The Virgin Mary as “Eternal Woman”

The holier a woman, the more she is a woman.
—Léon Bloy

To call the Virgin Mary the “Eternal Woman,” as I do in the title of this essay, is, of course, to allude to the title of Gertrud von Le Fort’s famous book, The Eternal Woman, first published in German as Die Ewige Frau in 1933. In Sister Prudence Allen’s magnum opus, The Concept of Woman, she devotes two pages to a brief discussion of Le Fort (1876−1971), highlighting her personal and intellectual kinship with Edith Stein (1891−1942), whom Le Fort visited in the Carmel in Cologne and with whom she exchanged letters. Sr. Allen excerpts the following passage from one of Stein’s five extant letters to Le Fort, dated January 31, 1935:


Dear Baroness,

Our retreat ended this morning. A retreat in Carmel—all that’s lacking to make it heaven is one’s own holiness. My spiritual reading those days was your new book. I could not get to it earlier. Now at last I can thank you for this beautiful Christmas gift. I would not like to think of this retreat, which has meant so much to me, without your book. It has a distinct place in it. And apart from this very personal aspect: I find that, actually, everything else that has been written about woman in the past decades is now superfluous. There is much written in your book that we already knew. But all that has been taken back to its deepest roots and put into its place. And a line has been drawn under everything ‘problematic.’”[1]

In her study, Sister Allen uses italics to add emphasis to Stein’s reaction: “everything else that has been written about woman in the past decades is now superfluous.” That is, to be sure, a hugely important assertion. But what does it mean exactly? Is Stein discounting as “superfluous” not just secular feminist writings, but also her own many writings about Woman? If so, what critical revision has Le Fort made that is powerful enough to transform and to transcend what Stein “already knew”?


Sister Allen does not directly entertain these questions. The timeline she provides, moreover, raises additional questions. It shows that the book Stein read on this particular retreat in January 1935 was not Le Fort’s The Eternal Woman (her “beautiful ‘Praise of Mary,’”[2] which Stein had read earlier in 1933, shortly after her entrance into Carmel), but rather Le Fort’s recently published novel, The Song at the Scaffold (Die Letze am Schafott), about the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne who were guillotined during the French Revolution.[3] Why and how would the latter be supersessory for Stein in her thinking about Woman? Did reading The Song at the Scaffold teach Stein, then Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, to recall Le Fort’s The Eternal Woman with new understanding?

These questions are impossible to answer definitively, since Stein does not elaborate. In this essay, however, I advance the thesis that Stein does include her own previous writings on Woman in the category of the superfluous after reading The Song at the Scaffold. Like Sister Allen herself, who calls particular attention to the historical significance of the Carmelite martyrs in the midst of the “Cartesian revolution in thought,”[4] Stein finds in them, as portrayed by Le Fort, an “integral complementarity” (although she does not use that term) and a community of persons that mirror Mary’s own person as the Immaculate Conception in her special bond to Christ and to the members of Christ’s Church. In and through these Carmelite women, Le Fort’s “eternal woman” appears in time, proving the Virgin Mary to be a “concrete universal”[5] (to borrow a phrase from Henri de Lubac) that simultaneously expresses and veils a womanly form that is formative for every woman in her own concrete, personal challenges and circumstances, as well as archetypal for the Church herself as Christ’s virginal Bride and Mother.

For Stein, Le Fort’s “praise of Mary” marks an advance over Stein’s own earlier attempts at a phenomenological reduction from individual women to Woman—an attempt that yielded only the verbal rendering of an abstract ideal or essence. Le Fort’s work provides Stein with an alternative approach. Through The Song at the Scaffold, Le Fort’s “Praise of Mary” as “Eternal Woman” thus serves not only to confirm and to synthesize Stein’s own Mariology, but also to contribute to its development, which culminates in one of Stein’s last and most eloquent writings, the poetic dialogue, “Conversations at Night.” The latter, composed in June, 1941, may rightly be characterized as Stein’s belated answer, shortly before her own martyrdom, to Le Fort’s The Song at the Scaffold.

