National Catholic Register

Books

Feminist, Philosopher, Jew, Catholic, Saint

BY Sister Mary Thomas Noble

November 18-24, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/18/01 at 1:00 PM

 

EDITH STEIN: SR. TERESA

BENEDICTA OF THE CROSS

by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda

Our Sunday Visitor, 2001

207 pages, $11.95

The controversy over Edith Stein and Carmelite St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is alive and well. Were they two people, or is she one? Was Edith Stein's canonization an insult to our older brothers in the faith or a bridge to better understanding? In a vibrant and extremely perceptive study, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda refuses to be caught on the horns of the dilemma. Transcending current polemics, she sketches the rich personality that has captivated Christians and Jews alike in bold and objective lines.

The complex characteristics of her protagonist give Scaperlanda multiple possibilities, among which she has chosen wisely and well. Her analysis of young Edith's role as an intellectual leader of Christian feminism in Europe is particularly striking. A quote from journalist Lauria Garcia throws Edith's position into clear relief: “The woman's body stamps her soul with particular qualities that are common to all women but different from distinctly masculine traits. Stein saw these differences as complementary and not hierarchical in value, and so they should be recognized and celebrated rather than minimized and deplored.”

Scaperlanda ably records Edith's celebration of femininity during the decade between her conversion to the Catholic faith and her entrance into the Carmel of Cologne. In the schools run by the Dominican Sisters in Speyer, the unassuming Fraulein Stein molded a generation of women as she shared with them her knowledge of Christ and challenged them with the truth of their creation in the image of God. She inspired her students to attain the highest intellectual and professional achievement and, by the witness of her life, opened up to them the world of contemplative prayer.

During the same period, Edith delivered innumerable lectures for the League of Catholic Women and the Association of Catholic Women Teachers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland — becoming the ‘voice’ of the Catholic Women's Movement at annual conventions, acting as an advisor in reform plans and serving as their representative in discussions with government officials. While rejecting the radical feminist claim that there are no significant differences between men and women, she firmly pointed women to their responsible roles of professionals, co-workers in the Church, homemakers, teachers and, above all, mothers.

In the most resonant section of the book, Scaperlanda discusses the role of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as a Carmelite and theologian. Although her family had nicknamed her “a book sealed with seven seals” because she was such a private person, Edith nonetheless reveals herself with startling simplicity in her writings, particularly her letters. Shortly before entering Carmel, she writes to her close friend Sister Adelgundis, a Benedictine of Freiburg-Gunterstal, explaining that, for her, everything comes down to “a small, simple truth that I have to express: How to go about living at the Lord's hand.” For Scaperlanda, this is Edith's signature phrase; it completely captures the saint's essence.

For the Nazis, it was Edith Stein the Jew who was killed at Auschwitz. For the Church, it was Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, freely offering her life for Christ and for her people. In her chosen title “of the Cross” by which she was blessed — “Benedicta” — and by which she lived, the two elements blend into a most complete unity. In her person, the dilemma is resolved. In this book, we see how.

Dominican Sister Mary

Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York.