Edith Stein was a German-Jewish woman, a Catholic convert, a Carmelite nun, and a respected philosopher. Killed in a German concentration camp in 1942, Edith Stein is revered as a martyr. In order to understand the reality of Edith Stein, it is necessary to view her life, her spirituality, and her writings, in light of her melancholic temperament. An understanding of her melancholic temperament sheds light upon Edith Stein’s path to sanctity as she serves as an incredible example of the melancholic temperament culminated in sainthood.
The four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic) originated thousands of years ago. Hippocrates, the first to develop personality theory, established the four temperaments according to four type of fluids of the body. Modern scientists have since expanded on personality and temperament theories and the four temperaments have been used to provide insight into human nature.
The Depth and Desire of a Melancholic
Edith Stein, as evidenced from her actions, her writings, as well as others’ recollections of her, was a melancholic. The melancholic temperament is characterized by perfectionism and idealism. The melancholic longs for perfection and tends to struggle with depression and pessimism.
Even as a child, Edith had a rich interior life. She felt emotions keenly but was unable to express any of what she experienced. At a young age, Edith already felt a void within herself. Comparing her interior world unfavorably with the real world caused Edith to turn toward herself. It was only when she found Christ and could unite her sufferings to Him that Edith found peace.
Edith’s idealistic nature gave her a drive and determination beyond that of the average student. She wanted to seek truth and she was determined to find answers for the problems which plagued her. In university, Edith struggled to remain indifferent to the current social and political problems. The state of humanity was a constant source of worry for Edith.
Edith continued to suffer from poor health as a result of emotional and spiritual conflict during her young adult years. Her temperament unperfected and immature, Edith struggled with the seemingly dark nature of the world. Yet, despite whatever inner tension Edith faced, she always managed to be kind and cheerful for her friends and family. She felt that she could not reveal the inner turmoil happening in her soul.
As Edith began to pursue philosophy and writing under the guidance of mentor Edmund Husserl, her health began to suffer due to overwork. Edith recalls, “there was a long period during which I totally lost all appetite, and this recurred nearly every year thereafter. I lost about twenty pounds in a very short time.”
This alarming description of her health exemplifies Edith’s determination and sense of duty, two vital aspects of her temperament. The melancholic, characteristically appearing smaller and weaker than some of the other temperaments, tends to be prone to small yet draining illnesses.
Longing for Rest
In 1916, Edith received her Ph.D in Philosophy at age 24. All of Edith’s work in Academia further illustrate her search for truth and peace which plagued her soul. Despite her success in the academic world, much of Edith’s young adult life was characterized by what she calls “her deplorable state.”
In a letter to an academic mentor, Edith reflects back on this period of her life. “That condition lasted for years until I found the place where there is rest and peace for all restless hearts.”
For years, Edith had struggled against her transcendent desire for truth and goodness. The world only sought to disappoint her. In Christ, however, Edith found the Person to Whom she could surrender herself. She was already His.
Edith’s experience corresponds with Art and Laraine Bennett’s assertion that the melancholic, drawn to the highest of ideals, “should focus on personal intimacy with Christ” because nothing else satisfy.
Conviction and Conversion
Despite Edith’s joy at finding Truth, she struggled with the knowledge that her conversion would pain her family. Consider the enormity of Edith’s action: she was denying the faith of her family and her people at a pivotal point in history. Yet, she continued on in complete faith.
Soon after Edith’s conversion, she wanted to become a Carmelite nun. However, both due to the advice of her spiritual director and her mother, Edith decided to wait. Waiting was incredibly difficult for Edith.
Diligent, determined, and idealistic, Edith felt she was a stranger in the outside world. Yet, her strong sense of duty prevented her from taking this course of action though she was longing to devote herself completely to Christ.
When Edith was finally able to enter Carmel in 1933, she was 42 years old. She took the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Entering Carmel was Edith’s response to the truth and the ideals which she had sought for so long. Her melancholic temperament, predisposing her to scrupulosity and doubt, was calmed in Christ. She surrendered her will to God, allowing him to transform her.
Her Religious Name
Edith’s religious name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, points to Edith’s spirituality. The “Teresa” and “Benedicta” aspects were chosen for Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Benedict of Nursia. “Of the Cross” alludes to her devotion to the Cross of Christ, the highest ideal in Christianity. Edith, who desired so wholeheartedly to become united personally and irrevocably with Christ, viewed the vocation of every Christian as to help Him carry the Cross. For Edith, joy was not possible without partaking in Christ’s suffering. It is only through participation in the Passion that one can achieve true joy.
helping Christ carry his cross fills one with a strong and pure joy, and those who may and can do so, the builders of God’s kingdom, are the most authentic children of God.
For Edith, a relationship with Christ did not just consist of merely consolation or even prayer. Relationship with Christ meant choosing to be crucified beside Him.Helping Christ carry his cross fills one with a strong and pure joy... -Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Personality Purified and Perfected
In 1942, Edith, along with her sister Rosa, who had join Edith in Catholicism after the death of their mother, were taken by the Nazis. Edith’s reported last words, as she and Rosa were taken by the Gestapo were, “Come, let us go for our people.”
She was unafraid.
Eyewitnesses report that Edith was distinguished by her silence. Edith, sorrowful to the depths of her soul, intuitively aware of all the pain of those around her, was described as carrying “so much pain that it hurt to see her smile.” Edith and Rosa Stein are reported to have been killed in the gas chambers on August 9th, 1942.
Edith Stein provides an incredible example of a melancholic Saint. Understanding her natural preferences and inclinations provides greater insight into Edith’s journey toward Christ.
Her high ideals and determination for truth were fulfilled in Christ. She struggled with depression and doubts, but she chose to follow Christ in blind faith. She trusted Him to the point of martyrdom. Edith’s melancholic temperament was perfected through her faith and allowed her to ultimately ascend the Cross beside Christ.
She offers a stunning example of the melancholic temperament perfected in sainthood.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.
Edith Stein: Hope for the Melancholic #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Mary Grace, born and raised a Texas girl, recently graduated from Benedictine College with a major in Evangelization and Catechesis. She is a dancer, a writer, and a wanna-be explorer. Mary Grace loves to spend her spare time choreographing dances, going on runs, practicing calligraphy, and searching for the best chai tea latte. She is doing her best to go wherever God calls her whether it be Oklahoma, Kansas, Ireland, or back to Texas. Mary Grace is currently living her dream of serving the Church by working as the Marketing and Communications Assistant at a parish in Frisco, Texas. Find out more about her here.