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  • Writer's picturepetermtyler

Edith Stein and the Soul

I have just finished editing the talk I gave for the wonderful conference on Edith Stein organised by Cris Gangemi at the Aylesford Priory last summer. I include here part of the conclusion on Stein and the Soul.

Happy New Year!

Ten years ago when I set out to write a book on the soul/psyche it was Edith’s profound writings on this subject, about which we have heard so much in this book, that inspired my own psychotherapeutic retrieval of the soul in modern life. Inspired by Stein I formulated in The Pursuit of the Soul (Tyler 2016) five aspects of the ‘Soul-Person’ (and remember I hoped that this anthropology would hold as much for Christians as non-Christians, something which subsequent workshops, talks and conferences has confirmed). By way of conclusion I can briefly summarise these five aspects as follows


1. Soul as Perspective not Object

Reflecting on Teresa of Avila's vision of the soul in her Interior Castle, in a passage that was later removed from Endliches und Ewiges Sein, Edith suggested that the soul ‘is a personal-spiritual picture within which is expressed the innermost and most actual, the essence, from which the person’s strengths and ability to change arises. Not then an unknown X that we seek to clarify through experienced facts, but something which enlightens us and can be felt whilst always remaining mysterious.’[1] Thus, for her soul-work can be described as a ‘way of seeing’ that releases liberating perspectives in our day-to-day existence. In the words of the American Jungian analyst, James Hillman: 'by soul, I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. (Hillman 1975: x).Thus the work of the analyst, pastor or care-worker who pursues the way of the soul is to cultivate a ‘third position’ that, ‘sees the foundations of possible buildings’ (Tyler 2016: 177). From this alert position the soul-maker helps us attune ourselves to the transcendent by drawing attention to our responses to the immanent. Uniquely, as Edith continually emphasises, the soul-maker recognises the human person as the locus of intersection of the transcendent and immanent.


2. Place of Unknowing not Annexed to the Cognitive Mind

Stein’s last academic paper was on Dionysius the Areopagite, Ways to Know God: The ‘Symbolic Theology’ of Dionysius the Areopagite and its Objective Presupposition (Wege der Gotteserkenntnis: die Symbolische Theologie des Areopagiten und ihre sachlichen Voraussetzungen) published in ESGA17/ CWES 8.

In this important article she interprets Dionysius, on whom her article is based, as not seeing theology as ‘a science or systematic doctrine about God’, but rather as ‘Holy Scripture – God’s word’ (CWES 8: 87) and those who speak this word, ‘the sacred writers’, are the theologians. That is, people who ‘speak of God because God has taken hold of them’ – in this respect then Christ becomes the highest of the theologians, the first theologian  – ‘der Ur-Theologe’. Thus, different theologies become ‘different manners of speaking about God or manners of knowing God’ (CWES 8: 87). 

          Accordingly, what we are speaking of here is thus on the threshold of the deepest mysteries of human existence for, as Edith writes, ‘the higher the knowledge, the darker and more mysterious it is, the less it can be put into words’ (CWES 8: 87).

          As with John, so with Edith, this ‘unknowing’ lies at the heart of the mystery of human personhood.


3. Ambiguity and Paradox

Accordingly, the contemporary soul-maker must learn to live in the realm of ambiguity that is the soul’s true home. Whether with a client, facing a dream or working on the self, the demands of the soul require an openness to the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the human personality.

Over-concretisation or literalism is for Stein the enemy of grasping the nature of self and she understands that ‘soulish’ language will undermine the concretization of empirical and pseudo-scientific methods of understanding the self. As she puts it in Endliches und Ewiges Sein: ‘the I has no life that is not the life of the soul / das Ich hat kein Leben, das nicht Leben der Seele ware’ (ESW 2: 398).

Made in the image of the Triune God, the ambiguity of the self was, for Stein, most perfectly expressed by means of the language of the Trinity – the divine Paradox that lies at the heart of all Christian life:


It should be pointed out, first of all, that the spiritual life of human beings, too, must be regarded as threefold and triune. We are indebted to St Augustine for his pioneering work in exploring these dimensions of the human intellect. He designates as both three and one: 1. Love as such; 2. Mind, love, and knowledge; and 3. Memory, intellect and will. (CWES 9: 448)


For her, the multiplicity of perspective of the soul is held in the unity of apperception which is Christ. Christ is the unity of perception that holds together all the contradictions of the psyche. In Endliches und Ewiges Sein she again characterizes the ‘human being’/menschliche Sein as being a composite of ‘body, soul and spirit’ ‘leiblich-seelisch-geistig’ (ESGA 11/12: 310) where the ‘Menschengeist’ is determined ‘from above’/‘von obern’ and ‘from below’/von unten’ (c.f. Freud and Jung’s conscious and unconscious). Thus the soul for Stein consists of a choreography of Geist/spirit and Leib/body: ‘the spiritual life of the human person rises from a dark ground. It rises like a candle-flame that illumines itself nourished by non-luminous matter’ (ESGA 11/12: 310). It is in the choreography of this very ambiguity that she claims our human personhood resides, as exemplified by the paradoxical 'God-man' that is Jesus Christ.


