Edith Stein was an admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, and like Aquinas, she understood that words mean things, but they do not always mean them unambiguously. President Bill Clinton, for example, testified that what he meant by his testimony in Federal Court depended on the meaning of the word “is.” America laughed not because he was wrong, but because we knew what he was up to.
One in the same word can denote different things in the context of different life pursuits. A word’s definitive meaning is in fact rarely exhausted by how we take it in its every day usage. As the Clinton case shows, words having to do with being (is, was, am, could be, would have been) and time (now, today, before, after) are particularly slippery, but in the hands of an able philosopher like Edith Stein, such words draw us into deeper reflection of our lives, and allow us to live more fully in our present state of being, as God intends us to live.
Edith Stein, as I have written before, was a philosopher in the school of phenomenology, and an eminent one at that. Her concern late in life, after becoming a Christian, was to explore the gap between the concepts of being—usages of the word “is”—in our human, finite mode, and in its infinite sense as denoting the fullness of God, the author of all being. Be warned, however, that whereas St. Thomas Aquinas draws his first principles from divine revelation and from the real world, St. Edith Stein draws on our inner experience of the world, our bodies, and minds, together with divine revelation. I ask you pre-emptively, don’t fear such mysticism! It is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition.
In fact, Stein’s approach ought to sound familiar to modern Christians. Pope John Paul the Great, who canonized her, began his monumental Encyclical Fides et Ratio with a rather bold endorsement of Edith’s philosophical method: “In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness.”
For the kindred philosophers Karl Wojtyala and Edith Stein, the phenomenological method of reflecting on personal experience has the ring of truth and resonates strongly with many educated people who are sincerely seeking truth in the modern world.
THE EXPERIENCE OF FINITUDE
Our conscious experience, says Edith Stein, has a fluctuating character, it appears to us as a stream of arrivals and departures, of coming into being and passing away. In her beautiful style, she depicts the present moment of experience as the crest of a wave. Behind the crest lies all of the experiences of “now” that are no more, ahead lie experiences that can only be anticipated but as such are still not actual. The present for us is measured in brief moments whose character is to recede into memory, only to be retrieved again imperfectly, fallibly in another time.
Our experience of the transience of time manifests through anxiety, when we wonder whether we are successful enough, whether we have failed, why we lose things, how we can undo our mistakes, whether something dreadful will happen to us today. For some, it is more than we can take. Yet we keep living. What sustains us? Edith Stein observes two movements. First is the possibility of encountering within us an enduring aspect of ourselves. We experience the “I” at the center of the shifting present as something permanent. The flux of experience is transient, yet I as a person, endure. I might be worn down, I may forget much of what I know, but still I endure.
But then there is this: Our world of shifting distractions, as observed by the inner “I”—this world by its very nothingness gives outline to the contrary possibility of sheer fullness, just like the dynamics of a symphony sharpen one another by their contrast. In the worst and most hopeless of times in our lives it is possible to discern the idea of supreme ground that sustains us, together with all of our moments, for eternity. We encounter by grace the sheer goodness that encompasses us. Is it not true that many are brought to awareness of the merciful love of God at times when they are, or have been, their most vulnerable selves?
This supreme, sustaining ground of the universe is the same God who announced to Moses that he is the one who IS. But His “IS” is not our “is.” A person is happy, or unemployed, or tall or short. God simply is. He is the one form of being for whom the word “is” does not require a predicate. As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, God is the being whose essence is that he IS. The intuition of the pure being that sustains the whole universe was perhaps always known deeply by the mystics. To Moses alone—the humblest man there ever was (Numbers 12:3)—it was revealed that the God of Israel is the fullness of being our hearts long for.
WE ARE MEANT TO LIVE FULLY IN THE PRESENT
Edith Stein, who became a Carmelite mystic and who took the evocative name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, teaches us in her voice as a philosopher that conscious experience has the character of varying “amplitude” at different times and in different circumstances. Psychologists agree that conscious experience has a spectrum of intensity. It is not always “on.” We zone out watching television, but we also snap to laser-like focus when the airplane’s oxygen mask drops before us in mid-flight. We can relate to there being degrees of participation in conscious life. Do we have a choice whether to participate in our finite moments fully? Yes we do.
Being alive in our finite mode, says St. Edith Stein, is a mode of living that only hints, and even then only occasionally, at the fullness of life that comes from God. In the voice of a Carmelite, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross exhorts us that God sent his Son so that we might have this fullness of life, and have it more abundantly by conforming our lives closer to the person of His Son.
I said earlier that Edith described conscious experience as like the crest of a wave moving through time. Our “today” is that slight crest, with whatever degree of amplitude of life we choose to give it. But consider this: in contrast to our finite “today,” God’s “Today” is the fullness of the entire ocean in one glance, with every possible crest—every moment in the history of time from the beginning to the end—compressed into one eternal now. When I first read this, the way Edith Stein said it, I had to physically put the book down (the book: Finite and Eternal Being). This fullness of eternal life, if we contemplate it, ought to act as a motivating or compelling force in our finite lives, drawing us out of our small moments into the divine life, into the lives of others.
It is overwhelming, at least to me, to know that all of God’s saving acts in history, from Egypt to Canaan to the Babylonian Exile to Pontius Pilate—all of this is occurring right now in the eternal saving act. Not in our “today” but in the eternal “Today” of God. This is hard to grasp but it is important that we do so. Do you know when the Liturgy takes place? It takes place literally every day of course. But read the Catechism and let this sink in:
When the Church celebrates the mystery of Christ, there is a word that marks her prayer: “Today!”—a word echoing the prayer her Lord taught her and the call of the Holy Spirit. This “today” of the living God which man is called to enter is “the hour” of Jesus’ Passover, which reaches across and underlies all history. (CCC 1165).
We are to live in the eternal “Today” of God. And more than this: we are to join our “today”—with its uncertainties and imperfections—together with the Today of the Liturgy. Going to Mass on Sundays ought to be the highlight of our week, wherein we bring our little moments, our little sacrifices, and join them together on the Altar with the eternal sacrifice of Calvary.
When we do this, we are joined in hope with another aspect of this eternal “Today,” which is the Today of the Resurrection—when all our moments are raised up, “when all the colors bleed into one.” The Catechism says it this way:
All the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history are summed up in this cry of the incarnate Word. Here the Father accepts them and, beyond all hope, answers them by raising his Son. Thus is fulfilled and brought to completion the drama of prayer in the economy of creation and salvation. The Psalter gives us the key to prayer in Christ. In the “today” of the Resurrection the Father says: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (CCC 2606, bold type added).
As I’ve said on another occasion, Edith Stein wants us to know we have not been left alone here. We have the choice to live more fully in the present because the present moment contains within it much more than it seems.