Is Poetry Dangerous?

Sappho and Alcaeus *oil on panel *66 x 122 cm *1881

Plato, according to some readings, seemed to think so.

It’s an odd question to ask because poetry, as we usually conceive of it, has been so marginalized from our daily discourse, relegated to esoteric journals and graduate courses, that most people feel as though they don’t even know how to read it, never mind worrying about its nefarious influence. This absence could be partially due to the inaccessible and exasperatingly experimental nature of much contemporary poetry–but then again more traditional forms don’t seem to be faring much better.

However, we could expand our definition of poetry to include music, and we’d have strong justification for doing so. Lyric, of course, comes from the Greek word lyre, an instrument played often to accompany ancient recitations and performances of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop chanted the three-thousand lines of Beowulf and Virgil wrote “I sing of arms and the man” in the opening line of the Aeneid, just as Homer “sang” of the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad and the man of many ways in the Odyssey. Historically, poetry was inseparable from song. Including modern music within its domain might make Plato’s anxieties more understandable.

Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and Socrates, in The Republic, seems inclined to agree; he is especially concerned with the power of poetry to elicit our emotions:

And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (The Republic, Book X)

Charles Griswald observes:

The debate about the effects on the audience of poetry continues, except that today it is not so much poets strictly speaking, but the makers of others sorts of images in the “mass media,” who are the culprits. Controversies about, say, the effects of graphic depictions of violence, of the degradation of women, and of sex, echo the Platonic worries about the ethical and social effects of art. (“Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In The Republic, Socrates famously recounts multiple examples of Homer’s unseemly descriptions of weeping heroes and badly-behaving gods in the Iliad as evidence that even great poetry is bad for people. Eventually, Socrates concludes that most poets should not be allowed to enter his ideal city–since even the best ones entice the listener with misrepresentations of the divine. Only the “rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed” will be allowed inside.

That is, the only poetry he’ll countenance is the didactic sort that unambiguously directs the listener toward the practice of virtue. I can’t help but think about the recent hoopla in some Catholic circles (yes, again) over the dangers of reading Harry Potter.

Socrates’ solution seems rather puritan, even obtuse, until you consider the sorts of lyrics most young people are listening to on a daily basis. I’m not living under a rock, but I remember chaperoning many high school dances where my stomach twisted at the kinds of things, especially about women, blasted from the speakers. And it’s pretty evident that these messages were being absorbed and even enacted by my students; I had to step in to firmly interrupt a lot of “dancing” that ought not be occurring anywhere, much less a Catholic school gym. What we see and listen to inevitably shapes our imagination and, in ways we may not fully understand, our behavior.

On the other hand, it is hard to conceive of a sanitized poetry that would satisfy Socrates and, at the same time, be worthy of the name. In Book 10, he grants that poetry could return from her exile, but only if her defenders could articulate an argument as to her purpose:

Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?

Ah, yes, the old objection. What use is it? Why should we read this stuff?

Still, the interlocutors in The Republic seem to have a kind of awe before the power of poetry that is difficult for most people today to understand. If poetry could only be proven to be useful to the city–and, by extension, to the harmony of the human soul–Socrates and his friends would consider subjecting themselves to its spell.

Perhaps the most important danger of poetry articulated by Socrates is its tenuous relationship with the truth:

Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.

The poet is a mere “imitator”, and unlike the craftsman of swords or musical instruments, he doesn’t have a precise knowledge of the thing he makes in words. He is at several removes from the thing itself which he describes.

This seems like rather an odd objection–especially if you read Homer, because he seems to take great pains to describe the disembowelments on the battlefield in somewhat excruciating detail in many places–but if you understand the objection to be referring to something rather oblique in the nature of poetic language itself, it becomes somewhat easier to see the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that Socrates identifies.

Emily Dickinson has a kind of response to Socrates, I think, in one of her most famous poems:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

She insists upon telling “all the truth,” but seems to think that the best way to do so is in a “slanted” manner–that is, through poetry.

I think it’s worth pondering her claim that poetry, perhaps even because of its indirectness, its strangeness, has a unique capacity to wound us. It does stir up our emotions, as Socrates fears, but I would argue that the best poetry does not do this in a cheap or unfair way. Poetry affords us a unique way to approach the dazzling and dangerous truth–a way that does not try to seize it in a grasping way but rather, in a phrase Virginia Woolf uses, “alights upon the truth”.

Dickinson seems to locate the danger more in the destination than in the poetic path: the “Truth” itself is dangerous; it is like “Lightning” and has the power, paradoxically, to “blind” us.

It seems to me that Plato must–to some extent–agree with her. The Republic itself, as well as his other dialogues, though they are philosophical works, are highly poetic. They don’t read at all like Aristotle or Aquinas. He seems to approach the truth indirectly as well. The Socrates of one Platonic dialogue is sometimes quite incompatible with the Socrates of another, and Plato’s own views are never clearly reducible to those of any of his characters. He, too “tells the truth slant.”

In a really wonderful essay in Poetry magazine entitled “Unknowing Lyric”, which I have been reading in preparation for the seminar I’m leading this fall, Matthew Bevis digs deeply into the experience of reading lyric poetry. Why read it?

Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping  just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.”

How beautiful, and how true. The poems that stay with us contain the words that speak to, but also speak just beyond, our experience. We are like this with our favorite poems, but with people too. Isn’t the experience of falling in love killed most quickly by the (incorrect) sense that you have suddenly “figured someone out”? A riddle or puzzle delights only as long as it bewilders us, but a good poem re-bewilders us on every rereading.

Bevis continues,

One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun.

I’ve said this to students before, and I will again: I think poems are a lot like people. They are frustrating in a lot of the same ways people are, and lovely in a lot of the same ways. And I’m not trying to be overly romantic. Some poems are downright disturbing; some are frightening; some are so long-winded and complex (Eliot) that you’re not sure you could manage a second reading; some are so simple and short that you’re not sure how to move forward (“Red Wheelbarrow”, anyone?). But learning how to approach all poems well, to develop a kind of love that allows you to return to them again and again, with a humble attentiveness, can help us read the folks around us better, too.

I suppose that’s one way of explaining to Socrates why they are useful to the city.

And finally–last quote from Bevis, I promise, but really you ought to read the whole thing:

My feeling whenever I get to the end of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.

But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”

So, is poetry dangerous? Yes. And one way it is dangerous is that it makes you painfully aware of what you do not know–a highly Socratic experience, I might add. That kind of intellectual wounding just might open you up to wonder.

Work and Leisure

1. Work (or the Lack Thereof)

I was really moved by this article by Peter Greene called “The Hard Part”:

They never tell you in teacher school, and it’s rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.

[…]

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

(Greene, “The Hard Part”)

Go read it if you are a teacher or a student or have ever been either.

Really, anyone who has struggled with that frantic sense of “never enough” will sympathize.

Greene does a lovely job of describing the “never enough” that many teachers struggle with – but he does so in a way that does not descend into complaining. Instead, he indirectly shares his love for his students and his work. Ora et labora.

But I especially appreciated this:

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual’s instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals — wait! what?! That CAN’T be right!

(Ibid)

Yeah. Do that math.

Although this past year of teaching was far easier than the previous ones (and they tell me they do get easier), I frequently woke up having had nightmares about failed lessons and crazy students and not knowing where my next class was and losing the essays and ruining students’ chances at college and NO MANAGEMENT. NONE.

It’s summer vacation, and I just had another bad dream two nights ago. It was the one where the bell had already rung and I couldn’t find my classroom and for some reason I had no idea what I was supposed to teach.

So basically it was really nice to wake up. Summer vacation is a gift.

But, well… it’s kind of boring.

sherlock-bored
source: badbooksgoodtimes.com

Seriously though. I miss being in the classroom. I miss scanning the desks and faces constantly to make sure all is well. I miss teasing them. I miss being teased. I miss trying to get someone to really wrestle with an idea and not take the easy way out. I miss my student Vincent* waving at me in the hallway every 7th period as he attempts to spend as much little time in the class down the hall, and I miss telling him to get back to class.

And then I thought to myself: what do you want?

Um, a perfect medium of being busy and productive but not stressed out. Ever.

Dream on, Jess.
Dream on, Jess.

Okay, not very likely to happen.

But there’s something amiss here. Why must I be busy but not too busy? Why must I be busy at all? Why are so many people — so many of my friends and acquaintances — happier being busy? Why do we dread “down-time”? Why are we confused about what to do with unstructured hours?

Why is it hard to rest sometimes?

2. Leisure (or the Lack Thereof)

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture Josef Pieper argues the following:

Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.

Isn’t that true?

I have friends who love making to-do lists. Sometimes this group also includes me. We all know how good it feels to cross something off of those lists.

When someone asks you, “So what did you do this weekend?” don’t you feel a little ashamed if the first response (promptly suppressed) that pops into your head is “well… nothing?”

 

How many times have I heard: “Well, at least I did something productive today!”

How many times have I said those words myself?

Why?

Pieper says we are “trying to justify our existence” by our work. But we will never rest until we are really “one with ourselves.”

Even Greene’s article suggests this lack-of-oneness:

But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothered, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn’t. (Greene)

In teaching, specifically, one is constantly  striving after perfection when perfection isn’t ever possible. Do you throw up your hands and give in? Do you keep your nose to the grindstone? It’s like that really annoying Zeno’s Paradox I learned in math class about how if you walk halfway across a room, and then walk half that distance, and then half that distance, and on and on… you will always be moving closer to the wall but you will never actually reach it.

Teaching is kind of like that. The better you get, the more you notice the distance left between you and the wall.

Hm. Teaching and work and leisure. Education and work and leisure.

What is leisure, anyway?

Pieper says:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. […] Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real. (Pieper, 31)

Another paradox, of course, is that you can’t really “work on” being better at leisure. Or perhaps it’s not a paradox but a full contradiction. You cannot “work at” leisure, because if you are working, then you are not at leisure. Leisure, according to Pieper, seems to be more something that happens to you than something you yourself bring about. It is a gift.

One last, very interesting thought:

For, when we consider the foundations of Western European culture (is it, perhaps, too rash to assume that our re-building will in fact be carried out in a “Western” spirit? Indeed, this and no other is the very assumption that is at issue today), one of these foundations is leisure. We can read it in the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And the very history of the meaning of the word bears a similar message. The Greek word for leisure (σχολή) is the origin of Latin scola, German Schule, English school. The names for the institutions of education and learning mean “leisure.” (Pieper, 3-4)

Yes, that’s right.

The word for leisure is where we get the word for school.

 

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Three

This is the third and final post in a series on how John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem illuminates Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality. Her devotion to the Cross and her unique perception of the privileged role of women in Christ’s passion is so beautiful.

You can read the earlier posts here:

Part One

Part Two

saint-teresa-benedicta-01Saint Edith Stein’s exploration of the feminine vocation in her writings is inseparable from her exploration of the human being as such, as both male and female. That is, she emphasizes the differences between the souls of men and women, as suggested above, and at the same time she offers an important insight into a common aspect of all human beings that is grounded in scripture. For her, the key to developing the human soul is to discover one’s unique gifts: “The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s word describes the multiplicity of gifts afforded in the Mystical Body of Christ. The individual must discover his own unique gift.” She proposes that in men and women, “the same gifts occur in both, but in different proportions and relation.”[1]

This is a controversial statement to make by society’s standards today. We are searching for the true definition of equality, and many of us cannot reconcile our ideal with Stein’s “different proportions and relation.”  Personally I think this is very understandable: the notion that men and women are inherently different is not very popular because in the past (and even in the present) it has been used as an excuse to degrade and stereotype both sexes with destructive norms of “manliness” and “womanliness.” We cannot simply ignore this difficulty, and I do not think Edith Stein would want us to.

Nonetheless, John Paul II also emphasizes the important distinction between the gifts of men and women, but he insists that this distinction not only doesn’t take away the mutual dignity of the sexes, but rather constitutes it:

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the ‘image and likeness of God’ that is specifically hers. (emphasis added) [2]

A woman’s “expression of the ‘image and likeness of God,'” according to Pope John Paul, is jp2andmother“specifically hers”–it is a special gift for all women, a particular way of reflecting who God is to the world. It is not the same expression of God’s image and likeness that men have been given–it is unique and carries within itself a special dignity.

This is very beautiful to me, but somewhat hard to understand concretely. I think that it can also be hard for many women to believe and trust in as well–especially those who have experienced the hurt of a vapid, idealized femininity stylizing itself as appropriate “gender roles” that in the end degrades women and limits our freedom. Isn’t it easier, in some ways, to insist on equality as being “sameness”–and to have done with all of this talk of “distinction,” “complementarity,” and “different but equal” (it does sound a lot like “separate but equal”)?

