Endow Weekly

St. Edith Stein | Seeker of Truth – Week 3

Week Three: The Catholic Professional Woman

Consider the Intellectual

Chapter 3 discusses the period in Edith’s life after her conversion to the Catholic Faith but before her entrance into Carmel. Basically, her life as a Catholic professional: “She taught at a teacher’s college in Speyer, Germany, lectured extensively on the topic of the ethos of the professional woman, and sought the recognition of a university professorship, a position which would be denied to her as both a woman and a Jew.” 

Despite her intellectual calling being thwarted by historical forces, Edith’s writings and lectures, according to her biographer Waltraud Herbstrith, can be synthesized in the idea of “woman’s mature Christian life as a source of healing for the world.” Later, St. John Paul II would develop Edith’s thought on the feminine vocation in his Letter to Women. 

Chapter 4 will delve more deeply (I have not read it yet, but it is promised in this chapter!) into Edith’s contributions on the feminine vocation. I look forward to next week in this regard. What struck me in the arena of the intellect in this chapter is Edith’s participation in Jacques and Raissa Maritain’s Thomistic intellectual retreats hosted in their home in France. (As an aside, if this idea of an intellectual retreat at someone’s home excites you, consider applying for and attending a Bethany Weekend!) 

I have to mention that Edith translated St. John Henry Newman’s work (specifically his Letters and Journals and his epic The Idea of a University) into German AND started a project integrating the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas  with that of Edmund Husserl. Is that all, Edith?! 

Consider the Emotional 

Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell explains, “Women, by nature, seek to embrace the personal—what is living and whole. Men, in contrast, have more objective minds—tending to the factual instead of the subjective.” 

Edith directs our attention to the epitome of the feminine ethos: the Virgin Mary. She is the model for every authentic feminine vocation. Mary is a “completely formed independent person” and yet also the “hidden heart” of the Holy Family. 

The receptivity of Mary that Edith took as her model found expression in her otherworldly affection for her Godchildren and her nieces and nephews, the students she not only taught but mentored, and the strangers she met at the home of her friends the Maritains. Those who attended their study groups, in Jacques’ words, were:

“Learned and those who were uneducated—Catholics, but also unbelievers, Jews, Orthodox, Protestants…The unity came from a profound love, or from a more or less great interest in Thomistic thought. It also came from the climate of friendship and of liberty in which all were received.” 

Without Raissa, without the “feminine atmosphere,” these encounters would not have been possible. Reading this section reminded me of the words which John Paul II spoke to the Roman Curia in his 1987 speech: “All this makes sense because of a woman!”

Consider the Spiritual

Without her deep interior life, Edith would have been simply incapable of the depth of her contributions. This seems obvious enough. She wrote and spoke of this fact often to Catholic women’s groups. Furthermore, the chapter discusses Edith’s commitment to private retreats and pilgrimages. She organized her work life around her spiritual activities. Not the other way around. A true mark of a saint. 

While I have gone on numerous public silent retreats (I make at least one public silent retreat per year), it has only been in the last several years that I have made private retreats. I bring only my journal and Bible.

I have found that after a certain period of tense, awkward and uncomfortable silence, the loneliness transforms into the solitude of the Lord. When I have made private retreats with a friend, we only listen to spiritual talks in the car, and once we are on the grounds of the retreat, we commit to absolute silence. (For the ladies located in the Southwest, Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita, Arizona is my favorite location for a private retreat!)

Here’s some encouragement for us from Edith herself to continue pursuing a deep interior life: 

“Women must become broad, tranquil, emptied of self, warm and transparent. Only hearts that are emptied and silent can be penetrated by grace, with its power to form women into the loving persons they are intended to be. Before they can be ready to assist others, women first need to be securely anchored in their own depths.”

We retreat in order to advance.