Endow Weekly

St. Edith Stein | Seeker of Truth – Week 2

Week Two: The Seeker Reaches Adulthood

Consider the Intellectual 

Chapter 2 discusses the encounters which led to Edith Stein’s conversion from atheism to the Catholic Faith and then finally to her vocation as a Carmelite nun.  In her undergraduate studies, Edith pursued with passion the fields of psychology and philosophy and specifically a new philosophical movement called Phenomenology. The founder of this movement, Edmund Husserl, was also a Jewish convert to the Faith. Phenomenology is “based on the principle that we can speak of the truth of an experience because we can recognize the objective and universal nature of a human experience.” 

Edith Stein, as a former atheist, has something to say to the “Nones” or religiously unaffiliated of today. 80% of those who leave the Church leave before the age of 23. (This was my story.) If you haven’t watched it yet, please watch this short film on “Outreach to the Unaffiliated.”  The median age young people leave is 13. Edith was 14. Why?

For many, when left with the choice between faith and reason, reason/science wins. But this is a false dichotomy. Faith is not incompatible with reason. Instead, faith is the apex of reason. John Paul II writes in his encyclical, Faith and Reason,  

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. 

Edith’s conversion began through her philosophical study and yet she found it wanting: “….it fed her love for truth though she was to discover it did not hold all the answers.”

Consider the Emotional 

Chapter 2 continues, “In her doctoral dissertation, On The Problem of Empathy, Edith gives us a wonderful example of the application of the phenomenological method.”  She uses the method of phenomenology  to analyze the passions (emotions, feelings, etc.) in order to understand more deeply human experience and human values. 

Of all the personal struggles discussed during this period of her life (the disappointment of her job situation—Husserl treated her as an assistant rather than as a collaborator, her inability to land a professorship only because she was a woman, her medical service during the First World War, etc.) everything was preparing her for conversion and vocation. 

Edith’s search for meaning was not satisfied by philosophical inquiry and the answers philosophy did provide remained fragmented. However, by observing “faith in action,” Edith started to put the puzzle pieces together through what she called “living images.” One of the “deepest impressions” that moved Edith to an extent that she could “never forget” was the encounter with a woman praying in a cathedral “as though she were here for an intimate conversation.” 

(Nota bene: To read St. Thomas Aquinas’ reasons for why philosophy isn’t enough, I recommend the first part of the Summa TheologicaQuestion 1, Article 1.)

Consider the Spiritual

Edith took the life of the mind seriously and Husserl’s words to “never assert anything just because others have said it.” She also took her emotions seriously and acknowledged the relevance emotions have in the search for truth. She says of the Christian witness of her associates: “it did open for me a region of ‘phenomena’ which I could then no longer bypass blindly…the barriers of rationalistic prejudices with which I had unwittingly grown up fell, and the world of faith unfolded before me.” 

Edith’s conversion is the fulfilment of a Biblical promise: 

You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13) 

The Biblical definition of the heart is not reduced to mere feelings or emotions but includes the entirety of the person—both reason and affection. 

The integrity of the intellectual and the emotional culminate in the spiritual and in Edith the last straw of her conversion was the encounter with St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. After finishing the book, she not only discerned her Catholic vocation but her Carmelite one as well and proclaimed: “This is the Truth!” 

Edith was transformed by Teresa and I am being transformed by Edith and this is the way of the Church. It is not “programs,” but ultimately people who change people.