The Virgin Mary in Stein’s Writings on Woman before 1933

Prior to her first reading in 1933 of Le Fort’s The Eternal Woman, Stein had given many talks to Catholic women’s groups on the topic of woman’s calling, education, and social significance. In April, 1928, she addressed the Bavarian Catholic Women Teachers on “The Significance of Women’s Intrinsic Value in National Life.” In 1929 she spoke on “The Catholic Woman’s [Three-fold] Mission,” in religious life, in marriage and family, and in the life of the wider community. In the summer of 1930 she gave a talk in Salzburg to the Association of Catholic Academics entitled “The Ethos of Woman’s Professions.” In November of that same year, she addressed the Federation of German Catholic Women at Bendorf on the Rhine on the topic, “Fundamental Principles of Women’s Education.” The theme of her 1931 lecture tour in Westphalia was the “Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace.” In 1932, the year of her appointment as lecturer in Münster at the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy, she gave four talks in Zurich on “Spirituality of the Christian Woman” to the Organization of Catholic Women; she spoke at a youth convention in Augsburg on “The Church, Woman, and Youth”; and she published her collected pedagogical lectures, given in Münster, under the title “Problems of Women’s Education.”

There is a realism and urgency in these talks, through which Stein attempts to help women come to a clear, personal, and collective sense of their distinctive gifts and calling as women within a modern, post-war society that suddenly confronted them with new opportunities, new demands, and new dangers. Stein’s starting point is her diagnosis of the contemporary scene—the specific challenges it posed to the women of her own and younger generations who did not want to lose a sense of themselves as women; the educational means and the spiritual resources needed to preserve and strengthen that identity within a changed cultural landscape. Given this starting point and Stein’s philosophical training as a phenomenologist, it is perhaps not surprising that Stein’s Mariology in these essays is relatively weak in comparison to that of Le Fort, whose starting point is precisely Mary, the “eternal woman.” As Freda Mary Oben observes, “Yes, the Catholic woman finds much strength in Stein’s reverence for Mary. Yet, [Stein] is analyzing the universal woman objectively because it is the basic nature of woman that she is describing through the phenomenological method.”[6]

However, if we survey references to Mary in Stein’s lectures on woman and to women, chronologically arranged, we observe a gradual shift from glancing to Mary as an objective, ideal model for virtuous imitation, to a call for consecration to Mary and innermost identification with Mary. The shift, one may say, is from a woman’s desiring to be like Mary, to a daring desire to participate somehow in Mary’s own being, to be and to become Mary for God and others, to take Mary as a personal symbol. Indeed, individual expressions found in Stein’s later writings—those composed between 1931 and 1933—closely resemble those found in Le Fort’s Eternal Woman, published in 1933.

Discussing women’s call to “motherliness in national life” in a 1928 talk, for example, Stein warns: “motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relatives or personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened.”[7] Similarly, in “Ethos of Woman’s Professions” (1930), Stein points to Mary as a model mother for mothers, a model spouse for wives practicing domestic virtues, and a model of communal service for those in public life: “For example, Mary at the wedding in Cana in her quiet, observing look surveys everything and discovers what is lacking . . . Let her be the prototype of women in professional life.”[8] Writing in that same year (1930) about fundamental principles of women’s education, Stein observes, “There is an ideal image of the gestalt of the feminine soul. The soul of the first woman was formed for this purpose, and so, too, was the soul of the Mother of God.”[9] Her nature determined by her “original vocation of spouse and mother,” the ideal gestalt of a woman’s soul, according to Stein, is “expansive and open to all human beings; quiet . . . warm, clear, . . . self-contained, empty of self, mistress of itself,” like Mary’s own.[10]

