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Edith Stein - a path to the truth in biographical terms. A role of places and people in a spiritual development.

Introduction

 

Being on the move is „moving in a certain direction”. Towns and places are in a strict connection with a human because only the human being can give them the meaning. Specific space is kept in memory through the pictures, though it is the experience that is more important. Coming into an interaction with the place lets us find out the truth about ourselves”[1], spot the difference between “me” there and “me” here in the space – time. The analysis of past ways within our lifetime is never a thinking which is left behind, but it is a process of asking and a continual attempt of determining everything around us. Looking at our lives from the distance puts our experiences in order, and skillful looking deep into our souls constitutes a condition of an inner change, thus it influences the creation of personality[2]. Within such correlation a place gains special value and allows us to delineate a further way. In a literal sense – towards another stage, in a spiritual sense – towards a conscious development. Then the way gains a broad extent and a deep semantic area[3], it answers a question about a human life.

  1. Spiritual development

Jung claims that a human development cannot be fully achieved without a religious dimension. Hegel describes the spiritual development as “a way of awareness leading to the real knowledge or as a way of a soul coming through the string of creations”[4]. Thomas Aquinas uses such words to describe this: “A human is given a certain path which may lead them to get to know God; namely if all perfection of things comes from God, who is the highest point of everything, a human himself, starting with the lowest, rising gradually, can manage to meet God. (…) in this way, accordingly to a variety of things a variety of paths is shown”[5]. The basis of Christian faith is Christ’s speech: “I am the path, the truth, the life. Nobody comes to Father in a different way than through Me” (J 114, 6) “Asking itself is a path”[6]. Joining some parts together, understanding the aim of some events, we can notice the sense of staying in some places, discover their meaning and their influence on our lifetime. In this point of view circumstantiality vanishes and it turns out that all places and paths lead to get to know the truth.

This is how I read the biography of Edith Stein that is Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her life is a logically combined journey as a whole, which for many became the symbol of the real one. First there is a philosophical tour to get to know God, then joining Caramel, finally transporting to Oświęcim. In my article I would like to present a short biography of Edith Stein in the meaning of the most important cities which her way of spiritual development went through as well as they were her way to sanctity.

  1. Wrocław

Edith Stein was born in the capital of lower Silesia on 12th Oct 1891. She was raised in a family dealing in wood. When her father died, her mother Augusta Stein had to handle the business on her own. She paid off the debts and developed the company so that she could maintain seven children. They were a Jewish family, living according to the law, however the mother failed to give her strong faith over to her children.

Young Edith was being guarded and spoilt by her family. She refused to attend the kindergarten, on the other hand, she considered school as delightful[7]. Her family considered her as brilliant and ambitious, what was upsetting Edith as she believed it was better to be good. She loved daydreaming because she was sure that the future held something wonderful for her, that she was going to be somebody really great and important. The fact she was extremely private made her siblings perceive her as “a book locked with 7 seals”. As a 14-year-old girl she suffered trouble involving adolescence and her worldview, and in the aftermath she gave up school, then returned in order to graduate with honors. She abandoned her faith and prayer “completely consciously, as a result of her own decision”[8]. She was always quite silent, shy and secret, she made her choices according to her beliefs, “control over yourself and inner freedom were on top”[9]. She could perfectly keep emotional balance, when she looked at others bursting into anger, she felt ashamed. The only ideal for her was her mother – a hardworking person showing amazing internal warmth, who was an authority to her children. “When our mother said something was a sin, we knew it was something (…) unworthy of a human”[10]. Because of her uncle and then also because of her uncle’s suicide as well as numerous dilemmas connected with gradual quitting faith, she felt some nameless spiritual pain. Her mother, Augusta Stein, who was a strong believer looked at her children with pain as they were becoming atheists. After her husband’s death some duties involving religious cult were taken by her sons, who, however, did this disrespectfully and sometimes also ironically. Edith, as an extremely sensitive person, as well as delicate about the truth, started to suffer from crisis. “Seeking the truth, toil fully fighting one’s way to find out the sense of existence, lonely inner struggles will escalate inside of her (…) she will say “my longing for the truth was my only prayer”. “But to get to this moment there was a long way to scrape through” [11]. As if all that was not enough she is also ignored at school – she does not receive a prize in view of her origins – she observes injustice around herself as well as hypocrisy and falsehood. As a 13-year-old girl she goes to her sister and helps with the housework, later on she comes back home and makes a decision about finishing the middle school. This is where she hears a famous saying which was an illusion to her last name – “hit a rock and it will bubble with treasure” – said by the headmaster. In 1911 Edith begins her studies at the university of Wrocław, she chooses German and History. She also attended the lectures about philosophy and psychology. It began very important to her to gain good education and have a “mind which is open to pedagogical issues”[12], she often visited the orphanage in Rościsławice. She read Husserl and his phenomenology and she came to conclusion that his literature could help her find a possibility of deep recognition and a chance to “satiate her inner desire”[13] .One of Edith Stein’s characteristics was her irresistible willingness to work over oneself, which is not only a matter of the advancement of knowledge: “it was more because of her inner anxiety that pushed her towards Getynga rather than the zeal for knowledge, and it was strengthened by the desire to find the truth”[14]. As the most important task she picked a self-development.

