Edith Stein, also known by her religious name, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was an extraordinary woman by any measure. A brilliant writer and intellectual, she earned her doctorate in philosophy in 1916 and became a university professor, in an era when few women took part in higher education at all.
Yet Teresa Benedicta’s professional success pales in comparison to her radiant spiritual witness. Raised in a Jewish family, she converted to Catholicism in 1922, and became a Carmelite nun. In 1942 she died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz, condemned for her Jewish heritage.
In her “Essays on Woman,” many of which were originally written as lectures, St. Teresa Benedicta focused on describing and discuss what it means to be a woman—the “feminine singularity,” as she called it. She had much to say about the nature of womanhood, praising the “intrinsic feminine value” which women add to their life and work.
Yet with each trait common to women comes an attendant temptation, a pull to throw off-balance a noble impulse and “overdo it” in one direction or another. (Of course men may also experience these temptations, but St. Teresa Benedicta’s work focused primarily on women, and she thought these particular issues were more prevalent for women.) Here’s what St. Teresa Benedicta described as the qualities more common to femininity—and what she warned women to watch out for and avoid.
1Woman’s attitude is personal
St. Teresa Benedicta limited herself to only two criteria of “particular significance” in differentiating men from women, and her first observation is that women often take a more personal or subjective approach. This can mean that “a woman is happily involved with her total being in what she does,” or that “she has particular interest for the living, concrete person,” or both.
There are many benefits to this “personal” tendency. St. Teresa Benedicta specifically mentioned an occasion when female politicians on both sides of the aisle came together to pass a bill that would benefit the children of their country. While the men of their parties spiraled in “abstract proceeding,” the women put aside their differences to work together: “The authentic feminine longing to remedy human need was thus victorious over the dilemma of party viewpoint.”
Similarly, St. Teresa Benedicta mentioned the benefits to the feminine singularity in many other fields, such as medicine, education, and bureaucracy, and anywhere that there was a risk of “abstract validation” taking precedence over living, breathing people.
But watch out for … taking subjectivity too far toward yourself or others.
The drawback to a personal approach, St. Teresa Benedicta wrote, is that a person may take it too far in several directions. One risk is “a bias to secure her own personal importance” in a way that “dulls realistic judgment.” She warned against yearning for “unlimited recognition” such as by blindly insisting that others recognize one’s husband and children as superior to others, or by “inability to endure criticism.”
Along with this risk of excessive self-importance comes a risk of “excessive interest in others” to the point of “a perverse desire to penetrate into personal lives.” This obsession with other people’s affairs “does justice neither to the self nor to the humanity of another” and risks taking time away from other, much more important responsibilities.
2In woman, there lives a natural drive toward totality and self-containment
The other criterion St. Teresa Benedicta mentions that differentiates men and women is a tendency toward wholeness and completeness, which comes more naturally to women. While men “may easily experience a one-sided development” as they focus on one area of work or study, women are more likely to tend toward completeness. A woman seeks to become “a complete human being, one who is fully developed in every way,” and also makes it a point to “do justice to the complete human being whenever she has to deal with persons.”
But watch out for … “a mania to know everything.”
The false perversion of the “desire for totality and inclusiveness,” St. Teresa Benedicta wrote, is “a mania to know everything and thereby to skim the surface of everything and to plunge deeply into nothing.” That is, it’s all well and good to avoid an overly narrow focus, but this can be taken too far. Such a superficial approach prevents a person from ever getting a firm, thorough grasp on a topic.
So, how best to avoid the temptations but stay balanced between the extremes?
St. Teresa Benedicta recommended “thoroughly objective work” as “a good natural method.” She encouraged women to seek out meaningful occupation, whether “housework, a trade, science, or anything else,” as such work can help a woman to attain “an inner depth” and “a basis for self-control.”
“Every young girl should receive a basic vocational formation,” she wrote, “And after this formation, she should hold a position which completely fulfills her.”
There you have it, straight from a modern-day saint: Meaningful work, for women, is a path to holiness.
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