Stein saw the unfolding of this gestalt as the aim of an educational process especially suited to woman’s nature. In “Problems of Women’s Education” (1932) she insists: “Since Mary is the prototype of pure womanhood, the imitation of Mary must be the goal of girls’ education . . . The imitation of Mary includes the imitation of Christ, because Mary is the first Christian to follow Christ.”[11] That same essay presents “the perfect ideal of woman” as virgin and mother as “exemplified by the Virgin Mother,” and heralds “this perfect ideal” as “the goal of the entire education of girls in a spiritual sense,” rendering girls inwardly free later to choose religious life, consecrated singleness, or marriage, in keeping with their personal vocations; free, too, to be truly maternal and fruitful in their virginity and singleness, and to be spiritually virginal as married women, achieving in either case a full realization of their womanly personhood. For Stein, a spiritual brideship belongs both to the fruitfulness of the virgin and to the “virginity” of the married woman, both of whom are called to an intimate union with Christ. Here, too, Mary is the model. In “Separate Vocations of Man and Woman” (1931), Stein points to the unparalleled closeness between Mary and her Son Jesus: “He formed her so closely after His own image as no other human being before or after; He gave her a place in the Church for all eternity such as has been given to no other human being. And just so, He has called women in all times to the most intimate union with Him.”[12]

Mary’s unique election and closeness to Christ imply and necessitate for other women a mysterious participation in Mary’s Christ-centered life that exceeds mere imitation of her observable attitudes and actions, her admired virtues. Stein’s later essays, therefore, take a turn toward Le Fort’s understanding of Mary as “Eternal Woman.” In “Spirituality of the Christian Woman” (1932), Stein writes, for example: “Woman’s destiny stems from eternity. She must be mindful of eternity to define her vocation in the world. If she complies with her vocation, she achieves her destiny in eternal life.”[13] Stein continues: “Every woman who wants to fulfill her destiny must look to Mary as ideal . . . Every woman has something in herself inherited from Eve, and she must search for the way from Eve to Mary.”[14] Riveted by the discovery of a special two-in-oneness between Mary and every woman—a two-in-oneness beautifully apparent in holy women—Stein speaks in “The Church, Woman, and Youth” (1932) of “a collaboration of Mary with every woman wherever that woman is fulfilling her vocation as woman.”[15]

By 1932, Stein had become convinced that traditional Marian devotions—e.g., May Crownings, occasional pilgrimages to Marian shrines, popular hymns, the public recitation of the rosary—are insufficient, in and of themselves, as supports for the women of her day, who need the strength of a deep, constant, lived relationship with Mary. The dogmatic bases for the Marian devotions need to be “set much more forcefully,”[16] Stein urges, so that a genuinely devout life and striving for holiness finds nourishment in them: “Only the one who believes in the unlimited power of the Help of Christians will surrender to her protection, not only in communal repetitive prayer but in an act of surrender; and Mary will protect whoever stays in her care.”[17] In that same talk, given at Augsburg in 1932, Stein asserts:

Those women who want to fulfill their feminine vocations in one of several ways will most surely succeed in their goals if they not only keep the ideal of the Virgo-Mater before their eyes and strive to form themselves according to her image, but if they also entrust themselves to her guidance and place themselves completely under her care. She can form in her own image those who belong to her.”[18]

Eternity and Surrender: Mary and Le Fort’s Symbolic Women

Edith Stein’s vocabulary of eternity, destiny, vocation, and surrender in 1931 and 1932 presages Le Fort’s The Eternal Woman (1933), but it may also echo Le Fort’s The Veil of Veronica (Das Schweisstuch der Veronika), an autobiographical novel first published in 1928. Stein’s earliest extant letter to Le Fort, dated October 9, 1933, reveals her familiarity with that novel of religious conversion. Comparing her own mother to Veronica’s strong-willed grandmother in the novel, Stein implicitly likens her own conversion at once to Veronica’s and to Le Fort’s.[19] In that first novel of Le Fort’s, the girl Veronica responds to the gift of grace with an act of total surrender to God, whereas her aunt Edelgart, likewise graced in her youth, stops short of a complete self-giving to God and long endures the disfiguring inner torment that results from that refusal, until she too, finally, surrenders and comes to peace.

