The National Catholic Review
John W. Donohue

Books, like houses, can be remodeled. The house and garden sections of city newspapers often include articles about energetic people who have transformed a rundown farmhouse in the Catskills or a cabin in the Maine woods by knocking down walls between cramped rooms, installing new lighting and building an annex for a gleaming kitchen. A literary equivalent of this sort of creative adaptation and renewal is Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, which was published in 2005 by the Institute of Carmelite Studies in Washington, D.C. This 371-page book modestly describes itself as an authorized revision of the first biography of Edith Stein, the German-born convert to Catholicism who became a Carmelite nun when the Nazis barred her from her work as a teacher, lecturer and writer. In Carmel she continued her studies, and so far 25 volumes of the German edition of her collected writings have been published. Many have been translated into English. Edith Stein died in the Birkenau gas chambers in August 1942 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 11, 1998.

 

This new book is, however, much more than a revision. It has enlarged, enriched and corrected that first biography, which was written in 1947 by Teresia Renata Posselt, O.C.D., who was the novice mistress in the Cologne Carmel when Edith Stein entered that monastery in October 1933.

Sister Teresia Renata, who was born in 1891, the same year as Edith Stein, became the prioress at Cologne in 1936 and died in 1961. She appears to have been one of those virtuoso mother superiors who can manage several jobs at once. World War II bombs destroyed the Cologne monastery, and Sister Teresia Renata was overseeing the building of a new convent while making time to put together her memoir of Edith Stein, who was known in Carmel as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Because it was based on a firsthand acquaintance with Edith Stein, Sister Teresia Renata’s book will always have special importance. It also had limitations, as M. Amata Neyer, O.C.D., an authority on Edith Stein who is herself a former prioress of the Cologne convent, has pointed out. “Her memory played her many a trick,” Sister Amata remarks crisply in a foreword to the revision. She made mistakes, “but she did not allow these mistakes to bother her at all.”

A troika of Edith Stein scholars has diplomatically but precisely edited Sister Teresia Renata’s pages. Two members of this team are now in their 80’s. Susanne M. Batzdorff is Edith Stein’s niece, daughter of Erna Stein Biberstein, a physician who was Edith’s favorite sister. The Bibersteins escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 and emigrated to the United States, where Susanne married Alfred Batzdorff. She has lived for many years in Santa Rosa, Calif., and has written extensively about Edith Stein.Three of her essays have appeared in America, including one that describes her attendance at the 1998 canonization (“Aunt Edith: Jewish Heritage, Catholic Saint,” 2/13/99).

Swiss-born Josephine Koepell, O.C.D., of the Carmel in Elysburg, Pa., has been the indispensable benefactor of English readers by her translations of Edith Stein’s letters and the saint’s posthumously published memoir, Life in a Jewish Family: 1891-1916.

John Sullivan, O.C.D., who has a doctorate in theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris and is currently the publisher of Carmelite Studies, convoked the team and their meetings. The editors started with the 1952 translation by Cecily Hastings and Donald Nicholl of the fifth edition of Sister Teresia Renata’s book. To expand this basic structure, the editors made four enlightening additions.

That Posselt biography has been supplemented by extracts from Life in a Jewish Family that fill in gaps in Teresia Renata’s narrative. There is, for instance, Edith Stein’s account of her studies under Edmund Husserl at the University of Göttingen before her conversion—“dear old Göttingen” she once called it.

In addition, three sets of instructive materials have been marshalled at the back of the book: footnotes, commentaries called “Gleanings” and passages called “Takeouts” that the team thought did not belong in the Posselt text. Mrs. Batzdorff was in charge of the chapters on the Stein family; Sister Josephine prepared the commentaries on the Carmelite years; and Father Sullivan dealt with the theological issues.

Readers of Edith Stein will have to flip back and forth from front to back, but that’s small trouble for the reward of a remodeling that is in fact a renovation.

John W. Donohue, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

(Rev.) Andrew Greeley | 2/28/2007 - 9:47am
Congratulations on the Feb. 5 issue: John W. Donohue, S.J., on Edith Stein; the review of Bishop N. T. Wright’s book by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Ladislas Orsy, S.J., on pluralism; Richard A. Blake, S.J., on “Children of Men”; and above all Patricia Schnapp, R.S.M., on Francis Thompson, of whom G. K. Chesterton said that the best definition of the Victorian Age of English literature is that Thompson was not part of it.

It is so “pre-council” for Sister Schnapp to celebrate his wonderful Catholic imagination with his “Hound of Heaven” and “Ode to the Setting Sun.” Yet the keepers of our heritage are sadly deficient if they dismiss his romanticism or, worse, are unaware of him. I wonder how many graduates of Catholic colleges and universities in the last 20 years have read either of these poems.

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