I am sure you have heard this popular statement from Edith Stein as many times as I have:
“The world doesn’t need what women have. The world needs what women are.”
This quotation isn’t quite correct, as what Edith Stein really said was, “The children in school . . . do not need merely what we have, but rather what we are” (Essays on Woman 6, emphasis in original). Regardless, there is a similar message in both quotations, a message that is empowering and beautiful - and often not well explained.
Over summer break I took to reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman for the second time. As I was reading, I found myself wishing that my soul had been more intentionally formed as young girl growing up, which led me to wonder how I can form my soul now, as an adult woman. I thought about the greatness that my soul - and all women’s souls - could attain if formed by the principles that Edith Stein taught. Many of us have heard of the four aspects of the feminine genius. Rarely discussed, however, are the unique characteristics that reside within each soul, which are distinctly impacted by family, formation, education, relationships, emotions, temperaments, and habits. Discovering these complexities of the soul leads to better understanding the uniqueness of who we are and what we were created for and, as Edith Stein put it, to “conform to our true nature” (Essays on Woman 97).
Discovering these complexities of the soul leads to better understanding the uniqueness of who we are and what we were created for
We can help women in discovering the complexities of their own souls by emphasizing the soul in our language and in our approach to raising girls and forming women, hopefully fostering a generation that seeks God’s will with confidence and doesn’t rely on the whims of worldly comparisons. Catholic families, communities, and schools should be the first to facilitate the formation of young women through both direct communication and lived example. If we want to understand the fullness of what women have to offer the world, then we need to begin with the soul.
Edith Stein writes that every soul has the potential and ability to grow in perfection. For women, this requires acknowledging what makes our souls distinctly feminine and guiding our desires towards the good. According to Edith Stein, at the core of every woman’s being is “[t]he deepest feminine yearning to achieve a loving union which . . . furthers the desire for perfection in others” (Essays on Woman 94). This does not just mean that women long to have a spouse, but rather that woman have a supernatural desire for the eternal destiny of ourselves and others.
At the same time, there is also an individuality to each person’s soul that comes in the shape of our predispositions, formation, and emotions. Stein explains that we can achieve the necessary growth of these feminine qualities by “activating [our] spiritual powers” (94), which first means recognizing that, in a special way, women intuitively sense the union of our body and our soul. A woman’s soul is immensely affected when we give into sinful inclinations and overindulge in worldly temptations - and Edith Stein identifies this as the beginning of the decline in the spiritual life. Instead, we should let our soul lead our body so that our will is strengthened in fulfilling our vocations with joy.
The other critical piece of development lies within the emotions, a central part of feminine nature. Without the involvement of the intellect, emotions can become whimsical and reactionary to the point that they drive us into choosing error. It is crucial that we instruct and educate the intellect to focus on its search for truth and allow that truth to be related back to how we feel. As Edith Stein says, “the strength of a woman lies in the emotional life” (96). If this is true, then emotional intelligence and maturity are fundamental to the growth of a woman’s interior life.
Emotional intelligence and maturity are fundamental to the growth of a woman’s interior life.
I would speculate that most women have been told at some point, “You’re just being emotional!” I have been a witness to the slander, discredit, and condescension that women have often faced regarding this topic. It is probably not a coincidence that one of our greatest gifts from God is frequently attacked. As women, we may feel things so deeply that our emotions can override the other functions of the soul, and this tells us just how powerful they are. When we use our intellect and will to harness and direct this power, our emotions can be a true asset in fulfilling God’s will and bringing others to Him. I suspect that the discredit of emotions stems from the experience of women whose emotions have been allowed to dominate all things, due in part to the severe lack of formation that’s pervasive in our culture. Without this critical formation for women, our sensitivity and deep desire to care for others can become twisted and possibly lead us into toxic relationships, dramatic friendships, or an unhealthy understanding of sexuality.
Edith Stein does not tell us, however, to suppress our emotions. Rather, she encourages soul-development through work, education, and positive daily interactions with others so that our feelings are refined and respond to Truth. In other words, knowing how to navigate our own emotions can help us choose a life that is focused on a higher sense of fulfillment. Our emotions also inform our behaviors or temperaments, both of which can serve us in discerning what God desires for and from us. Whether it be a career, a primary vocation, or service to the community, each of us was created to offer something extraordinary to the world. And this, in turn, helps us unite ourselves more closely with the Creator.
When we use our intellect and will to harness and direct this power, our emotions can be a true asset in fulfilling God’s will and bringing others to Him.
As Edith Stein puts it, “[w]e cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be” (87). The world inundates us with opinions on what women should or should not be, and contemplating the reality of who we are is helpful in navigating those opinions. Quite frankly, it is exhausting to be on the receiving end of so many contradictory messages: “Get up early and work harder.” “Slow down and practice self-care.” “Have kids, but not too many.” “Have a job, but also be fully present at home.” “Be sexier, but also love your body the way it is.” Even some Catholic circles communicate their own standards for what women should do, based on personal opinion and not on Church teaching. This kind of speech only serves to hurt women by creating external pressure and unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, stereotypes can restrict us and divert our attention to the material world, instead of encouraging us to live freely through a sincere maturation of the soul.
It is our responsibility to cultivate contemplation, pursue good formation, and strive for the eternal. The truth is that we cannot help but seek to know who we are, as “we will always find fundamentally the compulsion to become what the soul should be” (Essays on Woman 94). We must wholly embrace and discover the essence of who we are and what God has planned for us. And if we honestly care about women leading fulfilling lives that are oriented towards salvation, we must get better at raising girls and supporting women in the development of their souls.