Commenting upon Le Fort’s characteristic vocabulary of eternity and surrender, Sr. Laetifera Colet, SSpS, explains, “By the eternal, [Le Fort] refers not merely to the timeless and the absolute, but more specifically to the infinite dimensions of the mind and will of God.”[20] In choosing the word “surrender,” instead of “the more positive words, devotion or self-giving, or the more negative ones, resignation or submission,” Le Fort evokes the paradox of surrender as “at once a yielding and a conquest, weakness and power, annihilation and creativity, anonymity and openness, captivity and freedom, death and life.”[21] In Le Fort’s theological novels, “[human] fulfillment or frustration is in direct proportion to [each one’s] capacity to surrender to the divine will”[22]—a mysterious capacity that Le Fort associates with “the mystery of woman.”[23] “Wherever woman is most profoundly herself,” writes Le Fort, “she is so not as herself but as surrendered, and wherever she is surrendered, there she is also bride and mother.”[24]

Finding the full meaning of her existence in her surrender to the will of God, woman—as Le Fort envisions her—is inherently “symbolic,” the sacramental sign of the divine presence to which she is related, whether through obedience or disobedience. Called to surrender, empirical woman remains a symbol of that surrender, “even when the individual no longer recognizes [the] meaning [of her symbol], or when [she] has gone so far as even to reject or deny [it].”[25] As Le Fort explains in the introduction to The Eternal Woman, “This book is an attempt to interpret the significance of woman not in the light of her psychological or biological, her historical or social position, but under her symbolic aspect.”[26]

In his 1973 book, Woman in Christian Tradition, George Tavard worries that Le Fort’s approach, which emphasizes a Marian archetype of obedience and surrender to God, paints a positive, idealized portrait that inevitably also recalls (and thus possibly re-inscribes) a misogynist tradition foregrounding woman as Eve-like in her weakness before the tempter, in her disobedience, and in her seduction of man. “One form of the tradition that sees the female vocation as that of the servant actually constitutes a countertradition,” he writes—one that justifies women’s subjection to men on the basis of her moral and ethical inferiority, her status as “a symbol of temptation.”[27]

Le Fort freely acknowledges that her approach might easily be misunderstood in a fallen world and a secularized age, when even the natural world has lost its symbolic power, when it goes unrecognized as God’s creation, unseen “under the aspect of eternity.”[28] She nevertheless chooses a symbolic, theologically grounded approach that contrasts with the phenomenological reduction practiced by Stein who, in “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” seeks to define “woman’s soul” as a species first by sketching “a series of [womanly] types as different as possible from one another.” Stein uses literary heroines found in Sigrid Undset’s Olaf Audunssohn, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Goethe’s Iphigenie, and then discerns “a general species in them.”[29] Le Fort expressly rejects this approach: “It is by no means a question of presenting or even of transposing certain characteristics of the empirical image of woman which are relatively unchanging and might, in a restricted, earthly sense, be termed eternal. It is rather a matter of the cosmic, the metaphysical countenance of woman, of woman as a mystery,” which finds its “ultimate origin in God.”[30]

For this symbolic womanhood, the symbol of symbols can only be Mary, whom Le Fort names “the Eternal Woman.” Assumed into heaven body and soul, Mary enjoys eternal life in a completely human and womanly manner different from that of the separated souls of the faithful departed. Le Fort does not refer primarily to this Marian privilege, however, in calling her “the Eternal Woman.” Rather, Le Fort sees Mary’s eternal status in her perfect conformity to the divine wish and will, in her fiat to the Incarnation and to each and every detail in God’s providential plan for her life and the life of her Son, including his death at Calvary, “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).[31] Sinless, free in her yes to God and free from any egotistic rebellion, Mary shares in God’s own eternity through the constancy of her surrender to him. While every human—man and woman—is called to this holiness, Mary alone—Mary the woman at Christ’s side (cf. John 2:4; 19:26), Mary the New Eve and Mother of all the living, Mary the Immaculate Conception, Mary the Mother of God—has realized this call in a perfect way, through every earthly trial foreseen for her, through her faithful surrender to God grounding each of her actions, all of her suffering, each of her joys.

