As Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) explained in her essay on “Problems of Women’s Education,” the overriding goal of our lives must be to become “the supernatural person or Christ in the person.” This supernatural goal encompasses “the threefold goal prescribed by the nature of woman: the development of her humanity, her womanhood, and her individuality.” Yet it transcends them all, Edith says, because our transformation in Christ leads not only to the purification of our fallen nature but to everlasting union with God.
A Bottomless Craving
Edith believed that the desire for union with God permeates every woman’s life, whether she is conscious of it or not. She found evidence of this in a woman’s body, which was designed by God to be receptive, both to a man and to an unborn child. That physical receptivity echoes a deeper emotional and spiritual receptivity that has always been a defining feature of femininity. “The deepest longing of woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely,” Edith writes. “This longing is revealed in her outlook, personal and all-embracing, which appears to us as specifically feminine.”
A woman’s longing for love can lead to joy or sorrow, depending on where she seeks fulfillment. If she looks only to other people—by depending on a husband or a child to satisfy her bottomless craving for love—she is bound to be disappointed. She may wind up controlling, smothering, or driving away those she loves most as she demands that they validate her existence, give meaning to her life, or quench her thirst for love. Yet a woman who directs her infinite longing to God can experience something else entirely: true fulfillment through transforming union with Christ.
Attaining this union is no easy task, of course: Our sinful nature and bad habits mitigate against it, and the fragmentation, secularization, and hectic pace of our modern lives make the pursuit of holiness difficult. So how does a woman cultivate a contemplative faith in the heart of the world?
Edith’s advice begins with the recognition of the need for God’s grace in the midst of our busy lives. The task of bearing Christ’s image to the world—and bearing fruit in our families, communities, and workplaces— requires “intense spiritual stamina,” Edith says, which “perishes in the long run if not refreshed by the eternal wellspring.” That wellspring of God’s grace must be revisited frequently if we wish to avoid burnout and grow in holiness. We can tap into His grace through frequent confession, frequent reception of the Eucharist, and regular prayer, preferably in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As Edith writes in “Spirituality of the Christian Woman”:
Whoever is imbued with a lively faith in Christ present in the tabernacle, whoever knows that a friend awaits here constantly—always with the time, patience, and sympathy to listen to complaints, petitions, and problems, with counsel and help in all things—this person cannot remain desolate and forsaken even under the greatest difficulties. He always has a refuge where quietude and peace can again be found.
Edith recommends that we attend Mass in the morning and ask Jesus, after receiving Him in the Eucharist, how He wishes us to spend our day, since reception of the Eucharist brings clarity and allows the self-emptying process to unfold. As the day progresses and new worries and problems accumulate, Edith advises that we take a noontime break to reconnect with God. A Eucharistic holy hour or solitary rest in a quiet place is ideal, Edith writes in “Principles of Women’s Education,” but if that is not possible, “then at least she must for a moment seal herself off inwardly against all other things and take refuge in the Lord. He is indeed there and can give us in a single moment what we need.”
The day’s work and problems will continue, Edith says, but we will remain at peace. “And when night comes, and retrospect shows that everything was patchwork and much which one had planned left undone, when so many things rouse shame and regret, then take all as it is, lay it in God’s hands, and offer it up to Him. In this way we will be able to rest in Him, actually to rest, and to begin the new day like a new life.”
The Eternal Reward
A woman who follows the natural rhythms of prayer, work, and rest and implores God to free her from her anxieties and selfish desires will be answered with the peace that comes from surrendering to God’s will. Women are natural contemplatives in the world, Edith says, because they have a knack for blending attentiveness to concrete tasks with a great capacity for silence and peace. Prayerful surrender to God in the midst of ordinary life is a natural fit for a woman’s soul. When directed to Jesus Christ, Edith says, “the surrender to which feminine nature inclines is here appropriate; on the other hand, we also find here the absolute love and surrender for which we seek vainly in people.” Surrender to Christ sets woman free; by fulfilling her deepest need, His love allows her to love others unselfishly: “We now seek for God’s image in each human being and want, above all, to help each human being win his freedom.”
The grace flowing from prayerful union with Christ does not eliminate suffering in a woman’s life, Edith says, but it provides an “inexhaustible source of power” that helps her navigate life’s trials and radiate God’s love to the world. Edith knew this truth firsthand. She witnessed to it in her life and, most profoundly, in her death. May her bold witness inspire women today to find their ultimate fulfillment in the God who is love.