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St. Edith Stein… A True Feminist

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Most Catholics are familiar, more or less, with the outline of Edith Stein’s life. She was the youngest of 11 children born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, Germany, to devout Jewish parents. Her mother knew about life’s hardships, having lost four children during the early years of her marriage.
Frau Auguste Stein was the formative influence in Edith’s development. Nonetheless, between the ages of 13 and 21, as Edith confessed, she could not believe in a personal God.
Through many twists and turns, Edith became a Catholic and eventually a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Because of her Jewish heritage, she was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz where she, along with her sister Rosa, met their deaths.
She was canonized on Sunday, October 11, 1998. In his homily on that occasion, Pope John Paul II remarked: “Today…we bow to the memory of Edith Stein, proclaiming the indomitable witness she bore during her life and especially by her death. 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.”
Toward the end of her life, she considered herself as one of the countless “hidden souls” who remain hidden from the whole world. She was a philosopher of distinction and a superb translator. She wrote poetry and was an excellent teacher. She earned honors as a nurse and was a loving companion for her many family members, and all of her many nieces and nephews.
Much of her intellectual work is esoteric and remains hidden from both the world as well as most Catholics. She will be better remembered for her courage and her faith, and how she could find peace in the midst of desolation. Perhaps her model as a true feminist will be one of her most important legacies, especially for women who are troubled about their identity and their vocation.
At the beginning of her extensive essay, “On the Nature of Woman,” she makes a point that is as simple and straightforward as it is profound and worthy of meditation: “The vocation of man and woman is not quite the same in the original order, the order of fallen nature and the order of redemption.” In the original order, the relationship between man and woman was intended to be one of pure, loving communion. As a result of original sin, their relationship lost this purity and became tainted by lust and a mistaken sense of inequality. Redemption by Christ is needed so that man and woman can return to the original order.
This opening sentence reveals three important characteristics of St. Teresa Benedicta: her faith in the authenticity of Scripture, her unblinking realism in the face of extreme evil, and her hope that ultimately good will prevail. The adoption of these three virtues is her prayer for today’s women of the world.
If Scripture is ignored or rejected, women will not have a basis on which they can understand their true nature. As a result, they will begin their understanding of themselves from something that has been broken.
At that point, it is inevitable that they will find wholly external reasons for their fallen state. They will blame politics, economics, their upbringing, or men. But not realizing that they have fallen from what they should be, they tend to neglect the arduous task of self-improvement.
Both men and women have been wounded by the fall, but their identities have not been entirely lost. “Owing to the close relationship between mother and child,” St. Teresa Benedicta writes, “and woman’s special capacity for sharing and devoting herself to another’s life, she will have the principal part in education.”
Edith Stein wrote her doctoral thesis on the topic of “empathy,” utilizing her feminine gifts to complete a scholarly assignment which, at her time, was considered to be the exclusive province of the male. At the same time, always concerned about balance, she states that “the demands of motherhood make it imperative that man should protect and care for mother and child.”
Virtues and vices can be close neighbors. Sympathy for the problems of others is natural for the woman. But this fine inclination can be perverted, as she remarks, when a woman behaves as “the interfering busybody that cannot tolerate silent growth and thus does not foster development, but hinders it.”
Sympathy can be distorted in many other ways, for example, “by an unmeasured interest in others which shows itself as curiosity, gossip, and an indiscreet longing to penetrate into the lives of other people.”
The battle of the sexes will continue unabated unless men and women look to a supernatural remedy. “This transcending of natural barriers,” she writes, “is the highest effect of grace; it can never be achieved by carrying on a self-willed struggle against nature and denying its barriers, but only by humble subjection to the divine order.”
Edith Stein spent a great deal of her active life among male scholars. She advises women that their womanhood is far stronger than their environment or the people who populate it. Whether she is a mother, a nun, or a professional working in the world, a woman preserves, protects, and develops her feminine genius by modeling herself “as the Mother of God had been in all the circumstances of her life, whether she was living as a virgin in the sacred precincts of the Temple, silently keeping house at Bethlehem and Nazareth, or guiding the apostles and the first Christian community after the death of her Son.”
The three Carmelite saints mentioned in Pope John Paul II’s canonization homily offer a rich and realistic meditation on what it means to be a woman in the best sense. They provide something far deeper and more authentic than what the world can offer.
The influence of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross will not remain hidden because it is conjoined with the divine life that fills the soul.

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(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That Is Going Mad; Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart; How to Flourish in a Fallen World, and Footprints on the Sands of Time: Personal Reflections on Life and Death are available through Amazon.com.
(Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. He is the 2015 Catholic Civil Rights League recipient of the prestigious Exner Award.)

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