  1. Getynga

She stayed in this town only for 2 years. As she admitted – she needed a conversation then and also “settlement with others and life in a community”[15]. In her way she met different people who molded her personality in apparently.

First, before her departure, she had a talk to Hermsen, her friend, whose opinion she really valued. He implied that she was standing in a naïve delusion. A delight over the good does not mean being good. She condemned weaknesses of others or their mistakes in a way that was scoffing and humiliating.

At the studies she chose Philosophy and Psychology. Her tutors – Husserl, Heidegger, Ingarden, Scheler, Reinach – taught her to have a serious attitude to History as well as to phenomena of spiritual life. Existential psychology disappointed her completely, and she called it the science deprived of “the soul”, thus she swayed towards philosophy. Husserl delved into the marrow through intuition, not just relying on sensual experiences, which was the key for Edith to open the door to new horizons of recognition and values. Max Scheler, in whom she observed a philosopher – genius, but most of all a deep world of his interior, liked to use an expression “pure truth”, which she uttered with an unusual respect[16]. In his lectures he joined philosophy with religion, “his intuition, his  “sense of values”[17] shattered all the systems and concepts, “so that the watching eye and the empathizing  heart could see the full sense of being”[18]. This strongly touched the writer, she slowly began to realize a deep longing of a heart. At that time she suffered an extreme depression, she lost her  trust in people, she felt crashed by an invisible burthen, she did not enjoy anything. After one of the lectures on holiness, humility and prayer as the condition leading to internal rebirth – she was fascinated with Francis of Assisi. She wrote: “one after the other rationalistic manacles of prejudice in which I grew up and I was raised. All of a sudden a world of faith opened in front of me. After all people whom I met every day, whom I looked at with admiration – they lived and breathed that faith, therefore it must have constituted a value worth considering”[19].

Another person who had influence on personality of a future saint was Adolf Reinach, who could approach Edith with huge goodness of heart wanting nothing in return. “She intuitively felt that the professor’s honest openheartedness was something more than only an innate goodness, it was a gleam of his intense inner life and friendship, which was even deeper, as Reinach was aware of its spiritual struggle for the truth. At that time he prepared for a baptism together with his wife”[20]. He could explain everything and merged all the writer’s thoughts into an “organized”[21] whole. He supported her work on a doctorate, especially when the difficulties mounted. When the World War I broke, he set off on the front. He died in 1917. Anna Reinach asked Edith Stein for help with the arrangement of her husband’s documents and during that meeting Edith “experiences strength”[22] that only faith can give her, because it is the widow who consoles the student, not conversely, ensuring her about the existence of God and the world beyond the borders of death. Edith mentioned: “for the first time I saw Church in victory over death. In that moment my unbelief broke and Christ appeared”[23].

After graduation, in 1915, she finished the medical elderly course and volunteered to help the victims of war. She was sent to the infectious hospital in Hranice, Moravia, where she helped others with such enthusiasm that she stopped sleeping at night.

