This site uses cookies...
Cookies are small text files that help us make your web experience better. By using any part of the site you consent to the use of cookies. More information about our cookies policy can be found on the Terms of Use.

The woman thinks for herself

Head of Teresa in terracotta attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (about 1650). Below to the right, Edith Stein

THE WOMAN AND THE HEN up to the neighbour’s house was a popular saying in the sixteenth century when Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada lived in Spain. It certainly does not seem that this young woman was subjected to the common mentality of the time. Undoubtedly, she had to fight with full awareness, so much so as to write, “it is enough to be a woman to have your wings clipped”. With vigour and energy, however, she created a theological and ecclesial space for the woman of her time and for all times to come. A truly theological space for the woman religious who, despite living a hermetic and contemplative dimension, is open to the history of humanity and the Church. So much so that she has become an icon for many feminists and has induced a secular thinker, Julia Kristeva, to look to her when considering a reformation of humanism with her as a model. Teresa therefore is an inexhaustible source for women of today and not a plastered cistern or museum piece, so much so that a person like Edith Stein, a woman and daring thinker, who much anticipated her time in both her personal choices and her firm ecclesial choices, was literally stunned by her: both were seeking the truth, the true axis of their existence, “Teresa of Avila is a thinker who says, and teaches one to speak the truth” (Luisa Muraro), Edith Stein formulated this theologically and testified to it by not escaping her martyrdom in Auschwitz. In the interconnectedness of theological experience and the life of faith, hope and charity, one can see and outline a theology of woman which enters into and makes its own an active and incisive dimension in the life of the Church and carries on the line indicated by Stein: “Maybe over the centuries we have become too accustomed to our passive attitude in the Church, allowing some singular person (Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, etc.), as the exception that proves the rule. The twentieth century expects more than this!” What should we expect today in the middle of the twenty-first century? How should Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein and the planet woman coordinate and illuminate themselves? Especially within the larger cultural transformation we are experiencing, which can be defined as epistemological because it relates to the organization of the conceptual schemes and their active transmission, which represents a real cultural revolution. The woman rejects an ancient tradition that divided humanity into two entirely different parts, attributing only experience to the woman and leaving the male to think. Woman thinks for herself now, she wants to think and feel in a feminine way and not just leave herself to think and feel dictated by a male or macho mentality. Woman in other words has passed beyond the so-called “androcentric” claim. The woman that is requires and therefore formulates a paschal salvation that is no longer de-feminised. Teresa of Jesus, read by Stein, the only woman to achieve a doctorate in 1916 in Germany and made rich by a life in a zigzag pattern, creates the map of a theological response. Teresa is a cloistered nun and yet she is a public woman, inserted in a patriarchal society, in the feminist significance of the term, but not buried beneath a non-reply. In fact, today, using a language created by the feminist philosophical movement Diotima (which has chosen as exemplary women to imitate precisely Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein) we could say that the Carmelite has acted to “give birth to the world", that is – referring to the woman who generates – giving concrete life to their own ideas and thoughts in the rediscovery of the practical sphere, of incisive gestures towards persons and towards society that sets out new relationships. A plot created by a ‘little woman’, as Teresa called herself ironically to escape the clutches of the Inquisition. The new lexicon of the feminist movement is well suited to Teresa, who however gives it an unavoidable direction, inserted in Jesus Christ in the direction of the Father, because Teresa is interrogated by a question of faith and not only by a purely symbolic and human horizon. This new vocabulary expresses the inexhaustible desire of women to bind themselves to reality. Starting oneself with the practice of prayer, friendship with God, at that time forbidden to women because they are considered weak-minded; the actions that leave a mark on reality and signify the life experienced in the new, small and poor monastery of St Joseph which expands dramatically, however, out towards all humanity and the whole Church; the hermeneutic sexed circle, as we now define the relationship between the woman writer and the woman reader, in which with the writing you enter into the life of another woman, just as it occurred so powerfully four centuries later with the young phenomenologist Edith Stein, reading The Life of Teresa of Jesus; mediation understood not as an abstract category, but as a place of mediation, both horizontal with other women, and vertical with God himself who has broken into her, into the fabric of Teresa praying and capable of communication; the female authority created through a social presence of women, aware of their own weakness not only in comparison with males but also in comparison with that of God. Teresa through the symbolic inventions of her writing effects “an opening of the way to freedom through obstacles, using the latter as real levers to jump over and beyond” (Muraro), with a true understanding of love she overcomes all logic and breaks all bounds in a profoundly creative act that is felt by women and men over the centuries. Luisa Muraro reads in the love adventure a rigour not less “thanthat of logic and even one that exceeds it, as there is always, in the middle, the desire, which is a formidable deceiver but, at the same time, an indispensable ally of every adventure beyond human forces, because it holds up the borders and breaks the limits.