4. The Symbolic, Creative and Artistic

The symbol, then, is a Bild, a picture that holds all together – light and dark, evil and holiness, love and hate – here Stein takes her lead from the original Greek meaning of the term ‘symbol': ‘a throwing-together’ (CWES 8: 96). This Christian ‘symbol’ will appear as words, things named, events narrated or actions ‘by which the prophets often graphically illustrate what they were to preach, as Christ, too revealed divine truth not only by word but also by deed, and as the church through her liturgical acts gives us matters to understand’ (CWES 8: 96). The believer, the ‘theologian’ thus speaks the word of God through speech, action and deed (and having done unto). They become themselves a symbol in its deepest sense:


What the prophet hears and sees is as it were the great school of symbolic theology where images and words become available to the sacred writer so that the unsayable may be said and the invisible made visible. (ESGA 17: 49)


As a reflection of the Triune God the human soul is for Edith, not just a reflection of the Creator Spirit but a creating spirit itself:


Die Menschenseele nicht nu rein Mittleres zwischen Geist und Stoff, sondern ein geistiges Geschöpf, nicht nur Gebilde des Geistes, sonder bildender Geist / Therefore the human soul is not a mean between spirit and matter but a spiritual creature – not only a formed structure of the spirit but a forming spirit. (ESGA 11/12: 360, my translation)


Thus the ‘soul person’ enshrines this creating/creative spirit through the symbol whether that is in creative art, the work of therapy, or, indeed in Stein’s own case becoming the ultimate Christian symbol – the Cross, through the instancing of the world’s pain and suffering in one’s own life. This too is a creative act.


5. The Relational and Libidinal

Thus, language of the soul was for Stein essentially a language of union and wholeness – a cipher for the locus where body, mind, heart and spirit could be usefully identified and held in creative tension. From her early writings, then, she creates a picture of the soul where all four categories of being can be held together. As she puts it in the late commentary on Teresa of Avila’s ‘Interior Castle’, Die Seelenburg, the soul is ‘the middle of the whole bodily, soulish and spiritual picture that we call human’ (ESW 6: 67).

This human choreography of Leib and Geist held together in the embrace of Seele is for Stein the reflection in the human person of the Triune God of Christianity: ‘the threefold formative power of the soul must be regarded as a tri-unity, and the same is true of the end product of its forming activity: body-soul-spirit’ (ESGA 11/12: 390/ CWES 9: 463) Thus ‘if we attempt to relate this tri-unity to the divine trinity, we shall discover in the soul… the image of the Father; in the body… the image of the Eternal Word; and in the spiritual life the image of the Divine Spirit’ (ESGA 11/12: 390/ CWES 9: 463). If therefore, the person can see this when ‘it then opens itself in its innermost being to the influx of divine life, the soul (and through it the body) is formed into an image of the Son of God’ (ESGA 11/12: 390/ CWES 9: 463).

Soul-making is thus at heart a relational process that calls upon our whole being: mind, spirit, heart and body and the relationship between the soul-seeker and soul-maker is at the heart of the matter. Christian writers such as as Stein thus present an embodied Christian view of the self that maintains the transcendent through relationship with the bodily and libidinal. The soul is found not in flight from the body but in the very embrace of its ambiguity and libido. This is not surprising. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Tyler 2011), the medieval traditions of the theologia mystica with their Dionysian emphasis were sufficient to keep this tradition alive. Despite many contemporary caricatures of Christianity as a life-denying and anti-libidinal religion, Stein’s writings show that this is far from the case and there are sufficient traces of this alternative relational and libidinal anthropology in the Christian tradition to allow a future Christian anthropology, open to the possibilities of the libidinal, to flourish. The future of the soul lies in the libidinal and relational. 

[1] ‘Ist ein persönlich-geistiges Gebilde, darum ist ihr Innerstes und Eigentlichstes, ihr Wesen, aus dem ihre Kräfte und das Wechselspiel ihres Lebens entspringen, nicht nu rein unbekanntes X, das wir zur Erklärung der erfahrbaren seelischen Tatsachen annehmen, sondern etwas, was uns aufleuchten und spürbar warden kann, wenn es auch immer geheimnisvoll bleibt’ (Die Seelenburg reproduced in ESW 6: 67).

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