Le Fort begins her tripartite treatise with the praise of Mary as the Eternal Woman, and the book as a whole takes its title from these first few pages. In Le Fort’s presentation of her, Mary is a woman who is “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42) and not an “incarnation of womanliness as such,” but she symbolizes womanhood to an unsurpassed degree, because “in her alone the metaphysical mystery of woman has become tangible and hence intelligible.”[32] The second part, entitled “Woman in Time,” reflects upon woman in her Mary-like surrender as virgin and bride, while the third part, “Timeless Woman,” explores the maternal dimension of womanly being, acting, and suffering. “The salvation of every individual woman,” Le Fort argues, “is indissolubly bound not only to the image of Mary, but also to her mission,”[33] in which woman is called to continue in a mysterious union with Mary: “Mary stands for her daughters, but her daughters must also stand for her.”[34]

The symbolic women who are the heroines of Le Fort’s novels “stand for” Mary in complex ways that help to mediate between the Mary of the Scriptures and Tradition and the women of Le Fort’s own time, suffering uprootedness, economic instability, and existential anguish within secularized societies, newly vulnerable to materialist and fascist movements and to their violence. Even as she points to Mary as the “spotless mirror” (Wis 7:26) and “Mirror of Justice,”[35] the child Veronica in Le Fort’s earliest novel is a “little mirror” (Spiegelchen), clear sighted in her beholding of the human dramas in her surroundings—dramas that presage the battles between Christianity and the neo-paganism of the Third Reich.[36] When Veronica spontaneously kneels before the Monstrance during a Holy Week liturgy in Rome, that action of hers offends her unbelieving grandmother who tells her sternly, “You have no right to kneel.”[37]

The historical fiction of 1935, The Song at the Scaffold, is even clearer in its Marian imagery and imperative. Commemorating the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne who were guillotined on July 17, 1794, during the Reign of Terror, Le Fort’s book intentionally mirrors the madness of her own time, when Europe stood on the brink of a second world war.[38] The Prioress, Mother Lidoine, mediates between the two main figures, Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, the only surviving nun of Compiègne, and the young novice, Blanche de la Force, who first runs away from the convent but then returns to the Sisters at the scene of execution to die there with them after singing the last verse of the song they had been chanting, Veni Creator Spiritus. Traumatized from birth, Blanche is a timid person, plunged by destiny into the terrifying chaos of the revolution. In the Order, she receives the name that befits the mystery of her life, “Sister Jesus of the Agony in the Garden;” she accepts her mortifying experience of fear as a mystical participation in Christ’s own human dread of the Passion and death he was soon to undergo. Marie de l’Incarnation, by contrast, is an impressive, courageous woman, eager for martyrdom, who inspires the other Sisters to make a consecration, offering their lives for the redemption of France and the preservation of the monarchy. After the public execution of King Louis XVI, Mother Lidoine then takes the initiative for a second, unconditional consecration: “a sacrifice without hope, sacrifice for God alone, sacrifice without heroism, sacrifice only through God, sacrifice in the dark of the night, a sacrifice in the midst of chaos.”[39]

