Eight Things You Weren’t Told About St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross


August 11, 2013 by lucieromarin

1. It’s her real name. It’s her real name! Enough with this ‘St Edith Stein’ business! From the moment of her conversion, all she wanted to do was enter Carmel. She had no interest in being marketed either as the face of Catholic feminism or the face of A Token-Nod-to-Women-From-Time-to-Time. The religious life was her dream, her identity, her mission, and her martyrdom. Yes, her road to sanctity began in the world, but it blossomed in Carmel.

It’s weird. People do the same thing to St Mary of the Cross. They did the same thing to St Therese of Lisieux at WYD in Toronto, where they flew a flag of her image as a teenager in lay dress – St Therese, who, from the age of three, wanted nothing other than to be a Carmelite nun! Are we afraid that if we mention the Cross, we might have to embrace it? Are we afraid that if we admit that women become saints in the religious life, that other women might have to do the same thing?

2. She knows how it feels to be stuck in the wrong job. This is a blog for the burnt-out and the disappointed; a blog for those starting their lives again late…well, here’s your saint. Marketed as the Intellectual Catholic, she was, in fact, barred from an academic career by virtue of being a woman, and, after her conversion, she spent eight years teaching high school. I know that teaching is worthy work in itself, but how would you like to teach teenagers for eight years, when your mind was in the university and your heart was in the cloister? But there’s no record of complaint on her part – only a record of her persistent desire for Carmel.

3. She turned to Thomism. The next time someone tells you in respectful tones about how much Edith Stein contributed to phenomenology, ask them a) if they actually know what it is, and b) if they know that, after her conversion, she translated the works of St Thomas into German, and then embarked upon a serious work of scholarship in which she tried to reconcile phenomenology with Thomism. Because you know what it means when someone does that? It means that that person wants to prove that she didn’t waste all those years of prior study on a second-rate philosophy. It means that that person has discovered something even more engaging than that which she previously loved.

4. She offered herself as a sacrifice for the preservation of Carmel and in atonement for the unbelief of the Jews. Funny how that never gets mentioned in the rah-rah pamphlets.

5. She was a master of prayer. Even as a high school teacher, she spent entire nights on her knees in prayer. One priest saw her in prayer in church, and went away amazed, saying that he felt that he had seen ecclesia orans, an embodiment of the Church Herself in prayer. She wrote about prayer while in Carmel. In fact, that she was able to enter Carmel so late in life (she was forty; roadkill, take note!) is a testament to her prayer-life; to be admitted to such a tough order at that age is very, very rare. They must have seen ecclesia orans in her, too. I don’t know why her writings on prayer are talked about less than her other works, and I can’t help suspecting that it’s either because her marketers don’t know she wrote them, or haven’t read them, or just think that a giant of prayer is less cool than a scholar.

6. She was obedient. She never marketed herself as a scholar in Carmel. She kept total silence about her study and her books, and they only worked out that she was some kind of intellectual because she was so bad at dusting and cleaning and practical things. She wrote her works in Carmel under obedience. She was obedient to her spiritual director when she was still in the world. She wanted to enter Carmel almost immediately following her conversion; her director advised her to wait, in the hope that her mother’s anguish over her conversion might have time to abate.

7. She had reservations about home-schooling. Yup. You’ll find said reservations in ‘Essays on Woman’, in which she cautions against it except as a last resort…and where there are no decent boarding schools available.

8. The wikipedia entry isn’t bad!

3 thoughts on “Eight Things You Weren’t Told About St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

  1. Clare says:

    Well, I think people tend to appreciate images of saints in their lay dress, because, at least for me, it’s a reminder that they weren’t BORN as nuns or saints. They made a free choice to embrace the perfection of the religious life. This may be a function of where I am–it’s very easy to feel like my life is laid out already in studies, dating, eventually marriage, a reasonable prayer life; it’s very helpful for me to remember that there is no pre-existing category of Saints, but only people, many in similar circumstances to me who chose to follow Christ heroically and radically.

    Edith Stein may have seen herself first and foremost as a Carmelite, because that’s what she was, but she was also a hugely important scholar. Huge. People are finding out more and more about her contributions to Husserl’s thought, and hence the entire school of Phenomenology. And she write about women and their place in the world with an unprecedented rigor and insight–all Catholic feminists owe a debt to her. I don’t think celebrating the richness of this contribution in any way distracts or detracts from her religious life, any more than celebrating Thomas as the face and founder of Thomism and Catholic philosophy in general detracts from his Dominican vocation.

    If anything, I think the importance of her scholarship is referenced too much in passing by Catholics.

    You may be right about the name. I discovered her through her scholarship, and so through the name Edith Stein, but I’m not sure what the protocol for names is in these circumstances.

    • lucieromarin says:

      “…she was also a hugely important scholar.” You’re right; it did occur to me after posting that she’s a little like the woman who makes a great name for herself while single, so that when she’s married she’s sometimes known by her married name and sometimes by her maiden name. So it’s any wonder there’s confusion sometimes, and there is a place for both names. I can’t help wishing though, that people would at least know that she wasn’t actually canonised St Edith Stein, and that that’s a made-up title.

      I have to confess to a pretty strong bias in favour of Thomism 🙂 (The last phenomenologist I met denied the existence of potency and act, and also told me that miracles are no longer necessary for Catholic mythology. So possibly my mind has been poisoned by an individual not truly representative of the philosophy!).

  2. Clare says:

    Possibly part of our difference is that I don’t think phenomenology is a second rate philosophy, nor that attempts to reconcile it with Thomism are at all a sign of its inferiority or fatal problems.

    And yes, I am several groaning bookshelves aware what phenomenology is 🙂

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