August 9 is the Feast Day of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known familiarly in philosophical circles as Edith Stein. She was a German Jewish philosopher who studied under Edmund Husserl, the father of modern day Phenomenology. She later converted to the Catholic Faith, joined the Discalced Carmelite Order (the same as St. Thérèse of Lisieux), and eventually was martyred by the Nazis. Out of fear, friends moved her from Germany to a convent in the Netherlands, where, at the time, it was thought that she would be safe from the growing menace of the German regime. Sadly, we now know that nowhere in Europe would one be safe from the scourge. They found her, removed her from the convent, took her to Auschwitz, and executed her.
I refer to St. Teresa most frequently as Edith Stein. This certainly is not meant to deflect from her recognized holiness as a Catholic saint nor from the proper use of her Carmelite name. The reason is because she has had the most profound impact on my life precisely in the realm of philosophy where she is best known by her birth name. Edith not only was a student of Husserl, he was her mentor. She cared for him in his ailing life prior to death. Phenomenologists both in Europe and the United States recognized the value of her contributions. They asked her to continue developing the field even after joining the Carmelites, a task she received permission to do.
One astonishing aspect to her work is the integration of Phenomenology with medieval Scholasticism. After joining the Church, she ran headlong into St. Thomas Aquinas, the master of Scholastic philosophy. Rather than abandon her previous life’s work, she set about reconciling the two.
“Her philosophical development, though quite consistent, clearly falls into two phases: first phenomenology and then a synthesis of scholasticism and phenomenology… Internally it represents the merger of two philosophies which was prompted by her desire for system and is the result of the efforts of many years to portray the basic framework of St. Thomas’s philosophy from a phenomenological perspective.” ~ Introduction to Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 67-68 and 103-104). Kindle Edition.
Edith saw this as an expression of her mission in life. She resisted moving back into psychology, another of her fields of expertise, as this might prevent her from fulfilling that mission.
“…she wrote Finke on January 6, that if she accepted she ‘would have to teach psychology, and once again I would lack the freedom for what seems to be my proper mission: critically comparing scholastic and recent philosophy.’” ~Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 116-118). Kindle Edition.
She took it upon herself to demonstrate that both philosophical expressions work in concert and together add to the foundation of human education.
“In this letter Stein gives us a first reason why she desired to be clear about the philosophical mission of her life: all her writings were leading up to ‘laying the foundations of education.’” ~ Edith Stein. Potency and Act (The Collected Works of Edith Stein) (Kindle Locations 162-163). Kindle Edition.
Though I knew about Edith Stein for many years, I only felt the intensity and depth of her influence in my life as I began integrating her thoughts into my own writings. She fascinated me by her discussion of the writings of the mystic St. John of the Cross in her work The Science of the Cross. Many spiritual books can be found on John of the Cross, but this was the first time I had come across such powerful philosophical interpretations. I added more and more of Edith’s brilliant insights to my own impoverished spiritual and philosophical models. Before long, Edith Stein blossomed into a prominent influence in the development of my own thinking. She elevated my thought.
Not long ago, a friend of ours we came to know through my writings, a Captain in the Navy, wrote me from her current assignment in Iraq. She, too, had a burgeoning devotion to Edith’s works and had noticed it in mine. She asked me how we average folks were to grasp the immense expansiveness of her mind. My response was that, of course, I struggle with keeping up as well; however, the biggest help in reading Edith Stein is to understand her mission as referenced above. Her language and terminology reflect her Phenomenological background. It helps to become somewhat familiar with the field and its key terms while studying this “phenomenal” mind.
Edith Stein single handedly re-oriented my work as I anticipate its direction into the decade of my 60s. She has bequeathed to me a divinely inspired philosophical garment to place discreetly over my less honorable work, that the poorness and inadequacies of my writings might be more efficacious than otherwise. She opened the door for me to understand the natural philosophical in light of its relationship to the supernatural.
“A rational understanding of the world, that is, a metaphysics—in the end, surely, the intention, tacit or overt, of all philosophy—can be gained only by natural and supernatural reason working together.” ~ Stein, Edith. Knowledge and Faith (The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol. 8) . ICS Publications. Kindle Edition.
I am thankful that God inspired me by the magnificent mind of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. St. Teresa, pray for us!