In the The Song at the Scaffold, the great-hearted novice mistress and the fearful novice have a special interpersonal relationship, the older nun pledging herself in responsibility for the younger, the younger ultimately substituting for the older one on the day of her longed-for martyrdom. The communion of their persons in Christ works to effect a deeper integration in each. Named for Mary and nicknamed “Sister Marie of the Christchild,”[40] the novice mistress, too-eager for a martyr’s crown, is required in the end to renounce that glory, to suffer her God-willed, lonely survival instead, and to “remember the silence of Mary”[41] at the cross in the very hour when Blanche, finally fearless through grace and grace alone, sings the Song at the Scaffold, redeeming Sister Marie’s pledge. Purified through their different surrenders to God’s will, each Sister mysteriously supports the other in her weakness, which proves no barrier to holiness. Witnessing to Blanche’s martyrdom, the bereft survivor, who had earlier urged Blanche’s dismissal from the convent, is left with the question: “Must fear and horror always be evil? Is it not possible that they may be deeper than courage, something that corresponds far more to the reality of things, to the terrors of the world, and to our own weakness?”[42] For Le Fort, the anti-heroine whose recognized weakness motivates her complete surrender to God, is the one whom God exalts. Mary’s “Song at the Scaffold” is also her Magnificat: “He has exalted the lowly” (Lk 1:52).

The “Eternal Woman” in Edith Stein’s Mature Mariology

As we have seen, Stein read The Song at the Scaffold during her retreat in January 1935. That same year she calls significant attention to the martyred Carmelites in her essay “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” highlighting in it the theme of self-surrender: “[Not] every age gives us a reign of terror during which we have the opportunity to lay our heads on the executioner’s block for the faith and for the ideal of our Order as did the sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne. But all who enter Carmel must give themselves wholly to the Lord.”[43] Two years later, on 7 May 1937, she wrote to a Dominican Sister about the recent martyrdom of three Carmelite nuns in Spain: “So far we still live in deep peace . . . But the fate of our Spanish sisters tells us, all the same, what we must be prepared for.”[44]

George Tavard maintains, “It requires a good deal of imagination to see Gertrud Von Le Fort’s ‘eternal woman’ embodied in what she calls ‘woman in time,’”[45] but Edith Stein seems to have had little difficulty doing precisely that. A survey of her references to the Virgin Mary in her post-1930 writings show a deep bond to Mary, whose life Stein identified with her own as a woman, a Carmelite, a Jew, and a Christian. Although Stein’s religious name, “Teresa Benedicta a Cruce,” claims as her name-patrons Saints Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Benedict of Nursia,[46] the participle “Benedicta” lays claim also to a specifically Marian patronage: “Blessed are you among women” (“Benedicta tu in mulieribus”).[47]

In the aforementioned 1935 essay “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” Stein paints a Marian picture of the Order, highlighting the Virgin’s appearance to Simon Stock in 1251, but also her symbolic appearance to the prophet Elijah: “It was she who manifested herself . . . in the form of a little rain cloud and for whom the sons of the prophets built the first shrine on Mount Carmel.”[48] Indeed, Stein remarks, Mary desired to live there, together with the hermits, the “brothers of the Blessed Virgin,”[49] and to pray with them and for them on the holy mountain. Mary’s life thus became their own: “Released from everything earthly, to stand in worship in the presence of God, to love him with her whole heart, to beseech his grace for sinful people, and in atonement to substitute herself for these people, as the maidservant of the Lord to await his beckoning—this was her life.”[50]

In her hagiography of Saint Teresa of Avila, Stein again recalls the prophet Elijah’s pointing to a little white cloud that would bring a deluge of rain (cf. 1 Kings 18:44)—a sign traditionally interpreted as a figure of the Virgin Mary from whom would come the Just One: “Let the heavens rain down the Just One” (Isa 45:8). “His prophetic vision,” writes Stein, “recognized the image of the Virgin who would bear God, she who would bring grace.”[51] Elijah, the father and founder of the Carmelites, thus heralded Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and with her, all of her daughters. At the death of her own mother, Stein recalls, the thirteen-year-old Teresa had “implored the Holy Virgin to become [her] mother now.”[52] “His protectress from childhood,”[53] the holy Mother similarly interceded for Saint John of the Cross, saving him from abuse and imprisonment. In her short biographies of other Carmelite saints—Sr. Marie-Aimée de Jésus, St. Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart—Stein also emphasizes their attachment to Mary and their experience of her motherly care.[54] In an essay for the first profession of Sister Miriam of Little St. Therese (16 July 1940), Stein points to Mary as the name-patron of the Sister and as a model for her life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.[55]