Edmund Husserl, the most known philosopher of that time, claimed that every man should “lead their intellectual life at their own responsibility”[24], searching and apprising what has been known. Edith wrote her doctoral thesis “about the question of empathizing” under the guidance of him, and the professor could already see a scientist in her at that time. She became his personal assistant, preparing his articles to print. Later on she gave up that kind of cooperation in order to handle her own thesis, however this was not so much important. As she wrote in an annex to “spiritual fastness”, Husserl, though he did not handle theology and faith directly, he “remained truly bound up with the great tradition of philosophiae perennis, in his private struggle for the philosophical creation of his life he was governed by the awareness that he had certain mission to fulfill, and among the people related to him in a scientific way or in another, he made a strong move towards the Church. On this account it was not a peripheral matter but rather a deep internal connection”[25].

Later on Edith mentioned meetings with those people as not accidental, rather planned by the Creator for ages, having a deep meaning and influence on life. She wrote: “when something is looked through the prism of God  - there are no coincidences and all my life, even the tiniest details of it, are delineated in the plans of the divine providence and in the eyes of God who sees everything, it appears as the perfect colligation of sense”[26].

  1. Bergzabern

Being on the brink of recognition, waiting for God’s move, Edith Stein dealt with her internal struggles, losing her physical strength. Spiritual nuisance that she suffered was far more harder, that she could not tell anyone about it. However during that time she had an incredible power inside her, because she kept up the others’ spirits. During summer, 1921 she stayed at Hedwiga and Teodor Conrads’, reaching for one of the books from their library, she came across “The book of life” written by Teresa of Avila. She found there amazing power of words, truthfulness followed by experience. Everything she had experienced so far, began to come together into one whole. She saw the spiritual reality, which had always existed collaterally, but it was hardly visible by the mind permeated with doubts. Saint Teresa explained to her a method of coming to God: love and giving yourself up to His will. That truth was not the intellective recognition, but the reunion. Edith bought a little missal and a catechism immediately. She went to her first church service. On 1st January 1922 she was given a baptism. After that she mentioned: “There is a state of quietening in God, a complete relaxation of all spiritual virtues, in which nothing is planned, nothing is decided, nothing works, but the future stands at God’s command, submitting totally to the fate. I found myself in such a condition after a certain experience which surpassed my strength; it used up all my spiritual vital power, it deprived me of any kind of engagement. This repose in God, in comparison to ceasing of engagement as a result of being at the end of vital powers, is something completely new and the one”[27].

  1. Spira

A job of a teacher which she took up in this town had a huge influence on the surroundings. As one of the students mentioned: “Doctor Stein was simple, modest and natural; silent, hardly noticed, she lived peacefully – fulfilling her duties. To all who looked for her help she was equally kind and approachable (…) she was an ideal just by her attitude” [28]. Being demanding, she showed her students what influence they had on their personal development, faith and reaching life wisdom. She quickly began and ideal, due to her high morale and soulfulness. In a sense she was someone like ‘a human in the full meaning’. She taught with confidence and love, her lessons were not dull, she believed it was her who was for the students, not the other way. Devoted to everybody, she cared about their mental as well as spiritual development. She kept a right distance but always with kindness. For 4 years she was invited to conferences with lectures and speeches, she was called the hope for Catholic Germany. She went through a greater and greater transition, she persuaded others that the only and the very best tutor is God, and Christ is a perfect personality and ideal. One of sisters, who was a witness of her performances, mentioned that Edith could combine dignity, a felicific smile and grace. She was love, grace and charm.

She still worked on her thesis, however she restricted her actions only to questions related to faith and expanding the truth about Christ, including the explanation of “Problematic disputations of the truth” by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

  1. Fribourg, Munich, Cologne, Zurich, Vienna, Prague

Teresa of Avila and Thomas of Aquinas led Edith from metaphysics to mystique. They let her understand that “supernatural life is reality”[29]. Translation of “Disputation” was received with respect towards the author. She was then still invited to series of lectures encompassing the subjects of philosophy, psychology and religion. Many speeches concerned the role of a woman, her role in a family and the society. “Her lectures had a strong theological foundation, they were based on Christian education (…) they were uncompromisingly Christocentric”[30]. She said that it was “the small truth, the simple truth that she had to say”[31].

