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The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the life of Saint Edith Stein, part III

Maura Shea

This is the third and final post in a series on how John Paul II’s “Mulieris Dignitatem” illuminates Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality. Her devotion to the Cross and her unique perception of the privileged role of women in Christ’s passion is so beautiful.

Saint Edith Stein’s exploration of the feminine vocation in her writings is inseparable from her exploration of the human being as such, as both male and female. That is, she emphasizes the differences between the souls of men and women, as suggested in my previous posts, and at the same time she offers an important insight into a common aspect of all human beings that is grounded in scripture. For her, the key to developing the human soul is to discover one’s unique gifts: “The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s word describes the multiplicity of gifts afforded in the Mystical Body of Christ. The individual must discover his own unique gift.” She proposes that in men and women, “the same gifts occur in both, but in different proportions and relation.”[1] This is a controversial statement to make by society’s standards today. We are searching for the true definition of equality, and many of us cannot reconcile our ideal with Stein’s “different proportions and relation.” Personally I think this is very understandable: the notion that men and women are inherently different is not very popular because in the past (and even in the present) it has been used as an excuse to degrade and stereotype both sexes with destructive norms of “manliness” and “womanliness.” We cannot simply ignore this difficulty, and I do not think Edith Stein would want us to.

Nonetheless, John Paul II also emphasizes the important distinction between the gifts of men and women, but he insists that this distinction not only doesn’t take away the mutual dignity of the sexes, but rather constitutes it:

“The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the ‘image and likeness of God’ that is specifically hers.” (emphasis added) [2]

A woman’s “expression of the ‘image and likeness of God,’” according to Pope John Paul, is: “specifically hers” – it is a special gift for all women, a particular way of reflecting who God is to the world. It is not the same expression of God’s image and likeness that men have been given – it is unique and carries within itself a special dignity.

This is very beautiful to me, but somewhat hard to understand concretely. I think that it can also be hard for many women to believe and trust in as well – especially those who have experienced the hurt of a vapid, idealized femininity stylizing itself as appropriate “gender roles” that in the end degrades women and limits our freedom. Isn’t it easier, in some ways, to insist on equality as being “sameness” – and to have done with all of this talk of “distinction,” “complementarity,” and “different but equal?” (it does sound a lot like “separate but equal”)

However, I think what John Paul II is trying to describe is a mystery that can be better understood when lived by a real person. Saint Edith Stein exemplifies the discovery of the special “expression of ‘God’s image and likeness’” in her cultivation of her gifts and unique “resources.” I especially admire her quick intelligence and hunger for truth, which motivated her to pursue her education even at the highest levels in a time when philosophical discourse at the university level was usually reserved for men. (Societal expectations of gender roles are thus not the standard she was interested in.) Her enthusiastic engagement with her own gifts and talents helped lead her to faith; her desire for the truth allowed her to recognize it in the biography of Saint Teresa of Avila – a discovery which allowed her to make a profound and courageous gift of self by converting to Catholicism and subsequently joining the Carmelite order, despite the suffering it caused her as a Jewish woman. Moreover, as a Carmelite she used her gifts in service to her fellow sisters, often in her writings on the saints and spirituality. You can see this best by reading her in her own words. Her perceptiveness and keenness flourished in the service of God.

Here is a brief example. Although Stein, like Pope John Paul II, emphasizes the differences between men and women and their gifts, she also insists upon the unity of their destiny – that it is in Christ that humankind, both male and female, is brought to perfection:

“To belong to and serve God in love’s free surrender is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect. Whether consecrated or not, whether man or woman – each one is called to the imitation of Christ. The further one continues on this path, the more Christlike he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in him all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, his true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and goodness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them, while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination.”[3] (emphasis added)

For Stein, “holy men,” the more they become like Christ, will exhibit feminine gifts, and “holy women” will similarly exhibit “manly” gifts. This idea is really fascinating – and, if we reflect on it for a while, true to our experience of the holiest people we know. There are members of my own family and personal acquaintance that seem to embody this mystery. The distinction that Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II insist upon is somehow caught up in a deeper union – a union achieved in Christ that does not ignore but rather exalts differences between men and women.

That is, it is only in the unity and complementarity of man and woman that the destiny of the human race can be achieved by God’s grace. Both man and woman, insofar as they are conformed to Jesus Christ, can embody “the ideal of human perfection” – since in Christ “all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed.”

Her words do not necessarily eliminate all confusion, and they certainly do not make the mystery any easier to swallow. But getting to know her in her life and writing is the most convincing to me.

Just as Stein locates the perfection of men and women in Christ, Pope John Paul the II locates it in the very life of the Holy Trinity – in the mystery of God Himself:

“The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. … This ‘unity of the two’ which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion (‘communio’). This likeness is a quality of the personal being of both man and woman, and is also a call and a task.”[4]

The communion of men and women is a reflection of the communion of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Go back and reread the above excerpt from “Mulieris Dignitatem” again, slowly. It is not only a beautiful image, but it is a challenge to all of us in our relationships with one another. I think John Paul is also referencing St. Paul here – he says something somewhere about God being the source from which all human families are named.

Some of my friends have asked me that if it is true that both men and women reflect the communion of the Holy Trinity, then where is “the feminine” element in God? Many people seem bothered by the fact that God is always referred to in the Church as a “He” – when of course he is beyond our sexual categories. Some ask, therefore, whether or not it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as “feminine,” in order to include our masculine and feminine human communion in our concept of the Trinitarian life? I do not think this is appropriate, since such a gesture reverses the actual anagogical (not analogical!) meaning of communion as proceeding from God and then to us human beings, not vice versa. We are but the reflection of the light, not the light itself. But that is probably a subject for another post.

This likeness to Christ and to the life of the Trinity was a “call and a task” that Saint Edith Stein answered with profound love. Her search for the truth lead her to the Cross, to the very giving over of her own life for the people of Israel – an act of love that conformed her intimately with the life and sacrifice of Christ. She completely embraced the call to conform herself to Christ and to the image of God in a way that united her with the women in the Gospels who followed Christ even to Calvary.

Of her vocation as a cloistered Carmelite she said simply, “I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to 'get beyond himself' in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”[5] (See Pope Francis’ similar challenge to us today here.) I think that discovering the true meaning of masculinity and femininity will similarly involve a “getting beyond ourselves,” toward Christ.

Saint Edith Stein offers a beautiful example of a woman who discovered her gifts and talents and offered them to God, a true instance of what Pope John Pall II calls “the manifestation of the feminine ‘genius.’” She is an answer to the prayer of the Church which he articulated years after her death:

“That the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which with great generosity are poured forth upon the ‘daughters’ of the eternal Jerusalem, may be attentively recognized and appreciated so that they may return for the common good of the Church and of humanity, especially in our times. Meditating on the biblical mystery of the ‘woman’, the Church prays that in this mystery all women may discover themselves and their ‘supreme vocation.’” [6]


[1] Ibid.
[2] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.10
[3] 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
[4] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 7
[5] Vatican Website biography: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_19981011_edith_stein_en.html
[6] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 31

Topics: Motherhood , Personal Growth

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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