“ As was the case for all that she wrote and testified on women, the woman Edith Stein, detects these particular characteristics of the female mind and finds them in the ability to grasp phenomena in sensitivity to their variety, richness and specificity, in the stretching out towards salvation. The feminine adventure opens up in this way to the present to become an ecclesial act made possible, as an act of faith that generates and together ensures the presence of women in society and in the Church in full visibility. Muraro ranks herself a follower in Teresa of Jesus’s trail saying that her “greatness lies in an ability to bind; her power is the power of a ligament. What with what? In her I see the enormity of women to freely bind themselves to the reality of this world.” The woman, seen by Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein, is set on the great biblical foundation of creation and finds herself enriched with a qualification that makes her particularly sensitive and receptive to God’s action in the soul. The being received in a gift and as a gift pours herself out upon all spheres of life and opens it simultaneously to God and to history. Modernity challenges us with emerging tensions to which it is imperative to give a real response, with the testimony of some women, such as Julia Kristeva, who form a school of those much attracted by the woman Teresa, who writes, “”It’s your humanity that fascinates me…what is ingenious in Teresa is that her writing not only leads to a deeper understanding of oneself, but to that of a changing of the world.” Some terms recur that today we can compare with the experience of Edith Stein, whose qualifications as a thinker and feeling person no one could deny or cast doubt on: mothering for example, seen as the main and emphatic accent of the management of the house as a female privilege. The Steinian answer instead is grounded on the level of maternity accepted within civil ethics, regarded as a modern dimension in which tasks and roles are 'understood as natural destiny', but simultaneously present to the professionalism, to relationality, to social visibility , steeped in gospel proclamation. Because it is the opening to the Word of God that allows its incarnation in the history of one’s people and pours itself out in the service of faith and wisdom of life. The way of experience or the “theology of saints” stands out therefore - a way which, though belonging to the mental universe of woman, can, if married to the search for truth, become philosophical and sapiential thought. The reference is to that moment transmitted by the book of Genesis: Adam is seized by tardemah, sleep, and Yahweh creates woman in a theophany that is known only to her. Thus a silent and mysterious dialogue is founded and opened up: it is not the man that outlines and defines the woman but Yahweh himself, while the woman receives and accepts and is placed within history. From this we can deduce some postures that women live completely in their inner life, in their daily actions, in their particular receptivity to God’s action in the soul and the surrender to Christ that is rooted in the biblical verse, Genesis 2,18: “I shall make him a helper”. The woman, in fact, receives the same gifts as man and therefore solicits the acknowledgement of the skills and gifts and their exercise in the construction of first the person and then the whole of society. In complete symmetry and independence, yet living in correlation. The woman can penetrate with empathy and understanding into the territory that, in itself, she is distant from and of which she would never be involved, if a personal interest were not to bring about a relationship. A gift closely connected with the disposition to be a mother. The sexed bodily capacity – because to say woman is to say body – can express the hidden or unpredictable forces, always ready to intervene when the urgent need is grasped. A plasticity that, adapting itself, does not deny herself but renders herself ever more transparent thanks to her capacity for wholeness and self-determination, with a desire that wants to find its vital realization and not to remain a vague aspiration. The service of the Lord requires that totality and the determination that the woman finds within herself as her distinctive characteristic. Thanks to the absolute purity with which she places the love of Christ not only in theoretic conviction but in the feelings of the heart and practice of love, the woman shows how much it means to be free from every creature, from a false relationship with herself and with others: this is the most intimate spiritual sense of purity. Specifically, obedience and service face each other making the soul free. Obedience that the young researcher Edith had refused with energy and had interpreted as subjection, as loss, while in her parable of maturity is revealed as gain, as achievement. The same participation in the professional life proves to be a wise attitude and rich in absolute dedication that does not put oneself in the spotlight but at the margins, although, in reality, at the core of everything. Without demonstrations or utterances, simply acting in the most proper and vigilant way. The woman and man or man and woman? For Edith Stein, the question is illusory, if not small-minded or ill posed. There is a wholeness in the humanumthat speaks of origin and asks, throughout history, to be recorded with all the events that have characterised it, with a single bound: “In the return to a relationship as the children of God”. In the great mosaic of the history of salvation, here is the man and woman together, who are the major but not the only protagonists. Human intelligence is found again agapaic, founded and fundamental, received from the Creator and and supported by the continuous and inexhaustible gift of the Spirit to become ever more like the Son through Mirjam, the Theotokos, the bearer of God, a woman who belongs to the feminine genius in the full and perfect measure of what we say nowadays “to give birth to the world”. Mirjam, understood as an icon, an image full of presence, “all-holy and yet totally human, a woman in the richness of her femininity”. The One who offers a kind of syntax of life for all people and that Edith Stein regarded as Urzelle, the primordial cell.


Cristiana Dobner, carmelite, philosopher and theologian, is the author of various works, which include, L’Eccesso. Carlo Maria Martini e l’amore per Gerusalemme (2014), Che cosa sono queste pietre? Ascoltare la presenza silente (2013), Resterà solo il grande amore. Il sentire di Edith Stein nella furia del nazismo (2013), Il volto. Principio di interiorità: Edith Stein e Etty Hillesum (2012), Se afferro la mano che mi sfiora… Edith Stein: il linguaggio di Dio nel cuore della persona (2011), Luce carmelitana. Dalla santa radice (2005). She won the International Martini Award in 2014.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 18, 2019