However, I think what John Paul II is trying to describe is a mystery that can be better understood when lived by a real person. Saint Edith Stein exemplifies the discovery of the special “expression of ‘God’s image and likeness'” in her cultivation of her gifts and unique “resources.” I especially admire her quick intelligence and hunger for truth, which motivated her to pursue her education even at the highest levels in a time when philosophical discourse at the university level was usually reserved for men. (Societal expectations of gender roles are thus not the standard she was interested in.) Her enthusiastic engagement with her own gifts and talents helped lead her to faith; her desire for the truth allowed her to recognize it in the biography of Saint Teresa of Avila—a discovery which allowed her to make a profound and courageous gift of self by converting to Catholicism and subsequently joining the Carmelite order, despite the suffering it caused her as a Jewish woman. Moreover, as a Carmelite she used her gifts in service to her fellow sisters, often in her writings on the saints and spirituality. You can see this best by reading her in her own words. Her perceptiveness and keenness flourished in the service of God.

Here is a brief example. Although Stein, like Pope John Paul II, emphasizes the differences between men and women and their gifts, she also insists upon the unity of their destiny—that it is in Christ that humankind, both male and female, is brought to perfection:

To belong to and serve God in love’s free surrender is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect. Whether consecrated or not, whether man or woman — each one is called to the imitation of Christ. The further one continues on this path, the more Christlike he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in him all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, his true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and goodness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them, while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination.[3] (emphasis added)

For Stein, “holy men,” the more they become like Christ, will exhibit feminine gifts, and “holy women” will similarly exhibit “manly” gifts. This idea is really fascinating–and, if we reflect on it for a while, true to our experience of the holiest people we know. There are members of my own family and personal acquaintance that seem to embody this mystery. The distinction that Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II insist upon is somehow caught up in a deeper union–a union achieved in Christ that does not ignore but rather exalts differences between men and women.bodyofchrist

That is, it is only in the unity and complementarity of man and woman that the destiny of the human race can be achieved by God’s grace. Both man and woman, insofar as they are conformed to Jesus Christ, can embody “the ideal of human perfection”—since in Christ “all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed.”

Her words do not necessarily eliminate all confusion, and they certainly do not make the mystery any easier to swallow. But getting to know her in her life and writing is the most convincing to me.

Just as Stein locates the perfection of men and women in Christ, Pope John Paul the II locates it in the very life of the Holy Trinity–in the mystery of God Himself:

The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. … This ‘unity of the two’ which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion (‘communio’). This likeness is a quality of the personal being of both man and woman, and is also a call and a task.[4]

The communion of men and women is a reflection of the communion of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Go back and reread the above excerpt from Mulieris Dignitatem again, slowly. It is not only a beautiful image, but it is a challenge to all of us in our relationships with one another. I think John Paul is also referencing St. Paul here– he says something somewhere about God being the source from which all human families are named.

Some of my friends have asked me that if it is true that both men and women reflect the communion of the Holy Trinity, then where is “the feminine” element in God? Many people seem bothered by the fact that God is always referred to in the Church as a “He”–when of course he is beyond our sexual categories. Is it therefore appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as “feminine,” in order to include our masculine and feminine human communion in our concept of the Trinitarian life?

I do not think this is appropriate, since such a gesture reverses the actual anagogical (not analogical!) meaning of communion as proceeding from God and then to us human beings, not vice versa. We are but the reflection of the light, not the light itself. But that is probably a subject for another post.

Anyway.

This likeness to Christ and to the life of the Trinity was a “call and a task” that Saint Edith Stein answered with profound love. Her search for the truth lead her to the Cross, to the very giving over of her own life for the people of Israel—an act of love that conformed her intimately with the life and sacrifice of Christ. She completely embraced the call to conform herself to Christ and to the image of God in a way that united her with the women in the Gospels who followed Christ even to Calvary.

Of her vocation as a cloistered Carmelite she said simply, “I even believe that 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.”[5] (See Pope Francis’ similar challenge to us today here.) I think that discovering the true meaning of masculinity and femininity will similarly involve a “getting beyond ourselves,” toward Christ.

