Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil Part I: Empathy

 Edith Stein

Carmelite Conversations

Wednesday the 7th of September 2022

Presented by Philip Harvey

 Eighty years ago today Europe was in the middle of a world war. Countries were occupied or under attack, people were displaced everywhere, and chance encounters occurred every day. One very simple chance encounter is the start of our conversation today. In early August 1942, a Dutch woman by the name of Etty Hillesum was living in Westerbork. Her home was Amsterdam, but she had chosen to live in the transit camp at Westerbork in north-eastern Netherlands in order to care for her family and others who were Jewish, sent there by the Germans on the trip eastwards to extermination. We know this because Etty kept diaries and wrote letters, which since 1981 have had a growing influence worldwide for their deepfelt spirituality and truth to experience. This influence accelerated in 2002 with the publication of her complete writings into English. This is the brief paragraph in her diary entry for the 18th of September, a typical entry at this time listing or recalling new arrivals at the camp, in particular the sudden influx of Jews who were Catholic converts: 

‘Sister Mendes de Costa from the Carmelite convent with four Portuguese grandparents. And the Father with the untroubled eyes and the rough hands, who predicted the Comm[unist] revolution. He hadn’t left his monastery for fifteen years. And the two nuns from that rich, strictly orthodox and highly talented family in Breslau, with stars on their habits. They were being taken back to memories of their youth …’ (Hillesum 24) 

The two women from Breslau are Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun, and her sister Rosa. Although the sisters were born Jewish, they are being transported out of Holland because they are Catholics. And this is because the Archbishop of Utrecht had publicly criticised the treatment of Jews by the occupying forces, issuing a statement in all the churches one Sunday. In retaliation, the Germans were punishing Catholics by selectively arresting many and sending them to their deaths. Etty also mentions Dominican nuns and a Cistercian monk in this entry, in which she is recalling their arrival over a month earlier on the 2nd of August. By the time Etty writes the entry she would not know that Edith and her sister Rosa had already been killed at Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Today’s Conversation is the briefest introduction to three major figures in the history of 20th century spirituality. All three were Jewish women who either converted to Christianity or, as in the case of Etty Hillesum, were deeply influenced by Christian thought. All three were passionate about philosophy, actively engaged in different  practices of thinking and reflecting that they then applied to their emerging encounters with religion. It is an understatement to say that all three were, in their different ways, highly original thinkers. Thinkers, but also very seriously writers, women who wrote as though their lives depended on writing; women who wrote almost every day as a means of explaining life, and their lives, to themselves and very importantly, to others.  And all three are most famous today for their expression of the spiritual life. Two quotes from Edith Stein are true for the lives of all three people here. 

‘My longing for truth was a single prayer.’ 

‘Anyone who seeks truth seeks God, whether or not they realize it.’ 

We will learn a little about them and hear some of their words on three main subjects: empathy, love, and the cross.      

Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum, and Simone Weil on Empathy 

In recent years the word ‘empathy’ has flowed freely in public discourse and on social media. We see and hear the word quite often, as people come to terms with opinions and behaviour that shows empathy, though more particularly when those opinions and behaviour do not show empathy. Politicians and their commentators will be criticised for a lack of empathy. People in general are judged on their level of empathy for a person, an identity, a situation, often being found wanting. There is even such a thing as empathy fatigue, defined as the emotional and physical exhaustion brought about by caring for others day after day. This is also called compassion fatigue, the diminished ability to empathise with others. It is regarded by some analysts as a defence mechanism, and examples may involve what is called secondary traumatic stress. Sometimes it is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that we are simply talking about a lack of care, or an active indifference to others’ needs. Sometimes, to anyone’s needs other than our own. 

Edith Stein (1891-1942) completed her university thesis in 1916 on the subject of empathy. This was an unusual subject for a philosophical dissertation, though it is typical of what we come to know about Edith Stein. She was a young Jewish woman who grew up in Breslau, then part of Germany but today part of Poland. She attended synagogue with her family. At the time of writing her thesis in Göttingen, Edith did not show signs that she wished to become a Christian, let alone enter a religious order of Carmelites. Indeed, she was a student and close associate of Edmund Husserl, the German founder of the influential school of Phenomenology. A simple definition of phenomenology is “a philosophy of experience. For phenomenology the ultimate source of all meaning and value is the lived experience of human beings. All philosophical systems, scientific theories, or aesthetic judgments have the status of abstractions from the ebb and flow of the lived world.” (Brown) Edith Stein’s thesis was extending Husserl’s interest in the moment of human intersubjectivity. The word empathy itself comes from Greek, but our modern meaning of the word is derived from the German Einfühlung, meaning “feeling into”. Its relative recent adoption into English may be why only now we hear so much of this empathy talk. When we read this passage we encounter the technical, academic expression of the time, its jargon and but once through that start to appreciate Edith Stein’s own attempts at explaining empathy from experience, quite a new scientific approach to the subject. 