  1. Muenster

In 1931 Edith Stein got a job in the German Institute of Scientific Pedagogy. In years 1932/1933 during her lectures, she discussed the girls’ upbringing as well as the issues of human personality. Her frequent guests were also the university students as auditors. On 7th June 1933 there was an Aryan article forbidding governing and serving public duties by people who were not of Aryan origin. This was a crucial factor starving Edith of a job in the Pedagogical Institute. She understood it was a sign of the time and she was convinced of God’s plan. In 1933 she observed Hitler’s actions towards the Jewish, she listened to her friends’ stories about cruelty and degrading fiats, that she could see God’s hand in everything around her and she was able to look at the world only through the prism of eternity. She wrote a letter to the pope asking for an encyclic. In the end persecution afflicted also her but… “she felt almost relieved that a common Jewish fate happened also to her”[32]. Upsetting circumstances caused that she began to ponder over her future, she felt a deep sense of those historical changes, she saw her role in them, however she could not specify them. On Sunday of a Good Shepherd she prayed for so long that an affirmation coming from the depth of her heart finally appeared. Caramel.

  1. Colony

On 14th October 1933 she joined Caramel. Happiness and suffering. Firstly because she found her place in her life, secondly for the sake of her mother, who could not accept her daughter’s decision. She justified her decision to the prioress: “in the outside world I realized that it is not human activity that has the last word, but the power of Cross”[33], and “through the Cross I found out the fate of the chosen nation that just then started to portend”[34]. She understood that only in this way she will fulfill her mission in life. A means to an end was a profound humility, obeyance and prayer, which she loved truly. In the monastery she worked on tasks given to her, translation and her own writing. It was the time when there were different works created, including “Finite and eternal being”. Even today this work of art is recognized as the greatest treasure in Church teaching, it explains confused and sometimes very difficult to understand spiritual matters in a simple way, taking phenomenology as a basis. Saint John Paul II often made use of it. On the day of renewal of her vows her mother died, on the day of her perpetual profession her favourite teacher Husserl passed away. Edith reads this coincidence as God’s answer to her prayers for their salvation. Later on her sister Rose came to Caramel and she was baptized. In 1938, during voting in a great plebiscite, the agents of electoral commission received the information that sister Teresa Benedicta was not of Aryan origin.

  1. Echt

On New Year’s Eve 1938 sisters were taken to the Dutch convent in Echt – Edith under the guise of problems with health. Staying there she turned to the Saviour in her prayers and requests to ask Him for “wanting Him to take her life and death for His glory”[35]. It was a final and mystical understanding of the sense of the Cross. The approval of life, but the only one that God assigns, from the smallest matters to the greatest issues. The approval of Him controlling the time and circumstances; but also the full approval of death which is planned by the Creator. She wrote in a letter: “since I came here, my soul is filled with thankfulness that I can be here and that home is as it is. At the same time I am sure that we do not have a permanent city here. I do not desire anything else than God’s will fulfill on me. It depends on God how long He will let me stay here and what will be later. In manibus tuis sortes meae. Everything is good then and there is nothing to worry about. The prayer is always essential so that I could be faithful in every position. Of course the most important here is to  pray for those who suffer more than me and they are not so attached to eternity” [36]. Her Prioress tells her to write a scholarship about John of the Cross with the explanation of his works. Edith devotes herself completely to this work, making an effort, mostly during the night, arises “Knowledge of the Cross”, accompanied by English and German bombers, to “share with the world her own discovery of God as a certain point of creating human personality”[37]. That work could not have been created if Edith herself had not come through spiritual paths before, about which Saint John writes. Analyzing “A path to Caramel”; “A dark night”, “A spiritual Chanson” and “Burning flame of love” she described her own experiences, which richened her work with new perceptions. As an intellectual and mystic, she described inner witnessing of God existing in the soul. She explained that only somebody who lives within their interior, can judge and discern according to the truth. Such a person’s prayer touches heaven. It is a spiritual power that can extremely influence others. Edith calls it a life-giving “blood of Church”, which brings salvation. It is a complicity in Christ’s suffering, accepted by free will and conscience to pray for the others’ salvation. She wrote that each human being must suffer and die, but if they belong to Christ, their suffering gains power of redemption; at the same time she explained why the Saints wanted to suffer – because “love is the most free of all that exists”. The last chapter halts at the passage with a vision of John of the Cross walking away into the light.

