Sacred Mysteries: Edith Stein’s philosophy of truth as a hidden grain of corn

Edith Stein in 1931, before becoming a Carmelite - Bettmann
Edith Stein in 1931, before becoming a Carmelite - Bettmann

At the beginning of the 20th century, when Edith Stein was a girl living in Breslau (now Wrocław), her sisters made her take back to the library two volumes of Schopenhauer unread. “They feared for my mental health,” she recalled.

Bertie Wooster, who called the philosopher “a grouch of the most pronounced description”, might have agreed with the sisters, but young Edith was made of sterner stuff. She was deep in Schopenhauer’s The World As Will aged 22 when she heard that the Great War had begun. She dropped philosophy and went straight off to be a nurse.

This fitted in with the subject of her doctoral thesis, Empathy, for she had fallen under the spell of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. On renewing her vocation of philosophy, she could find no university appointment because she was a woman – and Jewish. To make things worse, in 1922 she suddenly became a Catholic.

A decisive factor was a chance reading of the autobiographical Life by St Teresa of Avila, the reforming Carmelite of the 16th century. Picking up the book at a friend’s house, she read it right through. At the end she said to herself: “That is the truth.”

After joining the Carmelite order, not itself a place for professional intellectuals, she found the Nazis catching up with her. Summoned by the Gestapo, she returned their salute of “Heil Hitler!” with “Gelobt sei Jesus Christus” (“Praised be Jesus Christ”). She realised this was, as she wrily put it, “imprudent from a human standpoint”, but had felt driven to declare herself.

She was transferred to a convent at Echt in Holland, but on August 2 1942, the SS arrived and she was taken to a concentration camp, and murdered in a gas chamber a few days later. She had left on her desk the manuscript of her book The Science of the Cross, written for the 400th anniversary of the great Carmelite mystic of prayer, St John of the Cross. Her sister nuns saved it from destruction. She was canonised in 1998.

Now Peter Tyler has written a short book The Living Philosophy of Edith Stein. It stems from his reading through the many volumes of her work during lockdown, but it still keeps to fewer than 200 pages.

Professor Tyler includes some biography while focusing on the philosophy, regarded, in Edith Stein’s own terms, as something to live by. He takes the insights of St John of the Cross into the Dark Night of the soul and relates them to her own Science of the Cross.

St John of the Cross saw the Dark Night not as “grim and repellent” (in the words of Dean Inge of St Paul’s in 1899), but in poetic terms as a warm southern night in which the soul awakens to God while its loves for surrogate things are destroyed. As the author has shown in previous books, John was intelligent, brave, humorous and sympathetic.

The 16th-century saint warned against setting value on private revelations, locutions and comforting feelings in prayer. These reduce the capacity of the soul to launch into the “abyss of faith, where all else will be absorbed”. Since God is invisible and must be known by faith (his gift), it is no surprise that he cannot be sensed in prayer either.

Edith Stein’s account of the Dark Night is as the re-orientation of the self, from a perspective fixed upon “me” (the Ichmensch) to a focus on the innermost soul (innerste) where lies the mystery of God, which only he can reveal according to his wishes. The process is a pursuit of truth. And in her vocabulary of practical reason, the Cross of Christ is “a living, real and effective truth: a seed-corn buried in the soul”.