In 1952, 10 years after her tragic death at Auschwitz, the New York Times called Edith Stein “one of the leading philosophical minds of our times” and a “heroically saintly figure in her adopted Church”.
It underscores the chief paradox of Stein’s life: how a modern woman who became a Carmelite nun and saint – detaching herself from civilian life, immersed in contemplation – captivated the secular world. She still does on the 75th anniversary of her death at Auschwitz, on August 9, 1942.
Stein was born in Breslau, on October 12, 1891, the very day her large Jewish family was celebrating Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. Ever since her childhood – recounted movingly in her Life in a Jewish Family – Edith wanted to educate herself, and at a pace much quicker than was expected. Underlying that desire was a passionate search for truth – about the world, and the meaning of life – which led to an exploration of psychology and philosophy.
Her long search included a challenging period of atheism, beginning when she was a teenager, along with bouts of depression. But when she attended the University of Göttingen, studying under the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, a whole new world opened up to her.
Husserl was the founder of phenomenology, which teaches that one can discover objective truth and know “things as they are”, and that philosophy should consider all phenomena (including religious belief) when pursuing truth. Scheler, in turn, taught Stein about the coherence and beauty of Catholicism, which she grew increasingly impressed by. Finally, during the summer of 1921, visiting the estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of Husserl’s, Stein found a copy of St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, staying up all night to read it. After doing so, she exclaimed to herself: “This is the truth!” She was received into the Catholic Church the following New Year.
Stein’s conversion did not end, but rather deepened, her philosophical studies. These remain very relevant today. For instance, she emphasised that a believer must obey “the highest Lord”, which is never the state, but the human conscience, formed in the light of biblical revelation, and must be willing to assert itself – even in the face of conflict and persecution – for “religious values belong to a personal sphere, which the state cannot invade”. Even before she became a Catholic, Stein wrote An Investigation Concerning the State, warning against any efforts by immoral governments to segregate people into races or classes, or to suppress an individual’s conscience.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection