Edith Stein’s Legacy at Notre Dame

“In order to be an image of God, the spirit must turn to what is eternal, hold it in spirit, keep it in memory, and by loving it, embrace it in will.”

Saint Edith Stein

Remembered for her impressive academic work, advocacy for education, and death in Auschwitz, Saint Edith Stein continues to inspire a special intensity in members of the Catholic Church. Also known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Stein was a Carmelite nun, intellectual giant, devoted teacher, and woman of unshakeable integrity. She converted at the age of 30 after reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila and exclaiming, “This is truth!”

The Edith Stein Project (ESP) was founded to promote the Catholic feminine identity at Notre Dame in response to the “Vagina Monologues”. Since then, ESP adopted a broader mission of preserving the University’s Catholic identity and became idND, or the Identity Project of Notre Dame. Every February since 2006, idND has put on the Edith Stein Conference, the largest student-run conference at Notre Dame. While the event draws from numerous universities, religious communities, and neighborhoods, it is largely geared toward Notre Dame undergraduate students. This year’s keynotes featured Notre Dame Systematic Theology PhD candidate Travis Lacey, Father Ryan Adorjan from the Diocese of Joliet-in-Illinois, and Colleen Carroll Campbell, journalist and former presidential speechwriter. 

The assortment of presentations and student panels covered topics such as: Prayer and Contemplation, Dating and Relationships, Literature, Poverty, and Weakness. Even with such a variety of work, there was cohesion throughout from the conference theme, “We Are Made for Authenticity.” The small event was dwarfed by the grandeur of Corbett Hall, but the pastoral approach to the discussion of living authentically inspired a sense of intimacy among speakers and attendees.

It quickly became evident on Friday afternoon that the conference would present a personal challenge. In his opening remarks, Travis Lacey suggested that the kind of person who would attend the Edith Stein Conference would already be searching for authenticity, but might not know how to go about it. For St. Edith Stein, he said, “Freedom is becoming what we are required to be by nature,” and this requires our greatest efforts. The purpose of living in this freedom, living authentically, is to be open to Christ, to develop “the strength to be supple to true reality.” Christ is the truest reality. Lacey reminded us, “‘Christ plays in ten thousand places,’ and would it not be a pity to miss him?” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”)

Father Welch noted that we need prayer to adopt this attitude of openness and trust. Quoting Nouwen, he said that “most of us have an address but can’t be found there,” but luckily it is God who initiates prayer and chooses to be “present in our worry-filled existence.” Luisa Andrade, a senior from the student panel, spoke well of living in reality by placing ourselves before Christ. She explained the importance of reflection to construct a single reality of our lives. Just as Mary was able to see how she was implicated in Christ’s story the more she meditated on it, so too do we know who we are by reflecting on our own experiences of God. 

Understanding her audience of nose-to-the-grindstone undergraduates, Colleen Carroll Campbell closed the conference with an exploration of the greatest obstacle to authenticity: spiritual perfectionism. She went to the heart of the struggle immediately and, acknowledging the classic fear of hypocrisy, asked, “Do you ever tell yourself you should know better?” Spiritual perfectionism, the plague of modern Catholics, is perfectionism transposed onto our relationship with Christ—because trying to meet the world’s standards isn’t enough work to keep us busy. “Perfectionism is an impossible quest built on a lie,” Campbell said.  This proves paralyzing to our faith, which “[once] console[s] us [but] becomes a source for shame.” 

How do we surrender spiritual perfectionism? Campbell said that in the face of this temptation, we should “say yes … ‘All things work together for good to those that love God.’” There is no room for fear with God, and perfectionists especially need their merciful Father, their open-armed Abba. We find Him in the Gospels, Campbell said, and we would be wise to follow example of saints like Edith Stein, and settle for nothing less. 

Lizzie is a sophomore doubling in PLS and Theology with a Constitutional Studies minor. She looks forward to sharing more content from the 2020 Edith Stein Conference soon. She can be reached at eself@nd.edu.