Edith Stein’s philosophy of truth as hidden grain

Edith Stein 1931 before becoming a Carmelite - Bettmann

Edith Stein 1931 before becoming a Carmelite – Bettmann

At the beginning of the 20th century, when Edith Stein was a girl living in Breslau (now Wrocław), her sisters forced her to bring back two volumes of Schopenhauer to the library unread. “They feared for my sanity,” she recalls.

Bertie Wooster, who described the philosopher as “a nag of the worst kind,” might have agreed with the sisters, but young Edith was of sterner stuff. She was deeply immersed in Schopenhauer The world as will at the age of 22 when she heard that the Great War had begun. She gave up philosophy and became a nurse straight away.

This matched the topic of her doctoral thesis, empathy, because she was addicted to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. When she renewed her vocation to philosophy, she was unable to find a university position because she was a woman—and Jewish. To make matters worse, she suddenly became a Catholic in 1922.

The decisive factor was a chance reading of the autobiographical Life from St. Teresa of Avila, the reforming Carmelite nun of the 16th century. When she picked up the book from a friend, she read it straight through. In the end she said to herself, “That’s the truth.”

After joining the Carmelite Order, which itself was not a place for professional intellectuals, the Nazis caught up with her. Summoned by the Gestapo, she returned their salute of “Heil Hitler!” with “Praise Jesus Christ(“Praise be to Jesus Christ”). She realized this was what she ironically put it “careless from a human point of view,” but had felt compelled to explain herself.

She was transferred to a monastery in Echt in Holland, but on August 2, 1942 the SS arrived and she was taken to a concentration camp and murdered in a gas chamber a few days later. She had left the manuscript of her book on her desk The Science of the Cross, written for the 400th anniversary of the great Carmelite prayer mystic John of the Cross. Her sister nuns saved it from destruction. In 1998 she was canonized.

Now Peter Tyler has written a little book The living philosophy by Edith Stein. It comes from his reading of the many volumes of her work during lockdown, but it’s still under 200 pages.

Professor Tyler adds some biographies while focusing on the philosophy considered, in Edith Stein’s own terms, to be something to live by. He takes St. John of the Cross’s insights into the dark night of the soul and applies them to its own Science of the Cross.

John of the Cross did not see the Dark Night as “fierce and repulsive” (in the words of Dean Inge of St. Paul’s in 1899), but poetically expressed as a warm southern night in which the soul awakens to God as it contemplates Him loves substitute things are destroyed. As the author has shown in previous books, John was intelligent, courageous, humorous and personable.

The 16th-century saint warned against emphasizing private revelation, speech, and comforting feelings in prayer. These reduce the soul’s ability to “plunge into the abyss of belief where all else is absorbed.” Since God is invisible and must be known through faith (his gift), it is not surprising that he is not felt even in prayer.

Edith Stein’s portrayal of The Dark Night is a reorientation of the self, from an “I”-fixated perspective (the me person) to the concentration on the innermost (innermost), where lies the mystery of God, which only he can reveal according to his will. The process is a quest for truth. And in their vocabulary of practical reason, the cross of Christ is “a living, genuine, and effective truth: a seed buried in the soul.”


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