Throughout the month, this Lay Witness web exclusive series will take a look at several female saints whose feasts are celebrated in August.
I can’t hold it against them. The friends I visited in a remote farming community were shaped by their local culture. Every farmer drives a rig. Every son labors on his father’s farm. And the women don’t work.
Sure there were a few female schoolteachers, mostly unmarried, but they tended to live with their families and were viewed as valuable contributors to their small town. It was a rather quaint town at that, and I didn’t object to the social structure that has been in place since the first German and Dutch settlers staked their homesteads nearly one hundred and fifty years ago.
But I stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Why waste your money on a college education? All you end up with is a hefty student loan to pay off.”
“If a women is to work, it should be with her family, or for family friends—like our school teachers do!”
I could handle the flack, knowing my stay was only for a few weeks, but all the bristly comments from these hard working, salt-of-the-earth folks were provocative.
As much as this town with a population of 900 has remained, in many ways, nonplussed by the general trends of American society, the Church repeatedly acknowledges that we live in an ever-changing world, and the faithful must address the ebb and flow of shifting human experiences, bringing the Light of Christ with us.
As a working women, my presence jostled the longstanding norm in this particular locale—but the Church, and in particular our most recent Popes, have spoken with fatherly authority on the role of women in the modern world.
But can a woman have an authentic vocation to work outside the home? Saint John Paul II, noting the changing world the Church finds herself in the midst of, wrote: “We can face these changes correctly and adequately only if we go back to the foundations which are to be found in Christ,” (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 28).
Edith Stein, near age 30.
Behold the Woman
Many women have, in fidelity to Christ, answered a call to work in the world and as such have given expression to what John Paul II called the feminine genius.
One woman in particular, whose feast is celebrated on August 9, has made a singular contribution to the Church’s understanding of the female identity and mission—both through her life’s example and her work exploring the nature of woman: Saint Edith Stein, a twentieth century philosopher, convert from Judaism, Carmelite religious, and martyr.
Having studied with the Edmund Husserl, originator of phenomenology (a branch of philosophy that takes personal experience into account in the study of reality and consciousness), Stein’s intense desire to know Truth led her to not only to become a philosopher but also to Christ and the Catholic Church.
“During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion,” Stein wrote, “I thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world.”
Stein reflected, “The deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”
Because she dedicated herself to her studies and her work, because she “went beyond herself,” Edith Stein had the opportunity to delve deeply into the study of the spiritual and ontological nature of women (See her “Essays on Woman”). While her writings probe deeply into what is distinct about the feminine soul, the practical implications that can be gleaned from her philosophical studies are useful for all women of today.
Yes, a woman’s soul is ordered toward union with a man, and from that union the woman’s potential is actualized in the fullest expression of femininity: motherhood. But Stein also recognized that because of her gifts, and on account of her state in life, a woman is often called to make contributions beyond family life.
As an educator, Stein was given the responsibility of teaching many young women, Inevitably, her embrace of this vocation made a profound impact on the lives of her students—as is expected when a vocation is lived out joyously and with purpose. Later, as a religious, Stein embraced the call to martyrdom when she accepted the Cross and was gassed at Auschwitz along with “her people,” the persecuted Jews.
The Work of a Woman
Looking to Christ, who is the Truth, Saint Edith Stein discerned how she was best able to use her feminine genius for the service of others.
On their own, Saint Edith Stein’s writings provide a daunting challenge: to seek to understand why and how women are called to live out their feminine vocation.
But her life’s example raises the bar even higher.
Whether a woman finds herself raising children and faithfully serving her husband, serving the Church through consecrated life, or like me, working professionally, she can look to Saint Edith Stein, who vigorously pursued God’s calling for her life, and be edified and encouraged in the struggles of living out the call to holiness.
With Saint Edith Stein’s help, and the univocal support of Catholic teaching, I can see that I’m not the aberration and oddity the good country people may have thought. Nothing could be more normal than living out the vocation God has given, whatever it may be.
It is primarily through our vocations—not only as mothers, but teachers, lawyers, editors, doctors, and caretakers—that the feminine presence leads other souls to Christ.
Saint Edith Stein, pray for us!