Friday, August 10, 2007

Edith Stein: Intellectual, nun, saint 1891-1942

Thanks to the wonderful Jackie Parkes for reminding me that yesterday was the feast of Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Edith Stein was born on Yom Kippur, 1891 to an Orthodox Jewish family. As an adult she converted to Roman Catholicism and became a nun. In 1942 along with her sister Rose, she was transported by the nazis to Aushwitz where she was murdered. Her last reported words to her sister were, "come, we go for our people."
In 1987 she was beatified by His late holiness, John Paul the Great and canonised in 1998. A year later along with Saints Catherine and Brigid she was declared Patron Saint of Europe.
Stein's life story is that of a very modern saint. In her teens she left school and became an atheist. She returned to her education some years later with a deeper seriousness of purpose and studied philosophy with the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Husserl himself said Stein was the best doctoral student he had ever had, high praise indeed from the man who taught Martin Heidegger.
In 1921 Stein was inspired to convert to Roman Catholicism after reading the autobiography of another intellectual saint with Jewish ancestry, St Teresa of Avila.
Stein's doctoral dissertation is tantalisingly entitled "On the problem of empathy". Years later she would write her own autobiography reasoning that German gentiles would empathise with Jews if they knew more about them.
The efforts of Stein and other people of goodwill proved sadly inadequate to the task of halting the murderous nazi juggernaut. Rather, history's judgement seems to have justified Trotsky's famous, unsparing dictum that the only way to debate with a fascist is to acquaint his head with the pavement. Nonetheless, in recent times, Stein's approach has been taken up by anti-racists who think that contact with people from different cultures will overcome racial prejudices.


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