Edith Stein was always an over-achiever. Born in Germany in 1891, and eventually known by her religious name, St. Teresa Benedicta, Stein could have been expected to lead a quiet life out of the public eye — since women at the time were offered a significantly smaller number of roles to play in society than men. Instead, she chose to blaze a new path and follow her true vocation, which led her first into a highly respected philosophy program at the University of Gottingen, then to teaching schoolchildren and converting to the Catholic faith, and finally to entering a Carmelite monastery.
Stein’s fascinating life was cut short when she was martyred in a German death camp during the World War II, but due to her variety of experience and thoughtful intellect, she was able to write and publish perceptively on the topic of women and women’s vocations during the years she had.
Her ideas were particularly influential for Pope St. John Paul II, who canonized her in 1998, saying, “This woman had to face the challenges of such a radically changing century as our own.”
Stein is a saint for modern times, and is particularly insightful about what it means to be a woman in the modern world. Her particular brand of feminism is original, refreshing, and contains wisdom that women can benefit from today. She herself isn’t easy to categorize and she doesn’t expect other women to fit neatly into labels, either. Instead she explains the unique and irreplaceable gift that women are to the world. So, perhaps she wasn’t an over-achiever at all — she was simply herself.
Here’s a small sampling of what she has to say to us today:
To be a mother is to nourish and protect true humanity and bring it to development. (The Significance of Women’s Intrinsic Value in National Life)
Edith never doubted that to be a mother is an irreplaceable vocation to which many women are called. Not all women need to be mothers (she herself was not) to lead happy and fulfilled lives, but only a woman can be called to this beautiful vocation. Often overlooked or seen as less important, Edith insisted that it is one of the noblest of callings. If you are a mother, be reminded of the dignity and importance of your vocation.
Every profession in which woman’s soul comes into its own and which can be formed by woman’s soul is an authentic woman’s profession. (The Ethos of Women’s Professions)
So, if woman aren’t limited to motherhood alone, what options are there and where is the limit to what a woman can do? Edith insists the list is endless, and the possible vocations available to a woman are every single profession or calling in which her soul finds its true dignity.
The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold. (Fundamental Principles in Women’s Education)
Edith Stein is much smarter than I am, so this quote is difficult to unpack. It’s worth a try, though, because what she means is quite profound. One of the questions she constantly asks is, “Can we truly know other people, particularly the way that they feel?” Her answer is, “Yes,” because the nature of the human soul itself, the reason it exists, is to find itself in relationship with other souls. This is a complicated way of saying that what truly gives meaning to life is our relationships. To her, women are specifically gifted with the ability to open up their souls, which imparts purpose and meaning to the lives of others. In the modern, practical world, empathy isn’t really understood or practiced because we don’t think it’s possible or simply don’t value it, but Edith insists that it is a valuable vocation.
The soul of woman must be expansive and open to all human beings, it must be quiet so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds … empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call. (Fundamental Principles of Women’s Education)
To Edith, a woman who is in full control of herself is free to live for others. True strength lies in sacrificial love that holds up the weaknesses of others. In a world where power, wealth, and attention seem to gather all the applause, this is a good reminder that a woman actually finds joy and contentment by making her soul beautiful first.
Each woman who lives in the light of eternity can fulfill her vocation, no matter if it is in marriage, in a religious order, or in a worldly profession. (Spirituality of the Christian Woman)
We all have different callings in life. Not every woman needs to be a mother, or a nun, or president of a Fortune 500 company, but whatever a woman is called to be, she will best fulfill it by understanding what she is on this earth to do, and how it will contribute to her lasting happiness. She believes that whatever your vocation, you should let God be a part of it.
Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning. (The Ethos of Women’s Professions)
All of us are flawed, yes, and we’re all probably embarrassed about mistakes we’ve made in the past. Edith insists that women can approach these feelings almost the way a mother would, by seeing flaws not as a single trait to be relentlessly criticized or as a way of defining an entire life, but instead to follow a better way and see people as a whole, as works-in-progress, and capable of being nurtured into greatness.
[Women] comprehend not merely with the intellect but also with the heart. (Problems of Women’s Education)
The intellect is valuable for insights into basic truths and skills, but when we truly know a person or thing, our knowledge helps us to also love them. The goal of knowledge is to love those beautiful and wonderful truths we uncover. This means that the heart, when combined with the mind, is necessary to knowing the world around us. The gaze of the lover sees most clearly, which means that whatever we love best, we can also know best. In a world where science and technology dominate, let us not neglect the valuable knowledge that comes from the heart.