Saint Edith Stein offers a beautiful example of a woman who discovered her gifts and talents and offered them to God, a true instance of what Pope John Pall II calls “the manifestation of the feminine ‘genius.’”  She is an answer to the prayer of the Church which he articulated years after her death: that the gifts of the Holy Spirit,

which with great generosity are poured forth upon the ‘daughters’ of the eternal Jerusalem, may be attentively recognized and appreciated so that they may return for the common good of the Church and of humanity, especially in our times. Meditating on the biblical mystery of the ‘woman’, the Church prays that in this mystery all women may discover themselves and their ‘supreme vocation.’ [6]

StEdith


[1] Ibid.

[2] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.10

[3] As quoted by Kathleen Sweeny. “Is there a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein’s Thesis.” Catholic Education Resource Center. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/feminism/fe0056.htm

[4] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 7

[6] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 31

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Two

This is the second post in a series I am writing about how John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of women illuminates the spirituality and theology of Saint Edith Stein.

This post references John Paul II’s beautiful encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem, which you can read here.

You can also go back and read Part One of my series.

ImageWhen we consider Stein’s emphasis on (1) the special unity between the physical and the spiritual in women, combined with (2) their natural desire to give and receive love, we see how clearly Pope John Paul II not only echoes but also explicates this twofold insight in Mulieris Dignitatem. In his careful scriptural exegesis, the Pope discerns that when “Christ speaks to women about the things of God… they understand them; there is a true resonance of mind and heart, a response of faith.” He notes how the Lord “expresses appreciation and admiration for this distinctly ‘feminine’ response” to his message. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the Pope emphasizes that the Gospels “highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission” (emphasis added). He goes so far as to say that “in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles”—only Saint John remained faithful and did not abandon Christ. The “true resonance of mind and heart” demonstrated by the women of the New Testament suggests the unique dignity of woman’s vocation:

From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity. It must also be said that this is especially confirmed in the Paschal Mystery, not only at the Cross but at the dawn of the Resurrection. The women are the first at the tomb. (emphasis added) [1]

In a sense, the special unity between the soul and body of woman makes her particularly able to suffer like Christ: just as his physical torments during the Crucifixion were the concrete expression of the spiritual Passion he suffered for our sins, so too can the physical sufferings of women affect the soul—and, when engaged in an act of love and self-gift, these experiences can be united into Christ’s redemptive work.

Perhaps this is partially why the mystery of the Cross was so important in the life of Saint Edith Stein. The completion of her work on Saint John of the Cross, entitled The Science of the Cross, occurred shortly before her arrest by the Nazis in August, 1942, when she herself would undergo the special union with Christ’s Passion in actual martyrdom. Her particular devotion to this mystic and saint seems to have already arisen from her own spiritual experience:

One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: ‘Ave, Crux, Spes unica’ (I welcome you, Cross, our only hope).[2]

Indeed, Edith Stein saw suffering as part of her own unique vocation as a Catholic, a Carmelite nun—and as a daughter of Israel. Witnessing the growing persecution and hatred toward her people, Stein spoke about the relationship between the Cross, the destiny of Israel, and her own vocation as a Bride of Christ:

I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.[3]

 Stein’s sense of union with the Cross was also profoundly Marian. She points to the Mother of God as the true exemplar of the feminine vocation to love through union with the Cross of Christ, since Mary “was the gateway through which God found entrance to humankind.”[4] John Paul II concurs: “this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross—the Mother who through faith shares in the amazing mystery of her Son’s ‘self-emptying.”[5]

Image

For both Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II, Mary is the model and example of how to unite oneself to the will of Christ, even in suffering—especially in suffering. Moreover, Mary, as the New Eve who is “blessed among all women” (Lk 1:42) is uniquely able to reveal for us the dignity and destiny of women who suffer. John Paul II makes this clear:

As we contemplate this Mother, whose heart ‘a sword has pierced’ (cf. Lk 2:35), our thoughts go to all the suffering women in the world, suffering either physically or morally. In this suffering a woman’s sensitivity plays a role, even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man.[6]

This ability to suffer and to endure is a characteristic that conforms woman even more closely to Christ. The “special sensitivity” which allowed the women of the Gospel to respond so lovingly to Christ also, the Pope suggests, seems to increase their capacity to bear suffering.

At the same time, the Pope’s reflection raises important questions about the distinct roles and abilities of men and women, questions which Saint Edith Stein was also very interested in. Both of them emphasize the uniqueness of the vocations of men and women, yet at the same time reaffirm the complementarity of their gifts which contribute to their mutual dignity. The secular feminist movement, which was gaining momentum during the life of Edith Stein, had emerged as a powerful and frequently destructive force during the pontificate of John Paul II. Remarkably, however, the perspectives of this Jewish-Catholic nun and Polish Pope exhibit a profound unity, and even a similar gesture toward the direction a Christian must take.

