Crisis – a chance to get closer to the Truth based on the life of Edith Stein
A desire that has accompanied Edith almost always has been looking for the Truth. At the end of her life, she wrote in one of her letters: „Anyone who seeks truth seeks God, whether or not he realizes it”.
The crucial, life decisions of Edith Stein - Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, are a testimony of this desire, which she carried deeply in her heart. The aim of this study is an attempt to read the role of past crises in reaching the fullness of truth, which she finally found in a communion with Jesus Christ.
Many aspects of Edyta's spiritual life remain a mystery to us, as she expressed and described her experiences quite sparingly. She was even called “a book closed with seven seals”. The main sources include letters, the autobiography of the family, the surviving memories of relatives, as well as her works with autobiographical threads.
The concept of "crisis"
The first definition of crisis draws on the etymology of this word, i.e., the Greek kridzo, meaning to distinguish, judge, break, smash, split, shout. The definition is as follows: a crisis is "an unpleasant and tiring state of the internal life of an intellectual, emotional and volitional character combined with the disintegration of values in which a person grew up”.
Another way of looking at the concept of crisis is to put it in the context of the Greek term kairos. In Greek philosophy, that term was used to describe a crisis that takes place at a specific time and entails making a crucial, often life-changing decision. In the Scriptures, kairos is the chosen and appointed time of salvation by God (Mk 1,15); it also means the fullness of time (Gal 4: 4), the final manifestation of God's grace in Jesus Christ to Israel (Lk 19:44) and all people (2 Cor 6: 2), as well as a final warning, the beginning of judgment (1 Peter 4:17; Colossians 4: 5). In the biblical sense, kairos means a time ruled by God; He is free and sovereign in managing it.
Against the background of the definitions mentioned above, the crisis appears as a time that calls for a decision to be made at a specific moment, a moment determined by the Lord. Besides, the crisis involves the whole person, puts him or her in a state of discomfort, and leads to reconstructing the previously preferred values system. This is the light in which we will proceed to look at the crises experienced by Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her crises will be analysed on the religious, psychological, and faith-related levels.
What characterizes a religious crisis is “a state of emotional conflict, stress, which follows from the religious disposition of man as a result of the disappearance or lack of correlation with the values of the religious culture in which one grows. Those values include a certain idea of God that is specific to every culture.” It turns out that this crisis is related to “rejecting the religious values in which a person grew up in a specific culture and adopting other values instead, which may result in a feeling of being lost.”
The first religious crisis occurred in Edith Stein's life when she was 15. At that time, she decided not to continue her gymnasium education, which was a move motivated by her interest in worldview problems and physical development, among other reasons. She also decided to go to Hamburg to support her sister Elza in looking after her children. During her stay with her sister, Edith read many books which later on she judged inappropriate. Both her sister and brother-in-law were atheists, which turned out to have a significant impact on Edith's further decisions related to leading a religious life. At that time, she consciously and voluntarily stopped to pray. Although she planned to spend several weeks there, the stay extended to ten months. As she admits: “the time spent in Hamburg – as I see it now, was a stage in the transformation”.
Additionally, two other factors can be identified that contributed to the decision to abandon religious life. Although Edith's mother was an Orthodox Jew, her children did not share her zeal. The saint mentions that when describing festivities celebrated with the family, when her brothers neglected and mocked the religious practices. The second factor is Edith’s participation in her aunt and uncle's funerals, where she experienced a lack of hope for eternal life. She noticed that the efforts of the Jews were directed at sanctifying their temporal life. At that time, many followers of Judaism, when face with a bankruptcy, took their own lives, noy seeing its meaning or purpose. Years later, she confesses that “only the true believer finds the strength to overcome the crisis, by submitting to God's will”.
Seeing all the manifestations of religious hypocrisy and also possibly under the influence of atheistic literature, Edith Stein abandons her ancestors' faith. She overcame a rather early religious crisis, devoting herself entirely to the search for truth, but seeking it in the “realm of reason”.
One definition describes it as follows: a mental crisis is “a transitional period in human life, characterized by chaos in thinking, negative emotionality (...)”. Edith Stein experienced it on at least three levels.
