Every generation thinks it’s living in unusual times. Ours really is. We are witnessing the passing of our civilization and – like someone having brain surgery while wide-awake – are conscious of what’s happening. Or at least a few of us are. We’re suffering – among other things – massive amnesia. Juvenile rebellion, too, by people of all ages, against what’s taken to be “our civilization.” But the greater problem, by far, is that for most people our basic traditions have just dropped below the horizon. They don’t see that anything else than what they’re familiar with ever existed. And we have fewer and fewer witnesses to the truth.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of a woman whom St. John Paul II called “a martyr to truth,” Edith Stein, a brilliant philosopher, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, who got caught up in the Nazi persecutions of Jews and the Church, and died at Auschwitz.
It’s just one reflection of the malice of those days that she and her sister Rosa were picked up by the Gestapo at their Carmelite convent in Holland, where they’d fled for safety, because the Dutch bishops had twelve days earlier issued a pastoral letter denouncing Nazi “racism.” In retaliation, Nazi authorities arrested Jewish converts to Catholicism and shipped them to the gas chambers.
I first got interested in Stein when I wrote The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. She was canonized in 1998; controversy erupted over whether she should even be called a martyr since she was killed not in odium fidei, some argued, but because she was Jewish. It also seemed to some critics that JPII was trying to appropriate the Holocaust partly for Catholics.
In Poland, where the Nazis killed several million non-Jews, this is still a sore controversy. But the official Vatican explanation – one typical of what JPII called the “new martyrs” – was that several factors intermingled to make “martyr” the right term for Edith.
Besides the Dutch bishops’ statement of Catholic teaching about “race,” there were at least three features of Stein’s life that could be read as a willingness to accept martyrdom:
She refused to go into hiding, since the Dutch were themselves often heroic in resisting Nazism. (A Catholic woman, Miep Gies, for instance, famously helped hide Anne Frank and her family when such help, if discovered, meant death).
The Carmel that had taken in Edith (by then Sister Benedicta of the Cross) would have been subject to reprisals if she went into hiding.
And most significantly: she knew, as an assimilated German Jew, that Catholics in Germany were often accused of lying, and she wished to remain fully loyal to the truth of who she was – and what she believed.
Pope John Paul II was right, then, when he declared at her canonization: “A young woman in search of the truth has become a saint and martyr through the silent workings of divine grace. . . .Now, alongside Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux, another Teresa takes her place among the host of saints who do honor to the Carmelite Order.”
But there’s another side of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross that deserves to be remembered. I never knew much about it myself until I read into her work for my A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the 20th Century.
To say that she was a gifted philosopher is a gross understatement. An unusually bright child, she went to the university to study psychology, thinking it would lead to insight into human beings. But she was disappointed by the reductively “scientific” approach of academic psychology.
She wanted, as JPII reminded the world, the truth. And that led to study with Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, a twentieth-century movement that captivated the young Karol Wojtyla as well. She became Husserl’s assistant and organized his scattered papers into significant books. Martin Heidegger – probably the greatest German philosopher in the 20th century – succeeded her in that job.
Phenomenology is a mouthful, sounds off-putting, and can be. But its main contribution was to return human things to the world of thought. After Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, philosophers often seemed stuck on how the “outside” world can enter our minds. For phenomenology, the problem doesn’t arise. As the great American phenomenologist, Fr. Robert Sokolowski points out, phenomenology says that things in the world have the capacity of “disclosing” themselves, and our minds are the “datives of disclosure,” receivers by their nature of such disclosing.
This may sound like the usual Teutonic abstraction – far distant from the lives we live. In fact, it means that all the things in the daily life world that we take as making up a human existence thus become respectable matter for philosophy again. Religion is one of those things and Husserl once joked that so many of his students were becoming Christians that he should be declared a Church Father. He ended a Christian himself.
Edith Stein’s youthful work in this field is breathtaking. She writes, interestingly, of “empathy,” for example, something that, she points out, we find only human beings but had almost never been noticed in philosophy. She also launched some serious early critiques of Heidegger’s highly influential Being and Time, remarking that, for all its brilliant analysis, it operates as if we are beings without bodies.
But after all that philosophical preparation, she was staying with a friend one evening and found in the house a copy of Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography. She took it to bed and read the whole thing through by morning, famously saying, “That is the truth.”
She took instruction – a formality, because the priest that baptized her said she already knew everything necessary. Carmelite spirituality and a life living it beckoned and in 1933 she entered a convent in Cologne. Within less than ten years, Nazism put an end to that vocation.
A living witness, then, to faith and reason who stayed true to the very end, and warrants remembering today.