Professor discusses Jewish philosopher and martyr

Theology Professor Cyril O’Regan recently delivered a lecture “St. Edith Stein and the Dark Night” as part of the Institute for Church Life’s “Saturday with the Saints” lecture series.

O’Regan cited Pope John Paul II’s encouragement to the faithful “to be consoled and cheered by the examples of the saints, especially in modern times.” Though many find holiness difficult, the pope insisted that the “possibility of sainthood is shown by the fact” of iconic saints. The saints point to particular ways of being faithful followers of Christ and “make transparent particular aspects of the Divine Love disclosed in Christ, which are often thought to be impossible in the modern world.” Practicing both an intellectual life and the faith of a martyr, St. Edith Stein was iconic, bringing the faithful to Christ, who is the “icon of all icons, the archetype and model of all icons.”

Pope John Paul II beatified Edith Stein, under the name she assumed as a Carmelite, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, as a martyr in 1987 and canonized her as a saint in 1998. Although controversy arose during the beatification process over the claim of Edith Stein’s martyrdom for her Catholic faith, O’Regan explained John Paul II’s motives to support her cause, emphasizing that “Edith Stein led a compelling life of witness to the love of God in Christ that the Church confesses.”

Edith Stein witnessed to both a life of prayer and renunciation and to the value of the intellectual life. She studied philosophy under phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and wrote a dissertation on empathy, earning the distinction of SUMMA CUM LAUDE.

In 1921, she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, the book that inspired her conversion to Catholicism. She was baptized and confirmed in the following year, and began to teach at a Dominican educational institute for the next 8 years. When she took final vows as a Carmelite nun in 1938, she received permission to give lectures away from the convent and continued her scholarly work.

In 1942, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands spoke out against the anti-semitism of the Third Reich. The Nazis retaliated by deporting Catholics of Jewish ethnicity, including Stein.  She was gassed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz and buried in a mass grave.

O’Regan brought together the whole narrative of St. Teresa Benedicta’s life by examining her unfinished work, THE SCIENCE OF THE CROSS. Commissioned for the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite doctor of the Church, this masterpiece includes two sources of influence to her thought: phenomenology and Carmelite spirituality.

O’Regan explained the title of her work by first defining phenomenology as a discipline that seeks to describe a particular phenomenon adequately and trace the lines of relation with other phenomenon. This leads to the conclusion that a phenomenon is thoroughly experiential. From the Carmelite spirituality, there is an ordering, intuitive center through which everything flows in the spiritual life.

With the cross at the center of how one shapes his life, the science of the cross finds its experiential center in concepts of images and darkness.  While darkness seems to attest to a spiritual dryness or the absence of God rather than His presence, St. Edith Stein draws on the Carmelite tradition to argue that darkness is the site where human love and divine love intersect.

O’Regan observed that Stein’s commentary on St John of the Cross “is so faithful that it is almost slavish.” For Stein, St. John of the Cross tells us what the Christian life truly is. Although the dark night of the soul makes God seemingly absent, she and St. John teach that the love of the cross is a choice and that such a love calls for a willing, complete abandonment to the crucified Christ. This abandonment during the dark night encourages a “faith beyond faith, hope beyond hope, and a love beyond love.”

O’Regan tied this reflection to Stein’s love for her Carmelite sisters as well as to the Jewish community to which she belonged. Stein testified to her solidarity with her people by dying with fellow Jews.

This is the second year that the Institute for Church Life has sponsored the “Saturday with the Saints” lecture series during the Notre Dame football season. The series continues with lectures by the Theology Professor Emeritus Lawrence Cunningham, on St. Francis, and by Kathleen Cummings, associate professor of American Studies, on Pope John Paul II on October 29 and November 19 respectively.

Sandra Laguerta is a junior theology major and a co-chair for the Edith Stein Project 2012, a conference that addresses issues on human dignity, gender, and sexuality. For more information on the conference, please contact her at