Edith in 1921

~~ Centenary Commemoration ~~

For Edith Stein the happy ending to a lengthy conversion process came with her baptism on the first day of 1922. This was preceded by her completed reading of the Autobiography of Saint Teresa of Jesus a few months previous in the summer of 1921, one hundred years ago (more about the Autobiography book in the second part of this blog.)

As she once noted, she moved “gradually” through several years’ searching (at Life in a Jewish Family, p. 261) from an atheistic attitude about reality to acceptance of Jesus as a personal source of the truth she was so fervently seeking. The contrasting shift to the discovery she made in 1921 can be illustrated by a different impression of Christ granted her five years before that in 1916. In the third summer of World War I she was travelling to Freiburg-im-Breisgau to defend her doctoral thesis and stopped at an art museum in Frankfurt with a friend.

Her own words explain a poignant scene and the deep impression left upon her by her visit:

[L]ater Pauline [Reinach] led me along the River Main to the Liebig Institute where Myron’s Athene stands.  But before we reached that statue we passed through a room where a sculptured group taken from a Flemish grave of the sixteenth century was displayed: the Mother of God, and John, in the center; Magdalen and Nicodemus on either side. There was no longer an image of Christ in the group. These images had such an overpowering effect on us that, for a long while, we were unable to tear ourselves away. And as we went on from there to see the Athene, I found her very attractive, but she left me cold. Only when I paid another visit there many years later was I able to appreciate her.

The significant thing Edith derived from the sight included the strangely missing crucified Christ and the contrast she noted between these statues of the Pietà without her Son and a favorite sculpted depiction of the Greek goddess Athena in another gallery of the museum.

Not only was Edith a highly cultured woman, and therefore appreciative of classical statuary depicting a distinguished woman in the statue of Athena, she appreciated the appeal of what the goddess symbolized, namely, a goddess “associated with wisdom, handicraft, and warfare.” For another author the mythological figure is “[the] goddess of wisdom and intelligence. Athena is the goddess of other things such as the arts, she loves to weave, she loves mathematics, skill, warcraft and wisdom, etc.  She is a maiden, the same as Artemis.”  This amalgam of features appealed to Edith as a woman who strove so much to promote women in society.

Her description of that visit implies that her “overpowering” discovery of the Christian funerary group with Christ missing left more of an impression on her than the famed classic sculptured icon of femininity from mid-5th century BC Athens.

Change location and we can move ahead five years later to accompany Edith into the summer of 1921 and her momentous encounter with Saint Teresa of Jesus. She left her own authentic witness to the reading session by her words in The Road to Carmel: “[since] summer 1921 when the ‘Life’ of our Holy Mother Teresa had happened to fall into my hands and had put an end to my long search for the true faith.”

The best way for me to personally describe the importance of her reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa a hundred years ago is to pass on a deft helping-hand provided by kind Father Kieran Kavanaugh. I was teaching a weekly course on the iconography of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in the choir of our monastery in Washington. Most of the attendees were Secular Order members. I cannot remember how many friars were present at the lecture underway with its reference to Edith Stein reading that autobiography of Saint Teresa.  I laid out the accepted narrative that says Edith completed reading the book at the home of her friend Hedwig “Hatti” Conrad-Martius and Theodor Conrad. The passage just cited from The Road to Carmel story did not add in her renowned exclamation “That is the truth”.  Relying on the noteworthy biography written by her Novice Director, I repeated those significant words “That is the truth”, aware that one can still trust the veracity of that statement as a verbal testimony culled from the recollections Edith Stein shared with Mother Teresia Renata Posselt then subsequently published in her biographical account Edith Stein, The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (note pp. 63 and 292-93.)

From the back of our choir a hand went up. Father Kieran asked to be acknowledged. He said simply “Of course, she uttered ‘That is the truth’ because in the final chapter of the book she was just finishing Holy Mother Saint Teresa describes for us her beautiful rapture of Jesus the truth” [chap. 40, especially pars. 1-4]. Warm agreement all around. . .with much appreciation for his informed reminder. I wasn’t planning to go into the content of that final chapter but had thought it would be sufficient to underscore the exclamation “That is the truth,” convinced it was authentic.

Clearly, one realized the still young (not yet 30-years old) PhD searcher-after-truth, Edith, found in the description of Saint Teresa the long-standing goal she sought for: truth that gives real meaning to life. It meant for her a holistic truth, the type of truth that included more than just intellectual questing, or even satisfaction over clarity. Not some dry, intellectually abstract formula far removed from daily life, but a truth allowing her to continually work out the reality of the situations she contended with–because accompanied by Christ the “truth that is the fulfillment of all truths,” in Teresa’s own words. This is existential truth, personal truth; not only truths in notions of the philosophers, but of a human heart so much in need of authentic truth in her life’s work.

Jesus, then, who was missing from the statuary grouping, the suffering Christ who was not in his mother’s arms in the Frankfurt museum, had come to meet her in the deeply spiritual words of Teresa of Jesus. And this was what made all the difference to her long search for such existential truth. [Anyone contacting me will receive a two-page chart I have composed for teaching purposes showing “Stein’s Progression of Faith”, that is, out of faith and back into faith.]

Now to conclude this reflection on the life-changing summertime moment in the life of the great German modern philosopher—the one who just a dozen years later took Teresa’s name and became the future Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Jesus for her was recognizably present to her since he was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (Jo 14:6) The centennial of “That is the truth” is justifiably a victory celebration for any quest that ends with someone like Edith Stein/Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross taking her cue from the great Saint Teresa of Jesus and gratefully finding in the person of Christ the only full “way, truth, and life”. We can thank them both for the encouragement to be derived from their shared encounter in the autobiographical “Book of her Life”.

John Sullivan, o.c.d.