Baptised into Truth: Edith Stein's Baptism 1st January 1922
One hundred years ago, on 1st January 1922, a highly gifted German Jewish woman undertook an act, the reverberations of which continue down to the present day. The woman, Edith Stein, had been born in Breslau (then part of the Second German Reich, now Wroclaw in Poland) in 1891 to a large, middle-class Jewish family and would be known later after her entry into the Carmelite Order as Sr Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. Canonised by Pope St John Paul II in 1998 who, the following year, made her a co-Patron of Europe, her life and legacy continue to be fought over, not least by Jewish and Catholic groups who each claim her for their own.
But who was this woman whose family described her as ‘a book sealed with seven seals’? On that cold January day in 1922, the Feast of the Circumcision, this mysterious woman entered the parish church of St Martin’s in Bergzabern in the Southern German Rhineland-Palatinate with a group of friends in order to be baptised into the Roman Catholic Church. As with so much of Stein’s legacy, there exist several versions of the events that led up to this life-changing act. The most influential is from the posthumous biography of her former novice mistress, Mother Teresia Renata de Spiritu Sancto. According to this narrative the key moment seemed to have occurred in 1921 when she stayed at the home of her Göttingen friends, the Conrad-Martiuses, atBergzabern. Since the Great War the Conrad-Martiuses had sought to set up, in Edith’s words, ‘a home for phenomenologists’ at their orchard in the Palatinate. Staying here one evening Edith’s biographer describes the scene thus: ‘it happened, however, that during one of these holiday visits the married couple had to go out. Before they left Frau Conrad-Martius took her friend over to the book case and invited her to choose as she pleased. They were all at her disposal.Edith herself recounts: ‘I picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title: “The Life of St. Teresa of Avila”written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated, and did not stop until I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said to myself: “That is the truth”.’ ‘This is the truth’, although disputed by later biographers, Mother Teresia Renata’s account has a ring of Steinian truth. Even if it didn’t happen exactly in the manner she described, it was clear that Stein immediately felt an empathy with the 16th Century Spanish Carmelite saint. Like the Spaniard’s life, Edith’s too had been one of enormous struggle especially over the previous years. A firm German patriot, even before her studies were completed in 1914 she had volunteered to be a nurse at an isolation hospital in Moravia for injured and diseased soldiers of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the outset of the Great War. This was followed by intense study for her doctorate, on empathy, which was passed in 1916. Yet, despite strenuous efforts, she was to be denied a teaching position in a German university. Edith was one of the first women to be awarded a doctorate in Germany and academic positions at this point were rarely extended to women (even her doctoral supervisor, Edmund Husserl, was grudging in his recommendation for such a position after the war). In the confusion and stress of her life at this time it is easy to see how Edith would empathise with the struggles of her Spanish forebear.
A spark having been lit, Edith told her biographer that she decided to attend mass at Bergzabern before she had approached the parish priest about conversion. She recounted: ‘nothing was strange to me. Thanks to my previous study, I understood even the smallest ceremonies. The priest, a saintly-looking old man, went to the altar and offered the holy sacrifice reverently and devoutly. After mass I waited until he made his thanksgiving. I followed him to the presbytery and asked him without more ado for baptism. He looked astonished and answered that one had to be prepared before being received into the Church. “How long have you been receiving instruction and who has been giving it?” The only reply I could make was, “Please, your reverence, test my knowledge.” ’ This priest, the seventy year old Fr Eugen Breitling, satisfied with her answers, was able to arrange the baptism which was followed by her first communion on the 2nd January and finally by confirmation on 2nd February that year (The Feast of the Presentation) administered by Bishop Ludwig Sebastian in his private chapel in Speyer. At her baptism she had taken two new Christian names: Theresia and Hedwig. The former in reverence to her spiritual sponsor, St Teresa, the latter in appreciation of her earthly sponsor, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, her old philosophical friend.
Soon thereafter, Edith took as her spiritual guide Monsignor Joseph Schwind, Vicar General of the Diocese of Speyer and, at his suggestion, she accepted a position at St. Magdalena’s, a Dominican Sisters’ training institute for women teachers, located at Speyer.She entered the training institute in Easter 1923 and stayed until March 1931. Amongst her other duties she taught German literature to the students there living a quasi-monastic life, including taking personal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Much has been written, and in 2019 a film appeared, of the later events of her life – her entry into the Carmelite convent in Cologne, her flight to Holland as the Nazis took power in Germany and her eventual capture and deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she was murdered on 9th August 1942. I do not intend to rehearse those events now, they are well documented. Rather I would like to conclude by suggesting some lessons for us today that arise from those hidden but fruitful years between her baptism in 1922 and her entry to Carmel in 1933.
The events of 1922 seemed to initiate a new period in Edith’s life, a ‘vocation’ no less, in response to the unique circumstances within which she now found herself: a German Jew who had left her religion; a single, lay woman with no ‘official’ status within the Catholic Church; an acknowledged member of the Göttingen phenomenological circle who, unlike her male colleagues, was unable to find a university position because of her gender; and a seeker of truth who wanted to meld together the various strands of her life. In her ‘intellectual apostolate’ she sought to bring the teachings of the church, as exemplified in the writings of thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas and St John Henry Newman, to the contemporary 20th Century philosophical world. This was marked initially by a series of notable translations of the works of Aquinas and Newman (some the first in German), in particular Aquinas’ Disputed Questions (for which she also provided a lexicon of contemporary philosophical terms) and Newman’s Letters and the Idea of the University. In many ways, then, despite not having a university post, this would be one of the most philosophically fruitful periods of her life. Concerning this ‘intellectual apostolate’ she wrote in a letter during February 1928 to Sr Callista Kopf that: ‘immediately before, and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself”; that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it.’This, then, was her recipe for the life of an intellectual apostolate of ‘contemplation in action’, for, as she stated in 1928, she never believed that religion ‘is something to be relegated to a quiet corner or for a few festive hours’, but rather, it should form ‘the root and ground of all life.’ Thus, following her baptism, by adopting a simple life of prayer whilst continuing to cultivate her intellectual life, Edith was able to develop a fruitful new life of intellectual apostolate beyond the academy. Indeed, if we are to take one lesson from Edith’s life for the challenges facing us today, it would be that the spiritual dimension cannot be removed from the fabric of a truly intellectual life, or vice versa, if we are to be true to our whole composition as human beings: body, heart, mind and soul.
This idea of spirituality and philosophy as the ‘root and ground’ of life, based on her unique spiritual and philosophical anthropology, would ultimately become one of the first fruits of her ‘baptism into truth’ that cold January day in 1922. A spirituality and ‘living philosophy’that, one hundred years later, we so desperately need once again today.