  1. Westerbork – Oświęcim

In the afternoon on 3rd August 1942 gestapo took the Stein sisters for the interview and later on they were transported to the camp in the North of Holland. Sister Benedicta was noticed at once. Her serenity infected the other prisoners. One of the officials, Wielek, mentioned: “When I met that nun in a camp, I knew immediately that it was someone really great… her smile was not a mask, but some bubbling with warmth… In one of discussions she said: “The world consists of contrasts, but at the end none of those contrasts remains. Only great love stays”[38]. On 7th August the prisoners were taken to Oświęcim.

Conclusion

We can talk about the values of different places only when we have a full view of what have happened there. It is “presenting perceptive attitude towards happenings”[39]. Edith looked at each minor thing, event, people, places only through the prism of faith – everything has its deep meaning. She faithfully listened to her inner voice. “Following the known truth”[40] is “a result of awareness of an aim”[41]. Then even the biggest contrarieties appear to be the most valuable because they create the character and develop virtues – bravery, persistence, love, learning the truth – unusual spiritual richness. Such a journey is worth each effort. “Devote into love, become completely a property of someone else as well as own them – this is the deepest desire of a woman’s heart”[42]. A person’s way of life, their character, social conditioning, upbringing are not accidental, understanding them through the prism of faith, they are “God’s art”[43]. Such a perception brings serenity, feeling the sense of fulfillment, when we can ascertain that we found the sense of life. It helped Edith Stein to get straight to God, and “through her life sacrifice she showed the world a path to full humanity”[44].

 

Translation Royal Academy of English

 

 


[1] Por. Tomasz Gęsina: Odczuwam, więc jestem. Www.ojkologia.us.edu.pl/artykuły/305/odczuwam-wiec-jestem

[2] Tamże.

[3] Por. D. Sobota: Heideggerowska filozofia drogi  [w:] Filo-Sofija, nr 10 (2010/1), s. 37.

[4] G. Hegel: Fenomenologia ducha, przeł. Ś. F. Nowicki, Aletheia, Warszawa 2002, s. 62-63.

[5] Tomasz z Akwinu: Summa contra Gentiles, 1 . IV c. 1.

[6] M. Heidegger: Co to jest filozofia?, przeł. S. Blandzi, w: Heidegger dzisiaj, s. 36-37. Zob.H.Buczyńska-Garewicz,op.cit.,s.195.

[7] M. A. Neyer OCD: Edyta Stein. Wydawnictwo Karmelitów Bosych, Kraków 2014, s. 12.

[8] Tamże, s. 12.

[9] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości. Wydawnictwo Apostolstwa Modlitwy, Kraków 1973, s. 13.

[10] Tamże, s. 17.

[11] S. 17.

[12] M. A. Neyer OCD, s. 27.

[13] S.I.J. Adamska, s. 27.

[15] S.I.A. Adamska, s. 34.

[16] Por. S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości. Wydawnictwo Apostolstwa Modlitwy, Kraków 1973, s. 34.

[17] Tamże, s. 34.

[18] S.67.

[19] S.69.

[20] S.45.

[21] Tamże.

[22] M. A. Neyer OCD: Edyta Stein. Wydawnictwo Karmelitów Bosych, Kraków 2014, s. 45.

[23] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości, s. 71.

[24] Tamże, s. 40.

[25] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości, s. 66.

[27] S.I.J. Adamska, s. 66.

[28] Tamże, s. 83.

[29] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości, s. 103.

[30] M. A. Neyer OCD: Edyta Stein, s. 79.

[31] Tamże, s. 79.

[32] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości, s. 122.

[33] Tamże, s. 134.

[34] M. A. Neyer OCD: Edyta Stein, s. 129.

[35] S.I.J. Adamska, s. 208.

[37] S.I.J. Adamska, s. 155.

[38] Tamże, s. 239.

[39] Tomasz Gęsina: Odczuwam, więc jestem. Www.ojkologia.us.edu.pl/artykuły/305/odczuwam-wiec-jestem

[40] W. Tochmański: Eklezjalna…, s. 145.

[41] Tamże, s.145.

[42] S.I.J. Adamska: Prawda o miłości, s. 187.

[43] E. Stein: Z własnej głębi. T. II, s. 36.

[44] W. Tochmański: Eklezjalna…, s. 147.

09 February 2017