‘I consider every subject whom I empathetically comprehend as experiencing a value as a person whose experiences interlock themselves into an intelligible, meaningful whole. How much of this one’s experiential structure I can bring to my fulfilling intuition depends on my own structure. In principle, all foreign experience permitting itself to be derived from my own personal structure can be fulfilled, even if this structure has not yet actually unfolded. I can experience values empathetically and discover correlative levels of my person, even though my primordial experience has not yet presented an opportunity for their exposure. He who has never looked a danger in the face himself can still experience himself as brave or cowardly in the empathic representation of another’s situation.

By contrast, I cannot fulfill what conflicts with my own experiential structure. But I can still have it given in the manner of empty presentation. I can be skeptical myself and still understand that another sacrifices all his earthly goods to his faith. I see him behave in this way and empathize a value experiencing as the motive for his conduct. The correlate of this is not accessible to me, causing me to ascribe to him a personal level I so not myself possess. In this way I empathically gain the type of homo religiosus by nature foreign to me, and I understand it even though what newly confronts me here will always remain unfulfilled …

‘Now we see what justification Dilthey has for saying, “The interpretive faculty operating in the cultural sciences is the whole person.” Only he who experiences himself a person, as a meaningful whole, can understand other persons.’ (Sullivan 81) 

And here is offered a clearer and more precise definition of empathy from the second half of her life: 

‘As for what concerns our relations with our fellow men, the anguish in our neighbour’s soul must break all precept. All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.’ 

Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was a woman in her twenties when she began writing her diaries, which are much more than diaries, a thorough self-examination of emotions and relationships that evolve in private into a testimony of the growth of the soul. She had studied law but was now discovering ideas, people, literature, friendships, and not unexpectedly her sexuality. In the context of war in occupied Amsterdam, she writes again and again about her contradictory feelings about empathy. Hillesum actively pursues more than one sexual relationship at a time, which makes her different from Stein and Weil; she lives without judgement or conflict about any of this, simply treating all her close relationships as essential parts of life. In her reading we meet Dostoyevsky and Rilke, we encounter the medieval Netherlands mystics of the devotio moderna. 

Quotes from Etty Hillesum on Empathy 

‘My head is the workshop, in which all worldly things must be thought through until they become clear. And my heart is the fiery furnace in which everything must be felt and suffered intensely. This is a very profound awakening indeed.

   Diaries 15 August 1941 

Oh, you know, I only take my depressions seriously because by trying to understand them I get to understand others as well and perhaps to help them in their times of difficulty. Whenever I feel low, I also feel a readiness to help others, to guide them through the dark labyrinth of their own soul and so perhaps spare them many unhappy moments. But before I can bring clarity into the life of others, I must first have clarity in myself.

  Diaries 15 August 1941

 Simone Weil (1909-1943) studied philosophy at the university in Paris, where she topped her year. Her classmate Simone de Beauvoir was second. Simone’s family were secular Jews and relationship with her Jewishness was vexed, due in part to her personal philosophical requirement for absolute truth in all things, an attitude that caused her to question many aspects of historical Judaism. But to call her a convert is laden with question-marks as even though she immersed herself in Christian thought and attached herself to the Catholic Church, she refused to be baptised on principle, attending Mass regularly but not partaking of communion. Simone Weil has been called a Christian Platonist. She worked alongside the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and with the French Resistance in London almost up until her death. Nearly all of her writings were published posthumously, one critic summarising that “all of her work constitutes an attempt to regenerate connective tissue between all disciplines, between culture and nature, science and art, and God and humans.” (Wampole para. 5) As with the other two, we think of Simone today as a philosopher, but first and foremost as a spiritual writer and mystic.      

Quotes from Simone Weil on Empathy 

‘Compassion directed at oneself is true humility.’ 

‘The feeding of those who are hungry is a form of contemplation.’ 

‘Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.’ 

‘There is no contradiction between seeking our own good in a human being and wishing for their good to be increased. For this very reason, when the motive that draws us toward anybody is simply some advantage for ourselves, the conditions of friendship are not fulfilled. Friendship is a supernatural harmony, a union of opposites.’ (367) 

‘Friendship is a miracle by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is necessary to them as food.’ (370)


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