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The 'Dignity and Vocation of Women' in the life of Saint Edith Stein, part II

Maura Shea

This is the second post in a series I am writing about how John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem illuminates the spirituality and theology of Saint Edith Stein.

When we consider Stein’s emphasis on (1) the special unity between the physical and the spiritual in women, combined with (2) their natural desire to give and receive love, we see how clearly Pope John Paul II not only echoes but also explicates this twofold insight in Mulieris Dignitatem. In his careful scriptural exegesis, the Pope discerns that when “Christ speaks to women about the things of God… they understand them; there is a true resonance of mind and heart, a response of faith.”

He notes how the Lord “expresses appreciation and admiration for this distinctly ‘feminine’ response” to his message. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the Pope emphasizes that the Gospels “highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission” (emphasis added). He goes so far as to say that “in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles”—only Saint John remained faithful and did not abandon Christ. The “true resonance of mind and heart” demonstrated by the women of the New Testament suggests the unique dignity of woman’s vocation:

From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity. It must also be said that this is especially confirmed in the Paschal Mystery, not only at the Cross but at the dawn of the Resurrection. The women are the first at the tomb. (emphasis added) [1]

In a sense, the special unity between the soul and body of woman makes her particularly able to suffer like Christ: just as his physical torments during the Crucifixion were the concrete expression of the spiritual Passion he suffered for our sins, so too can the physical sufferings of women affect the soul—and, when engaged in an act of love and self-gift, these experiences can be united into Christ’s redemptive work.

Perhaps this is partially why the mystery of the Cross was so important in the life of Saint Edith Stein. The completion of her work on Saint John of the Cross, entitled The Science of the Cross, occurred shortly before her arrest by the Nazis in August, 1942, when she herself would undergo the special union with Christ’s Passion in actual martyrdom. Her particular devotion to this mystic and saint seems to have already arisen from her own spiritual experience. She says:

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).[2]

Indeed, Edith Stein saw suffering as part of her own unique vocation as a Catholic, a Carmelite nun—and as a daughter of Israel. Witnessing the growing persecution and hatred toward her people, Stein spoke about the relationship between the Cross, the destiny of Israel, and her own vocation as a Bride of Christ:

I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.[3]

Stein’s sense of union with the Cross was also profoundly Marian. She points to the Mother of God as the true exemplar of the feminine vocation to love through union with the Cross of Christ, since Mary “was the gateway through which God found entrance to humankind.”[4] John Paul II concurs: “this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross—the Mother who through faith shares in the amazing mystery of her Son’s ‘self-emptying.”[5]

For both Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II, Mary is the model and example of how to unite oneself to the will of Christ, even in suffering—especially in suffering. Moreover, Mary, as the New Eve who is “blessed among all women” (Lk 1:42) is uniquely able to reveal for us the dignity and destiny of women who suffer. John Paul II makes this clear:

As we contemplate this Mother, whose heart ‘a sword has pierced’ (cf. Lk 2:35), our thoughts go to all the suffering women in the world, suffering either physically or morally. In this suffering a woman’s sensitivity plays a role, even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man.[6]

This ability to suffer and to endure is a characteristic that conforms woman even more closely to Christ. The “special sensitivity” which allowed the women of the Gospel to respond so lovingly to Christ also, the Pope suggests, seems to increase their capacity to bear suffering.

At the same time, the Pope’s reflection raises important questions about the distinct roles and abilities of men and women, questions which Saint Edith Stein was also very interested in. Both of them emphasize the uniqueness of the vocations of men and women, yet at the same time reaffirm the complementarity of their gifts which contribute to their mutual dignity. The secular feminist movement, which was gaining momentum during the life of Edith Stein, had emerged as a powerful and frequently destructive force during the pontificate of John Paul II. Remarkably, however, the perspectives of this Jewish-Catholic nun and Polish Pope exhibit a profound unity, and even a similar gesture toward the direction a Christian must take.

As noted above, Saint Edith Stein recognized that the role of women in the world was becoming the locus of a troubling conflict that ultimately concerned the very nature of the human being:  “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.”[1] Far from evading the question, Stein engaged this problem directly in a philosophical treatment that was nevertheless informed by her own experience as a woman of faith.

[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” ?http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM
[1] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 15-16
[2] Vatican Website biography: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19981011_edith_stein_en.html
[3] Ibid.
[4] As quoted by Kathleen Sweeny. “Is there a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein’s Thesis.” Catholic Education Resource Center. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/feminism/fe0056.htm
[5] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.19
[6] Ibid. 19

Topics: Church history , Feminism , Suffering , Writings of the Saints

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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