As a student in Breslau and Göttingen, she enjoyed to the full everything that university life offered her. Yet it came as a great surprise to her to experience powerlessness in her pursuit of the goal she had set for herself, i.e. in conducting research for a dissertation on the subject of empathy (Einfühlung), which she began in 1913. The effort she undertook in philosophy came with a great “suffering” and appeared as a “sky-high mountain” to be climbed. It turns out that this was the first time she was unable to achieve something solely by the power of her own will. She became frustrated and depressed, and even began to think of suicide. We can therefore speak of a mental crisis caused by the recognition of her own intellectual powerlessness.
A crucial role in overcoming that crisis was played by Adolf Reinach, associate professor of philosophy, a very close collaborator of Edmund Husserl. She experienced support and selfless kindness of heart from this scholar. Thanks to him, Edith Stein was as if “reborn”; her torment disappeared entirely.
Eventually though, that person contributed to another crisis in Edith’s life, this time related to the experience of loss. Adolf Reinach died as a result of the fighting during World War I in 1917. Her friendship with him, the deep respect she had for him, and the fact that she owed him a lot in maturing for independent scientific work, made the loss all the more difficult to endure. In one of her letters to Roman Ingarden, she writes about the suffering that accompanies her at that time and about lost peace.
There were also other areas where Edith Stein experienced difficulty. Those included the unfulfilled relationship with men and the related disappointment with others. On the professional level, there were the futile attempts at receiving habilitation, paired with uncertainty about the future. A kind of apogee took place in Breslau in 1920. Edith recalls that time as follows: “The earth was burning under my feet. I was going through an internal crisis, which was hidden from my loved ones and impossible to solve in our home”.
Those sufferings prepared Edith to accept the Revealed Truth. A breakthrough came when she met the young widow, Anna Reinach, whose attitude was the embodiment of a living faith in eternal life. Edith described the event as follows: “It was my first encounter with the Cross and with the power of God that it gives to those who carry it”. Since then, the decision to accept Christ gradually matured in her, to finally become a fact in the summer of 1921, when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. In January 1922 she was baptized in the Catholic Church.
Crisis of faith
The experience of a crisis of faith is associated with acute suffering, which is interpsychic and takes place at the level of grace. As a result of the sacrament of Baptism and living the Paschal Mystery intensely, a new man is born - homo novus. The crisis leads to a deeper integration in Christ. In Edith Stein's case, two factors can be identified that had a significant impact on the course of her crisis in faith.
The first is the impact that her conversion and decision to become a nun had on her relationship with her mother, which had been a particularly close one. Recalling memories from her childhood, she emphasizes: “Her presence dissipated all my sufferings and pains”. The desire to enter Carmel had been with her since the summer of 1921, and if she ever considered giving up the thought, it was only because of her mother. She knew that the decision would be a huge blow to her. Edith did not abandon the chosen path – she joined Carmel, although, as she admitted, she did so in the complete darkness of faith.
Sister Benedict, as a Catholic and Carmelite, was misunderstood by her Jewish family, and as a German, she was persecuted by her compatriots because of her Jewish origin. In this dramatic situation, she became even more deeply united with Christ. In 1939, she offered herself to the Divine Heart as a sacrifice for expiation and for peace in the world. Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross completed her sacrifice by dying in the gas chamber in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.
The crises experienced by the saint in a way pushed her into the arms of the Crucified Truth. On the basis of the conducted analysis, the following factors can be indicated, which may also be a hint for us in overcoming crises: persistent intellectual seeking, discovering and accepting the truth about oneself, experiencing kindness and selfless help, and the testimony of the faith of others.
The fruit of her consistent living the Truth she had learned was the birth of a new man. She writes of him in one of her works: “The new man bears on his body the wounds of Christ: the memory of the misery from which he was called to a life of happiness, the price that had to be paid for it. And he feels a painful longing for the fullness of life before he enters the light without shadow through the gate of real bodily death”.
The death of Saint Edith Stein, the patroness of Europe, is a testimony of fidelity to the known Truth and the fulfillment of the desire to offer oneself together with Christ for others. Perhaps we need this testimony today more than ever.
Finally, I would like to give the floor to a great compatriot of Edith Stein – the retired Pope Benedict XVI, who in one of his last apostolic letters indicates martyrdom as a fundamental category of Christian existence: “There are values that must never be abandoned for the sake of a more excellent value, values even higher than the preservation of the carnal life. There is martyrdom. Faith in God is about more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought at the cost of denying God, a life that is based on an absolute lie, is a non-life”.