Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil Part II: Love


Etty Hillesum

Carmelite Conversations

Wednesday the 7th of September 2022

Presented by Philip Harvey

 Edith Stein on Love

 ‘I had given up practising my Jewish religion when I was a 14-year-old girl and did not begin to feel Jewish again until I had returned to God.’ 

Here Edith Stein marks the dramatic changes in her life, from living inside a secure Jewish family environment, to exploring advanced philosophical concepts of experience virtually free of any religious influence, to choosing to enter the enclosed world of the Carmelite Order. Of the three women under discussion, Edith is the one most familiar with orthodox Jewish practice, both in terms of liturgy and everyday life. Her pursuit of phenomenology through her agnostic twenties displays a highly developed ability for original thinking and a need to find true meaning. For her, the challenge was to understand the nature of the self, how we make community and find our roles. But at the same time, she is preoccupied with asking questions about what for her are critical in this discussion, in particular the source and actions of love. 

At the age of 30 she reads the Vida (Life) of Saint Teresa of Avila, herself a woman from a conversos family of another time, and within a year Edith is baptised and turning her study intently toward Saint Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. She translates that theologian’s ‘De Veritate’ (‘On Truth)’. Edith Stein embarks on yet another original project of the mind, merging phenomenology with theology. She continues teaching as well, though increasingly in religious rather than secular milieus, all of which culminates in her entering the Carmelite Order at a monastery in Cologne at the age of 42 in 1933. This is the same year the Nazis took control of government, burning books and parliament buildings, escalating their persecution of Jews, and creating wholesale uncertainty about the future. 

Edith Stein said, ‘Do not accept anything as love which lacks truth.’ She also had come to believe that ‘Our love of neighbour is the measure of our love of God. For Christians – and not only for them – no one is a ‘stranger’. The love of Christ knows no borders.’ This gives background to the following words on Love: 

‘The divine life is tri-personal life. It is the overflowing love with which the Father begets the Son and surrenders to him his own being, while the Son embraces this being and surrenders it back to the Father, the love in which Father and Son are One, which they breathe out together as their Spirit. Through grace this Spirit is poured out into hearts. Thus the soul lives her life of grace through this Holy Spirit. In him she loves the Father with the love of the Son and the Son with the love of the Father. This sharing of life with the trinitarian life can take place without the soul’s awareness that the divine person’s dwell in her. Actually, only a small number of elect come to perceptibly experience that the Triune God is in their soul. For a larger number, an enlightened faith leads to a living knowledge of this indwelling and to a loving communion with the divine three in pure faith.

A person who has not yet arrived at this high level is still united to God through faith, hope, and love, even when he is not clearly aware that God lives in his inmost region and that he can find him there, that all of this life of grace and virtue is an effect of this divine life in himself and is his participation therein. Living faith is the firm conviction that God exists, the acceptance-as-truth of all that has been revealed by God, and a loving readiness to be led by the divine will. As supernatural knowledge infused by God, living faith is “the beginning of the eternal life in us” – but it is only a beginning. Through sanctifying grace, it is laid within us as a seed; under our careful custody it is to burgeon into a great tree bearing glorious fruits. For it is the way that is to lead us to union with God even in this life, though the highest fulfilment belongs to the next life.’ (Maskulak 181) 

To contrast this passage with Edith Stein’s previous long quote from her dissertation, is to see instantly the change in her understanding of experience.  I have chosen this longer passage from ‘The Science of the Cross’ to show her understanding of God’s love in relation to the individual, but also to illustrate certain typifying things in her writing. We meet someone who speaks in logic, who is used to engaging in philosophical discourse, and this can be both help and hindrance in finding our way to the essential message in her thinking. Of the three women under discussion, Edith is distinctively at home with Catholic language; she manages the words and images of religious devotion with accomplishment. This too is a help for those familiar with the language, somewhat perplexing at times for those who must learn the language to appreciate what she is saying. It is also apparent after a while that we are reading translations from German, as for example when we encounter an expression like “acceptance-as-truth” and wonder about the effect of that in the original. Added to which, the passage is actually an explanation of divine union as interpreted by Edith in the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, adding layers of significance across time that are well-known in Carmelite literature, which is like one big conversation sometimes, but likely to be an added layer of difficulty to the uninitiated. All of which tells us that by the time she writes these words in her last work, with darkness descending everywhere in the world, she is immersed in the life of Carmel. We are made profoundly aware of how Carmelite mysticism is a joyous gift to learn and live with inside the loving community she found inside the Dutch Carmelite house in Echt.         