As noted above, Saint Edith Stein recognized that the role of women in the world was becoming the locus of a troubling conflict that ultimately concerned the very nature of the human being:  “A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be.”[1] Far from evading the question, Stein engaged this problem directly in a philosophical treatment that was nevertheless informed by her own experience as a woman of faith.


[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM


[1] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 15-16

[3] Ibid.

[4] As quoted by Kathleen Sweeny. “Is there a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein’s Thesis.” Catholic Education Resource Center. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/feminism/fe0056.htm

[5] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.19

[6] Ibid. 19

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part One

In this series of posts during Holy Week, I want to share how much I love St. Edith Stein– or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. These posts are adopted from a paper I wrote my senior year at UD while taking an amazing class on the theology of spirituality with Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.

edithstein

The “Dignity and Vocation of Woman” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein

A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be… We are trying to attain insight into the innermost recesses of our being… Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself. However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us insofar as we put it in light of eternity.”[1] Saint Edith Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.”

            For Saint Edith Stein, the question of woman’s spirituality is inseparable from questions about her very being, from what makes her unique. Stein suggests that it is through an act of “extending” or giving oneself that woman finds “fulfill[ment],” but that special action can only properly be understood in the context of “eternity,” or ultimate ends—that is, Stein the existentialist philosopher and Carmelite nun looks at the question of woman from a philosophical perspective, but also under the light of faith. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, also considers the question of woman’s dignity and vocation with a similar twofold view. In this essay, I would like to explore the particular dimensions of Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality in light of John Paul II’s document in order to elucidate the special calling of women in the life of the Church.

The life of Edith Stein is a beautiful example of a woman searching for the truth and finding it at last in the cross. Born in a Jewish family on the Day of Atonement in 1891, Stein spent much of her young years as an atheist, but her natural intelligence and desire for the truth lead her to pursue psychology and eventually a new branch of philosophy, called phenomenology, which she studied under the guidance of Edmund Husserl. He taught that the world does not merely exist in our subjective perception, but rather that it has an objectivity that can be engaged by the subject. Stein’s engagement with this new philosophical context opened up the intellectual possibility for her that truth was absolute—that it could be searched for and discovered. But even if her mind was opened to the possibility of truth, her heart remained closed to it until she experienced truth concretely lived out in the suffering of a Christian. Husserl’s assistant, Adolf Reinach, who had converted to Protestantism, was killed at Flanders in 1917; when Stein visited his wife Anne Reinach, she encountered a woman whose faith was lived out in union with the Cross. As Stein said later, “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”[2]

This encounter with the Cross of Christ profoundly shaped Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality and her view of the feminine vocation. In order to see this connection, we must emphasize two important points the concern her belief in the uniqueness of the female soul. (1) When discussing the differences between the souls of women and the souls of men, Stein emphasizes the special and intense unity between soul and body in woman:

With woman, the soul’s union with the body is naturally more intimately emphasized… Woman’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body as more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment.[1]

Stein identifies the strongest reason for this difference as originating in woman’s capacity for motherhood: “The task of assimilating in oneself a new creature in the maternal organism represents such an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual that one is well able to understand that this unity imposes itself on the entire nature of woman.”[2] For Stein, this unity between soul and body in woman is both a potential source of strength and weakness. She notes the danger that the soul will be controlled by the body instead of vice-versa. Nevertheless, “the strength of woman lies in the emotional life. This is in accord with her attitude toward personal being itself.”[3] This is because it is through emotions that a soul comes to understand itself and others, especially in the case of women. But just like in men, emotions “need the control of reason and the direction of the will.”[4]

(2) In addition to the unity between a woman’s body and soul, Stein also emphasizes the desire of woman to give herself in love. All women have

a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into a realm of higher being… The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union which, in its development, validates this maturation and simultaneously stimulates and furthers the desire for perfection in others… such yearning is an essential aspect of the eternal destiny of woman.[5]

This is a profoundly Christ-like desire, not only to love and to be loved, but to “further the desire for perfection in others.” For Stein, this loving desire that reaches out to others is present in the heart of every woman.

Part Two


[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.