ in his redemptive action. Empathy, respect and love for the other person as an image of God constitute the core of Edith's writings. Her political philosophy presents the spiritual person as nucleus of a just society. Edith struggled with all problems of existence, its meaning, its social inequities and political problems. She evidences to a holy degree the ordinary person's desire to contribute to human rights and social justice. True to her Jewish heritage, she describes humanity as one family, one organism, in the process of growth. The individual is responsible for all and all are responsible for the one. A person's role is society thus becomes a religious concern. Her own example provides a gleaming stepping stone in the pilgrimage of humanity towards the Kingdom of God.

But not only is action of a communal nature, but prayer itself. In the prayer of perfect love, we are to beg God to bring the sinner to contrition. This constitutes the nature of the Church as community. We can even offer ourselves as proxy for the sinner, requesting that the punishment due the sinner be visited on ourselves instead. We can do this for the enemy as well as friend because God gives us the power to do so. Of course, Edith is describing what she herself is doing. When Hitler came on the scene, she became a Carmelite in order to pray for the evil ones — the Nazi oppressors — as well as for the innocent ones, the Jews and all souls everywhere suffering in World War II. Shortly before her death she said to a priest, "Who will do penance for the evil that the Germans are inflicting?" On the way to her crucifixion, the gas chamber at Auschwitz, she spoke of her suffering as an offering "for the conversion of atheists, for her fellow Jews, for the Nazi persecutors, and for all who no longer had the love of God in their hearts."

There is an exquisite passage in her essay, "The Natural and Supernatural in Faust". It reads:

The battle wages over the human soul; heaven and hell wrestle for it. If we could see this soul in its loneliness and need, conscious of its way only in dark distress, its way shrouded in foggy night, if we could witness its struggles, its fallings and recoveries, we would be engulfed by a trusting certainty that the soul is signified in the hand of God, that its way and end lie clear as day before the gaze of the Almighty, and that He has commanded His angels to lead it from error to light.

Edith describes evil as a living power and perverted being. She calls Hitler "the Anti-Christ" and offered herself up for his downfall. An important factor that brought about her death was the disclosure of her Jewish identity when she refused to vote for Hitler at a fixed plebiscite. She declared his ideology to be of Satan. But Edith is keenly concerned with the workings of evil in the person. In this author's essay "Good and Evil in the Life and Work of Edith Stein" in Logos (Winter 2000), some of the thoughts found in her text Endliches und Ewiges Sein (Finite and Eternal Being) are presented:

Until the end of time when God intervenes, Adam's sin continues in the war of flesh versus spirit, the darkness of the human intellect, the laziness of the will, and the evil inclination of the heart. Satan disavowed the difference between himself and God in a disobedient denial of truth. He rebels not only against God but against his own being, for in saying "no" to God, he destroys the harmony of his own being: love, joy, willing service. This denial of being simultaneously becomes hatred — of self, of all others, and of God. Thus evil is a being contrary to its own nature and direction, a perverted being . . . And for the person vacillating between good and evil there is the possibility of conversion, of cooperation with God's call to justification and grace. God can see the repentant sinner in Christ and accept Christ's expiation for the sins. For Christ is the only proxy for all sin before God; through His merit, the sinner attains contrition and grace. This is God's compassion for the sinner, that He justifies the sinner through redemption worked by Christ. The mystery of the cross makes possible a restoration of the original order of grace as the "highest good." And the fullness of humanity leads to God's ultimate goodness — eternal life.

Edith Stein suffered a martyr's death in 1942 at Auschwitz. She had been convinced from the beginnings of National Socialism that it was the cross of Christ being laid on the Jews, a continuation of His crucified humanity in time. She wanted a share in that for two reasons: she was a born Jewish recognizing the sacred link of Judaism and Christianity, and she believed that only the Passion of Christ could save humanity. So her redemptive role was unique in its duality: as a Jew, she suffered for her people and as a Christian, she imitated Christ her Lord, united to him as he suffered for Jews and gentiles alike. And her cross was intensified by the anguish she herself was bringing to her family by her conversion and entrance into the religious life. How could they understand that it was their suffering that had helped put her in Carmel?

Yet, in a letter after her mother's death, she is able to write concerning her family:

But I trust that from eternity, Mother will take care of them. And (I also trust) in the Lord's having accepted my life for all of them. I keep having to think of Queen Esther who was taken from among her people precisely that she might represent them before the King. I am a very poor and powerless little Esther. But the King who chose me is infinitely great and merciful. That is such a great comfort.

Such is the prayer of a saint. And as she writes of others so is it true of her, that the saints have always desired to suffer: united to Christ's sufferings on the cross, their suffering also wields redemptive action. But this role is not for the saints alone, but for each one of us. How did she, how can we find the strength to do this? Solely through prayer, which she names as the most sublime of all human acts. Edith's studies of prayer and the interior life are works very important to anyone trying to develop in spirituality. She writes, "every person who seeks the inner life knows that he / she is drawn to it in a stronger way than to the outer world because they experience there the dawn of a new, powerful, sublime life — the supernatural life, the divine life." And it is this inner life, which motivates us to act through a world of values instilled by God. In fact, it is only from within out that one is capable of relating to and serving the outer world. "This mystical stream of prayer is the lifeblood of the Church."

Edith's own prayer life was so intense that she has been described as exemplifying ecclesia orans — the prayer of the Church. As a laywoman during her years of teaching, she spent Christmas and Easter at the Benedictine Abbey in Beuron. A priest who was to become an Abbot there, and whom I later had the privilege of interviewing, writes of her:

When I saw her for the first time in a comer of the entrance in Beuron, her appearance and attitude made an impression on me which I can only compare with that of the pictures of the ecclesia orans in the oldest ecclesiastical art of the Catacombs. Apart from the arms uplifted in prayer, everything about her was reminiscent of that Christian archetype. And this was no mere chance fancy. She was in truth a type of that ecclesia, standing in the world of time and yet apart from it, and knowing nothing else, in the depths of her union with Christ, but the Lord's words: "For them do I sanctify myself; that they also may be sanctified in truth."

How different is Edith's philosophy of life from the modern refusal to accept suffering and the crosses of life. We live in a world of illusion and escapism. As both scientist and mystic, Edith knew intimately the greatest reality there is — God. In her holy life and writings, we find God and are brought closer to him because we see an absolute manifestation of our faith. To make this great treasury of love and faith our own — St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — is to take a journey into holiness.

Freda Mary Oben, T.O.P., was followed into the Church by her family. Her doctorate was earned at the Catholic University of America in 1979. While teaching (St. Joseph's College, Howard University, The Washington Theological Union), she was involved with race, poverty, and Catholic-Jewish relations. Her almost forty years of research on Edith Stein include writing, lecturing, appearing on radio and television and CD Rom. Her major works are: a translation of Stein's Essays on Woman (Institute of Carmelite Studies); Edith Stein: Scholar, Feminist, Saint (Alba House); an album of tapes, Edith Stein: A Saint for Our Times (ICS); The Life and Thought of Edith Stein (Alba House, 2001).

© Ignatius Press 2002.

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