Edith Stein and the Gift of True Womanhood

Mackenzie Worthing

Edith Stein and the Gift of True Womanhood

We live in a time that is confused about the very basic binary of man and woman. From the first few chapters of Genesis, the beautiful complementary dynamic between man and woman is set forth. There are many examples of feminine goodness, strength, and character throughout the Sacred Scriptures. We have many examples to look up to in the saints. One such saint we can look to for encourgement in authentic womanhood is Edith Stein, also known by her religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. This dear woman was born into a German Jewish family in the last years of the nineteenth century. She defied her religious upbringing and became agnostic as she explored many different philosophical paths in college. The Lord won her over through reading Teresa of Avila in a friend's home. She went on to become a great champion of Catholic intellectual circles in Germany until her entrance into the Carmelite order. She was later arrested by the Nazis and executed at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. 

Known for many great philosophical works, one of her greatest contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition are her musings on womanhood. Her collected Essays on Woman are a treasure trove contemplating the vocation of women, women in the workplace, women's education, and the role of women in the Church and society. She took the question of woman's function in various positions in life seriously and spent years pondering this question that has come to the fore of our own society today: what is a woman? What is it to be a woman in the eyes of God, in the eyes of man? 

Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose. The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture declares what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world : woman is destined to be wife and mother. Both physically and spiritually she is endowed for this purpose, as is seen clearly from practical experience. 

She goes on to say that of course women share basic human nature with men but that woman's faculties are different from men. Her faculties are to be wife and mother. This, of course, will not be the physical destiny of every single woman to walk the earth. She makes the point that there are women in the workplace (she herself worked for many years as a professor and lecturer before entering Carmel), women in the cloister, and women who for some reason or another simply do not fulfill the design of woman to be wife and mother. 

This does not mean that women are not called in God's plan to be wife and mother. She places an emphasis on woman's special capacity to 

naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.  

It is on these three capacities which will be the focus of this post. 


Embrace the Living

Woman naturally seeks to embrace the living. Eve was called "Mother of all the Living" for a reason. Not only was she to be the first mother of the human race, but she and Adam were left in charge of all of creation. It was her duty not only to "be fruitful and multiply" but also to tend to the garden and the creatures in the garden. Woman has the natural inclination to turn towards things that are alive whether it be children, friends, family, pets, or plants. Mothers and grandmothers are known for nagging their family members to eat, to sleep, to drink water because of this inclination to nurture the growth of the living. Women are concerned with the life and quality of life of the persons around them. We are attuned to the changes in moods, the physical habits, and the hearts of those around us. We are generally more interested in the development of children than men are. We are interested in education, especially early childhood education, because there is a desire to understand human development and the nourishment of children, body and soul. We are called to serve the living with our love. 


Embrace the Personal

Along with interest in the life and development of those around them, women are also intersted in the personal. Things are less intersting than persons. Women tend to be in professions that are more interpersonal and related to human flourishing such as education, medicine, hospitality, and customer service. Men generally are interested in things and abstract concepts, whereas women generally are interested in the abstract only insofar as it relates to and serves persons. There is a desire for women to know and love and be known and be loved by the persons around them. We are generally better at understanding and sympathizing with the emotions of others. We are concerned for the persons around us and interested in their well being. We are called to serve the persons around us with our love. 


Embrace the Whole 

Woman generally does not work well with compartmentalizing. Men's brains are more adapted to think about one thing at a time, whereas women have a constant, connected stream of ideas going at all times in their minds. When women take care of a home, care for children, or complete a task at work, they tend to see individual tasks or actions in the context of the entire project or the context of the entire day. A mother sees the menial tasks of her day to day life in the context of the entirety of raising her children to be lovers of God and functioning adult members of society. A teacher sees the day's lesson in the context of the expectation of the year's education. We have a gift for seeing the person in their entire complex web of huamnity. We have a desire to understand the whole of a decision that may impact our family. We are called to serve others with our whole selves. Edith Stein has this to say about this particular desire

The deepest longing of a woman's heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely. This longing is revealed in her outlook, personal and all-embracing, which appears to us as specifically feminine. But this surrender becomes a perverted self-abandon and a form of slavery when it is given to another person and not to God; at the same time, it is an unjustified demand which no human being can fulfill. 

Woman's great urge to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole to its very end must not be centered on other men, but on God. A woman must be completely surrendered to God. It is only in surrender to God that she can truly fulfill her mission and vocation towards those around her. She cannot prioritize or idolize the persons in her life over the Lord. If she does, the beautiful gifts of her womanhood can be corrupted. We have all known women who were obsessed with a man in her life, or neurotic about her children. She should be a devoted wife and mother, but the end should not be slavish or possessive. Rather, the end of serving her family, her friends, or the people around her in her profession ought to be to fulfill God's will for her life and to help those she loves know, love, and serve God. Edith Stein emphasizes this beautifully, 

Whether she is a mother in home, or occupies a place in the limelight of public life, or lives behind quiet cloister walls, she must be a handmaid of the Lord everywhere. 

With this in mind, let us women embrace that which is living, personal, and whole as handmaids of the Lord.