Edith Stein 1
For some time now I’ve been wanting to study the writings of St. Edith Stein, or, as she is formally known, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I prefer to think of her as Edith Stein; it makes her seem no less holy, and closer to our earthly life, and, specifically, closer to the culture and events of the 20th century which eventually took her life (of which you can read a brief outline here).
I keep running into snippets of her work (for instance in the daily meditations of the invaluable devotional magazine Magnificat). And I’m drawn to them in an odd way—it’s not just that I find them insightful or well expressed, it’s that they seem like promising indicators or clues of some kind, as if they’re saying to me “There is something for you here—follow the trail.” So I’ve made it part of my Lenten discipline this year to make some kind of serious start. I decided it wasn’t practical to make her work my only reading for six weeks, but she’ll be my emphasis, and I won’t start any other large or demanding reading projects. That’s why this is titled “Edith Stein 1”—it’s the first of as many comments on Edith Stein as there are Sundays from now through Easter.
I know at the outset that a large part of her work is technical philosophy that is well over my head. I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with philosophy of any sort, and none at all with that of her philosophical mentor, Edmund Husserl. So I’ll be dabbling. I have several of her books, and am starting my dabbling with a fairly brief essay in Knowledge and Faith, “Knowledge, Truth, and Being.” I have glanced at this essay before, and it seems to move in the direction of some vague ideas about faith which I’ve toyed with for some time but never really articulated; I’m hoping she can help me.
It’s really the mystical in her and not the philosophical that interests me, and now that I’ve written that I think maybe part of what has attracted me to her is a sense of the philosophical reaching its limits and continuing beyond them into mysticism. Mysticism is probably the wrong word: contemplative worship is a better term. I plan at least to sample her final work, The Science of the Cross, which she had barely completed when the Nazis took her away.
So far I’ve encountered this striking formulation: “being = being-known-by-God,” which reminds me of Julian of Norwich’s well-known “It is, because God loveth it.” I have no doubt that both are true. And both serve as a sort of justification or explanation for my own most fundamental intuition: a pleasure in sheer existence which is, at least where sight is concerned, almost independent of the specific thing being seen, although it (somewhat paradoxically) cannot be had without a simultaneous awareness of the individuality of the thing itself.
This is also, to me, the foundational function and power of art: to bring home to the beholder somehow (and new means are always possible and necessary) this intuition of the splendor of being. Most art of course does more than this. Literature, for instance, inevitably deals with moral questions, but without this power it’s only a textbook. The desire and attempt to effect this have always been at the bottom of my own desultory literary work. I’ve never quite understood, or felt any connection with, the idea that art is “self-expression.” I experience something incoherent within me which I need to bring into definite existence, but it’s not me. It feels like something separate, something given. Joseph Conrad’s words have always seemed my own: “above all, to make you see.” And what I want to make you see is not me, but the splendor of being as I have seen it living in some specific thing. It only involves me because I don’t have the power of imagination required to get much beyond the basic material of my own life.