Here’s a glimpse at a few of the books I’ve been reading this summer. I hope these short reviews are a helpful inspiration on your journey.
Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
I had long heard of Edith Stein, but had done no serious reading of her. I am so grateful and pleased that this book was my first real introduction to her. As is plain to see through the other sources cited in this book, and through the introduction by Edith Stein’s niece, Susanne Batzdorff, and the forward by the Director of the International Edith Stein Institute, Michael Linssen, O.C.D, this book in particular is a great and irreplaceable addition to the literature on Edith Stein precisely because Maria Scaperlanda does an authentic and beautiful work of presenting all the complexities and tensions surrounding Edith’s life and death, while at the same time giving a glimpse into Edith’s unwavering clarity of her own calling and mission. This book inspired me to dive further into Edith writings, and it lead me to read a collection of her essays on women (next book below).
Born and raised Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, Edith Stein came to the Catholic faith as an adult through her studies of philosophy, and also through deep friendships with Christians. There is much that is compelling about her life – that she converted and yet also did not reject her Jewish heritage or kin, that she was a woman academic and philosopher at a time when that was revolutionary, that she left a prolific academic life for one of the deepest contemplative orders, the Discalced Carmelites, that her life ended in Auschwitz, that she was canonized by JPII…just to give a brief sketch. But one of the things I find most compelling (and see below) is her unwavering relentless pursuit of understanding God’s design and mission for women in a true feminism (and thus also upholding the mission of man). Her voice was an essential contribution to the political and academic dialogue surrounding feminism in the early 1900s, and I think perhaps even more essential today. (Find the book here and Maria’s blog here)
Edith Stein: Essays on Woman
(The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol II) Translated by Freda Mary Oben, PhD
In this thorough collection of essays and writings from her academic years, Edith Stein – or rather, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as we know her now, slowly unfolds an deep, grounded and comprehensive approach to understanding woman’s essence and mission. But her teachings are also incredibly practical. Although she’s quite capable of ascending to philosophical and theological heights that leave me scratching my head, she is also adept explaining her insights in “plain English”, if you will, and also always remains grounded in the practical, earthy reality of human existence. While you will find spiritual nourishment that helps women (and men) strive for the ideals for which we were created, you’ll find nothing of the unhelpful, flowery, ephemeral or one-sidedly intellectual sort in this book.
While recognizing (and valiantly upholding) that both sexes are equal in value, she also passionately defends their different missions (and yet doesn’t “absolutize” either sex, recognizing the plethora of individual instances of being women or being man; i.e., the individual differences don’t contradict being able to talk in a general way about “man” and “woman”). She’s able to deeply develop that theme I always sensed in the little I know about feminine rhetoric, where in seeking to be equal with man (especially in professional life), women end up imitating man and thereby losing their original feminine genius they originally sought to further.
It’s probably a little bit risky to try even to paraphrase what she says, because her writings don’t give well to tweets or blurbs – you’ve got to read at least a few paragraphs (and ideally an entire essay!) to full appreciate the depth with which she treats these themes. In our media-saturated world where sound bites and either/or thinking is the norm, her full comprehensive approach has the potential to be a balm for the human soul – and an actual solid contribution to any conversation about the nature and vocation of men and women.
Anatomy of the Soul
by Curt Thompson, MD
This book falls under the category of psychology and spirituality. Dr Thompson, a faithful student of Dan Siegel, a currently prominent neuroscientist, takes some of the latest findings of neuroscience and applies them to our relationship to God (and also applies them within the field of counseling). I think he makes a valiant effort to explain complicated brain science to the lay person, and to show how these findings are relevant in our relationship to God and to others.
I especially appreciate his observations that in our Western society, we often relate to God more through our “left brain”, linear, rational mode – “knowing about God” as he calls it – rather than through our “right brain” mode of experiential, integrated, wholistic and relational “knowing God.” I also think he has some compelling ideas about stress, free will, and sin, in that oftentimes when we are overwhelmed by stress (and grew up historically within a family history also wrought with stress and anxiety), that we might be less free to truly act and live out of who we are called to be in deep relationship with others. He emphasizes the transformational process of making sense of our own stories (with God, and with others) and thus being able to pass on such a transformation to the next generations.
However I do think that his wordiness is oftentimes distracting (some of you might be laughing at that, as I also can be wordy!). But I think his book could have been at least 50 pages shorter. Also, although I don’t know what Christian tradition Dr Thompson comes from, it doesn’t seem to be Catholic. Most of his book is based on scripture alone, and it’s pretty quick to tell he lacks a sacramental experience of the faith. It seems like his audience is mostly non-Catholic Christians, especially those who may over-value intellectualism at the expense of a balanced understanding of the role of emotion in spirituality. I also think his treatment of emotions is slighted one-sided, perhaps because it’s what he is trying to emphasis, but I think he goes a little too far in describing how God speaks to us through our emotions. But over all, for me it was worth the read, and if you do read it, I’d love to know what you think.
Many blessings on these last few weeks of summer! May we even now be blessed with God’s centering presence as the summer winds down, that we might approach the coming fall season with renewed strength, a refreshed soul, and a new openness to what He has in store for each of us.