Etty Hillesum on Love

 By contrast with Edith Stein, Etty Hillesum lives a life in relationship with God that is almost entirely her own, outside of community and  institutional frameworks like church or synagogue. This relationship is spoken of as being deep within herself, a basic reality that abides whatever circumstances she finds herself in. The Diaries track her intimate relationship with Julius Spier, a Jungian analyst who specialises in hand-reading, and even though he talks to her of prayer and self-actualization, he is only one influence upon a woman who seems to have already found her inner spiritual life sometime before the Diaries commence. She goes to parties, hangs out in reading groups, runs soirées. She will quote Rilke or Scripture, recount recent discussions with family and friends, yet her language is her own, a lively and life-affirming self-examination of herself, with a similarly honest if forgiving examination of others sometimes as well. In the next passage Lairessestraat, the main shopping street in Amsterdam, is where we find her in her own free-flowing thoughts. 

‘Last night, cycling through cold, dark Lairessestraat – if only I could repeat everything I babbled out then! Something like this: “God, take me by Your hand, I shall follow you dutifully and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You among people, out in the world.” And that is what I shall do, despite the weariness and dislike that sometimes overcome me. I vow to live my life out there to the full. Sometimes I believe that my life is only just beginning.’

    Diaries 15 November 1941

An important concern that she comes back to again and again is the need to overcome hatred in others and oneself. This refusal to hate is borne of a hostile environment where victims are capable of taking on the same hatred as their oppressors. Etty’s humanising attitude towards others on both sides becomes a way for her to live with the inhumanity all around here: ‘To sum up, this is what I really want to say: Nazi barbarism evokes the same kind of barbarism in ourselves … We have to reject that barbarism within us, we must not fan the hatred within us, because if we do, the world will not be able to pull itself one inch further out of the mire.’

  Diaries 15 March 1941 

And in a letter to her lover Han Wegerif written from Westerbork Transit Camp on the 18th of August 1943, Etty expresses her frustrations and needs in caring for parents: ‘There is a passage in the Bible from which I always draw new strength. I think it goes something like: “He that loveth me, let him forsake his father and mother.” Last night I had to struggle again not to be overwhelmed by pity for my parents, since it would paralyse me if I gave in to it. I know that we must not lose ourselves so completely in grief and concern for our families that we have little thought or love left for our neighbours. More and more I tend toward the idea that love for everyone who may cross your path, love for everyone made in God’s image, must rise above love for blood relatives. Please don’t misunderstand me. It may seem unnatural – And I see that it is still far too difficult for me to write about, though so simple to live.’ 

Simone Weil on Love 

When Simone Weil becomes immersed in Christian thought she goes on retreats, in particular to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in France. She attends worship regularly, there to listen to the Gregorian chant which becomes for her an important human manifestation of the divine. It is at Solesmes that she experiences a conversion to Christ while reading and re-reading the poem ‘Love III’ by the Anglican poet George Herbert. This famous poem speaks in the first person about God’s invitation to partake of a meal, but the speaker will not do so “guilty of dust and sin”. However it is Love who speaks again with the invitation, showing that we are welcome and belong, an invitation that is taken up at the conclusion where “I did sit and eat.” This poem, which she used as a prayer, speaks of Simone Weil’s own personal realisation and understanding of love as relationship, as being forgiven even as you forgive, and that it is through openness to love, in ourselves and others, yet ultimately through the actions of God, that everything changes and grows. 

After this personal transformation, which occurs in 1938, Simone Weil’s writing becomes a personal testing ground of existence and the world as understood in Christian terms. The force and clarity of her language, its exclusion of all personal references, its avoidance of colourful examples to make the point, is confronting in a different way to Edith or Etty. Much of Edith Stein’s writing utilises the traditional Catholic language of scripture and devotion, ever more so once her main audience are members of a dedicated religious community. Much of Etty Hillesum’s writing arrives at the same kind of epigrammatic precision, even if this is not her trained style, but usually only after the backwards and forwards of her inner arguments reaches moments of personal definition. To appreciate the depth of Simone Weil’s experience through her writing means having to ask what she must have gone through to arrive at such power and wisdom.        

 And here are four quotes from Simone Weil on Love:

 ‘Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.’

 ‘Love on the part of someone who is happy is the wish to share the suffering of the beloved who is unhappy.’ 

‘Love on the part of someone who is unhappy is to be filled with joy by the mere knowledge that his beloved is happy without sharing in this happiness or even wishing to do so.’

 ‘Lovers or friends desire two things. The one is to love each other so much that they enter into each other and only make one being. The other is to love each other so much that, having half the globe between them, their union will not be diminished in the slightest degree. All that man vainly desires here below is perfectly realized in God. We have all those impossible desires within us as a mark of our destination, and they are good for us provided we no longer hope to fulfil them.’ (Panichas 446)

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