Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. Is not this idolization of race and governmental power which is being pounded into the public consciousness by the radio open heresy? Isn’t the effort to destroy Jewish blood an abuse of the holiest humanity of our Savior, of the most blessed Virgin and the apostles? Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors? And isn’t this a black mark on the record of this Holy Year which was intended to be a year of peace and reconciliation?
This excerpt is taken from a letter Edith Stein wrote to Pope Pius XI in 1933. While I’ve always been intrigued by the Catholic tradition of identifying remarkable Christians and calling them saints, I’m usually a little more taken with the lives of those who have been canonized in the last century or so. Perhaps this is because sainthood seems more attainable this way, or at least more conceptually manageable, and much less mythic or fairytale like when the persons in question are closer to me chronologically. Edith Stein is an example of one such person, and her canonization is all the more intriguing because her election to sainthood is fraught with controversy. In fact, it seemed likely she wouldn’t be considered at all.
Until 1998, when Pope John Paul II officially canonized her as a saint, Edith Stein was remembered as another illustration of the horrors of Nazism and World War II. Stein died in 1942 at Auschwitz, but it was not until twenty years later, in 1962, that the beatification process of Stein began, and many of her advocates set out to show that she should be canonized as a saint on the basis on her heroic virtue (based largely on the fate that befell her at Auschwitz).1 In 1983, Joseph Cardinal Hoffner sent a letter to Rome explaining that Stein should be canonized not only because she was a Christian who suffered: she had always understood her suffering through the lens of Christ’s life, and she conceived of her pending death as a sacrifice, much the same way that Christ conceived of his. This decision to canonized Stein was met with much condemnation and protest from various Jewish voices, of course, who felt that this was yet another display of Christian imperial authority claiming a Jewish figure as one of its own faithful subjects, while also failing to adequately address the church’s complicity in anti-Semitism.
Stein was born in 1891 in Breslau, a city formerly part of the German region of Silesia (ceded to Poland after the war) and was raised in a large Jewish family by her single mother, her father having died unexpectedly from sunstroke when she was still a baby. Both Edith’s immediate and extended family were devout Jews, and her mother placed high value on faith and spirituality in her household. Interestingly, Edith’s mother attached particular spiritual significance to Edith herself, believing that there was divine meaning to Edith’s being born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This association undoubtably contributed to her mother’s struggle to accept that her daughter had converted to Christianity, for not only was Edith turning her back on Judaism, she was also turning her back on her divine destiny.
Although Edith’s mother could not fathom a spiritual life apart from Judaism, Edith believed one could serve God with their whole heart and soul quite apart from any organized form of either Christianity or Judaism. There is something intrinsically borderless and boundary-breaking about Stein’s spirituality—this quality seems to animate, at least partially, the dispute over whether Stein was a Catholic martyr or anti-semitic victim. Stein’s conversion to Catholicism didn’t simultaneously occasion a repudiation of her former Judaism. Rather, Stein seemed committed to a rather broad, all-encompassing conception of spiritual devotion in which distinguishing between religious categories was unnecessary. In Stein’s own words, “religion must be the root and basis of all life.”2
Stein was first and foremost an intellectual. She endured much persecution throughout her life for being both Jewish and female, and the compounded burdens of both sexist and racist oppression is surely immeasurable. In 1910, Edith enrolled in the Friedrich Wilhelm University to study history, psychology, and German studies. Since women in Germany had only been admitted to university for the first time in 1908, Edith was among the first women in the country to pursue higher education. Edith eventually chose to focus her studies in the emerging field of phenomenology under the supervision of the movement’s founder, Edmund Husserl. Edith was praised for her intellectual ability by Husserl himself and her peers, although she still found it difficult to find a permanent position as an academic after the completion of her PhD in 1916. Neither her gender nor her Jewish heritage helped in her struggle to secure a position within the academy, especially as anti-Semitism intensified in Germany in the years leading up to the war.
Stein persevered, and remained productive in her scholarly activities even without occupying an official academic position. Even if we eliminate Christian martyrdom as an explanation for her death, Stein’s journey to Christianity appears sincere. In 1921, Stein had converted to Christianity upon reading the autobiography of Theresa of Avila. Shortly thereafter, she began a number of independent writing projects that reflected both her philosophic and newly developed spiritual interests. Her master work, Finite and Eternal Being, contains a unique fusion of phenomenology and the theology of Aquinas. But when anti-Jewish legislation came into effect which barred Jews from holding professional positions in German society, Stein lost the academic post she finally obtained with the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in 1933. This event was Stein’s impetus for joining the Carmelite monastery at Lindenthal in Cologne. It also meant that she had to give up all scholarly activity, requiring her to sacrifice the one thing that had always been so central to her identity.
Stein’s defiance of labels and categories was as evident in her religious identification as it was in her vocational philosophy and approach to ministry. Intellectual work was also devotional work. Operating from within the confines of the convent was likewise significant to the world outside it. Again, there is something borderless about the way that Stein understands the sacred and the secular, the divine realm and the worldly context in which we are all anchored. In the following excerpt from one of her meditations, she explains further the spiritual significance of participating in the world, and how she initially subscribed to an unnecessary dichotomy between the sacred and the profane (a description that, incidentally, reads rather nicely as a critique of the Protestant “Two Kingdoms” doctrine):
Immediately before, and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself” … that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it.3
It is perhaps a rite of passage in every person’s spiritual journey that s/he wrestles with the choice to be primarily a spiritual person or a political person, very much in the way Stein describes above. But Stein has shown that this choice is culturally imposed and entirely antithetical to an authentically divine existence. In this coming year, may we be drawn more deeply into God even as we refuse to sever our connection with this world.
- Borden, Sarah. Edith Stein. 1.
- Sullivan, Edith Stein: Essential Writings. 37.
- Sullivan, John. Edith Stein: Essential Writings. 37.