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The 'Dignity and Vocation of Woman' in the life of St. Edith Stein

Maura Shea

This is the first of three posts I have adapted from a paper I wrote my senior year at the University of Dallas with Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.

I have long been interested in better understanding the Church’s teaching on women, and where better to look than the writings of one of her greatest female saints? In order for us to live out what John Paul II calls the special “dignity and vocation of woman,” we need to educate ourselves at the feet of a saint who could not only articulate this mystery, but whose life was perhaps the most articulate witness of all.

It is best to begin with Saint Edith Stein’s own words:

A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be […] Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself. However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us insofar as we put it in light of eternity. [1] Saint Edith Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.”

For Saint Edith Stein, the question of woman’s spirituality is inseparable from questions about woman’s very being, from what makes her unique. Stein suggests it is through an act of “extending” or giving oneself that woman finds true “fulfill[ment],” but that special action can only properly be understood in the context of “eternity,” or ultimate ends. Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, also considers the question of woman’s dignity and vocation with this twofold view. Exploring Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality in light of John Paul II’s document has helped me to understand the special calling of women in the life of the Church.

The life of Edith Stein is a beautiful example of a woman searching for the truth and finding it at last in the cross. Born in a Jewish family on the Day of Atonement in 1891, Stein spent most of her young years as an atheist, but her natural intelligence and desire for the truth lead her to pursue psychology and eventually a new branch of philosophy, called phenomenology, under the guidance of Edmund Husserl. He taught that the world does not merely exist in our subjective perception, but rather that it has an objectivity that can be engaged by the subject. Stein’s engagement with this new philosophical context opened up the intellectual possibility for her that truth was absolute – and that it could be actually searched for and discovered.

But even if her mind was opened to the possibility of truth, her heart remained closed to it until she experienced truth concretely lived out in the suffering of a Christian woman. Husserl’s assistant, Adolf Reinach, who had converted to Protestantism, was killed at Flanders in 1917; when Stein visited his wife Anne Reinach, she encountered a woman whose faith was lived out in mysterious union with the Cross. As Stein said later,

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 in the mystery of the Cross. [2]

This encounter with the Cross of Christ profoundly shaped Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality and her view of the feminine vocation.

In order to see this connection, we must first emphasize two important points Stein makes about the uniqueness of the female soul. In fact, her insistence on “gender differences” may seem archaic and unpalatable to the modern mind, particularly to the feminist’s mind, but they are essential to understanding Stein’s spirituality:

(1) When discussing the differences between the souls of women and the souls of men, Stein emphasizes the special and intense unity between soul and body in woman:

With woman, the soul’s union with the body is naturally more intimately emphasized… Woman’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body as more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment. [1]

Stein identifies the strongest reason for this difference as originating in woman’s capacity for motherhood: “The task of assimilating in oneself a new creature in the maternal organism represents such an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual that one is well able to understand that this unity imposes itself on the entire nature of woman.” [2]

For Stein, this unity between soul and body in woman is both a potential source of strength and weakness for women. She notes the danger that the soul can be controlled by the body instead of vice-versa. Nevertheless, Stein insists that “the strength of woman lies in the emotional life. This is in accord with her attitude toward personal being itself.”[3] Indeed, it is through emotions that a soul comes to understand itself and others, especially in the case of women. But just like in men, emotions “need the control of reason and the direction of the will.” [4]

(2) In addition to the special unity between a woman’s body and soul, Stein also emphasizes the desire of woman to give herself in love. All women have

a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into a realm of higher being… The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union which, in its development, validates this maturation and simultaneously stimulates and furthers the desire for perfection in others… such yearning is an essential aspect of the eternal destiny of woman.[5]

This is a profoundly Christ-like desire, not only to love and to be loved, but to “further the desire for perfection in others.” I noticed while reading this for the first time that this “longing” must be present in men also. Yet for Edith Stein, this loving desire that reaches out to others is somehow uniquely and specially present in the heart of every woman.

 

[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM
[2] Vatican Website biography: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19981011_edith_stein_en.html

Topics: Church teaching , Education , Faith , Feminism , Saints , Writings of the Saints , Young Women

Maura is a high school English teacher and member of the Alliance for Catholic Education. She received her M.A. in Education from the University of Notre Dame and her B. A. in English and Theology from the University of Dallas. She writes about Catholicism, teaching, education policy, and literature on her blog, mysteriesandmanners.wordpress.com.

View all articles by Maura Shea

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