Edith Stein and John Henry Newman

Our Carmelite sister St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), whose feast we celebrate on 9 August, influenced many people during her lifetime and even more since her death at Auschwitz.  Her life as a philosopher, teacher, public lecturer and Carmelite nun is well documented. Less well known is that Edith studied and translated the works of Blessed John Henry Newman, who will be canonised this year.

Edith was a gifted linguist, who discovered a love of Latin and Greek while still a child.  She was later fluent in French and Dutch and had a good grasp of English and Polish.  From an early age she loved to translate and one of Edith’s classmates testified that she once said “A translator must be like a pane of glass, that lets all the light through but is not seen itself.”

In 1925 while living and working at St Magdalena’s Dominican College in Speyer, Edith was introduced to the philosopher of religion, Fr Erich Przywara SJ.  It was an encounter which was doubtless life-changing for Edith and which led to a lifelong friendship between the two scholars.  Przywara asked Edith to translate some of Newman’s works into German.

Edith began with The Idea of a University, using her free time between teaching to undertake the translation. She wrote afterwards to her friend and philosophical colleague Roman Ingarden: “Now I want to do a second volume. The translation gave me pure pleasure. And in addition, it is very good for me to come into contact with such a mind as Newman – something that comes along with the translation process. His entire life was a search for religious truth and led him, inevitably, to the Catholic Church.” (Letter 85 to Roman Ingarden)  Edith certainly saw something of her own journey reflected here.  The ‘second volume’ she mentions was Newman’s pre-conversion Letters and Diaries, which she did in fact go on to translate.

Ingarden – who later taught philosophy to the future Pope St John Paul II –  was a lapsed Catholic who admired Edith’s strong faith but struggled to reconcile it with rational thought.  Edith encouraged Ingarden to read Newman to help him appreciate the interdependence of faith and reason: “It seems that first, using the intellect, you have to approach the limits of reason and then come to the door of mystery. Perhaps Newman can help you with it, although his point of departure is quite different.” (Letter 115 to Roman Ingarden)

In 1927, Edith wrote an obituary for her dear friend and spiritual director Canon Joseph Schwind in which she cites Newman: “More than once Cardinal Newman has emphasised that it is relatively easy for us to develop one aspect of our Christian life, strictness, gentleness, seriousness or cheerfulness. But truly Christian perfection is only attained when these contrasted virtues are exercised in unison.” Edith had witnessed such a rounded Christian life in her director and others saw this teaching lived out by Edith herself.

Edith was invited by the Association of Catholic Academics to give a lecture on The Ethos of Women’s Professionsat Salzburg in 1930. In this lecture she described how a professional woman can overcome weaknesses in herself purely through having worked hard toward her goals in life, with a strong personality or a high level of education. Then she goes on to say: “Here we have the parallel to the image of the perfect gentleman which Newman sketches in The Idea of a University: a cultivation of personality which somewhat resembles true holiness. But in both cases it is simply a matter of similarity……Only the power of grace can uproot and form fallen nature anew; it happens from within, never from without.”

Newman’s influence on Edith far exceeded these few isolated quotes. When Edith first discovered his writings, she was living quite a reclusive life at Speyer, not undertaking any philosophical work and devoting most of her spare time to prayer.  She seems to have found something in Newman which helped her to integrate her life of prayer with a call to service. She was already doing this very effectively as a teacher at Speyer. Now, however, she realised that she did not have to give up philosophy but that in fact she was being called to use her skill as a philosopher to communicate the truth she had found in Christ.  She not only returned to philosophical writing but also began to be invited to give public lectures throughout Europe.

Przywara encouraged Edith to undertake a translation of the treatise De Veritate (on truth) by St Thomas Aquinas, knowing that this task would be an ideal way for Edith to encounter medieval Christian philosophy.  In fact it launched her upon her life’s work of trying to harmonise the philosophy of St Thomas with the modern approach of phenomenology and to show that the two schools were not mutually exclusive.  Edith’s major work Finite and Eternal Being, written in Carmel, is both the fruit of this exercise and a window into her own spiritual life.  Newman’s influence can be detected in this work, too.

A footnote to the fruitful relationship between Edith and Newman is that her translations were used by German scholars of Newman during the subsequent decades.  One of these scholars was Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who was greatly influenced by Newman as a seminarian.

Edith’s translations can be read in German at: http://www.edith-stein-archiv.de/beispielseite/
They are numbered 21 and 22 on this menu.

brief biography of Edithcan be read elsewhere on our website.