Finding her own vocation as a Carmelite in contemplative prayer and reparation, Stein looks to Mary especially as a model of mystical union with Christ. “At that time [the time of the Incarnation],” she writes, “there was woven between the soul of the divine Child and the soul of the Virgin Mother the bond of the most intimate unity, which we call betrothal.”[56] For Stein, the intimate communion of persons between Jesus and Mary has effected through grace the “integral complementarily” (to use Prudence Allen’s phrase) between them, as well as personal integration within Mary herself, the sinless one in whom there is no discord between reason, will, and emotion, and thus made Mary a new person for the new community of the redeemed.[57]

In an important essay, “The Prayer of the Church,” Stein elaborates upon Jesus’s own comparison of his body to the Temple. She likens Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer” on the night of his arrest to the prayer of the High Priest in the Temple, who enters the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifice “before the face of the Lord.”[58] Jesus’s soul was this Holy of Holies, she explains, but in Christ, we also enter it, making his prayer our own:

The Virgin, who kept every word sent from God in her heart, is the model for such attentive souls in whom Jesus’ high priestly prayer comes to life again and again. And women who, like her, were totally self-forgetful because they were steeped in the life and suffering of Christ, were the Lord’s choice as instruments to accomplish great things in the church.[59]

Born on the Day of Atonement, Stein hints here at her original identification with Mary, “the eternal woman,” whose soul was united with Christ’s in offering atonement. Understanding the saints of the Old Testament to prefigure Jesus and Mary and the saints of the New Dispensation similarly to bear their images,[60] Stein—ever faithful to her Jewish inheritance—found a personal symbol of discipleship in Queen Esther, whom Christian liturgy honors as a type or figura of Mary. Writing in October, 1938, to an Ursuline friend, she describes herself as “a very poor and powerless Esther,” who, like the biblical queen, “was taken from among her people precisely that she might represent them before the king” in prayer, petition, and self-offering.[61] The convent dialogue, “Conversations at Night,” composed for the birthday on June 13, 1941, of Mother Antonia, the prioress of the Carmel in Echt—shows Stein’s close identification with “Esther the Queen,” who risked her life to save the Jews, and thus with Mary herself, the “eternal woman.”[62]

In this dialogue, the Mother Superior is awakened at night in her cell by a mysterious visitor, a “feminine form,”[63] seeking shelter. Because the stranger comes shelter-seeking, the nun is immediately reminded of the Virgin Mother Mary, “that pure one, the Immaculate,” who “once . . . also sought lodgings.”[64] The stranger explains that she is not Mary, but Esther, whose “life serves as an image”[65] of Mary for her. As the conversation continues, historical parallels between Esther’s life and Mary’s are noted, but also the deep personal identification of Esther with Mary. To both women befell “an unforeseen fate;” both found themselves a “poor maidservant of the Lord.”[66] Promised the salvation of her people by the “Eternal,” the “highest Lord,” Esther once dared her intercession for Israel, and now she returns from eternity into a modern time, when Hitler, “another Haman,” seeks the genocide of the Jews. In the interval between these earthly times—her own and ours—Esther has been granted from eternity a vision of the crucifixion of Jesus through which “the fullness of grace” has flowed from his opened side “into the Virgin’s heart” and from there, to the members of his mystical body. “The Mother ceaselessly pleads for her people,” Esther says, “She seeks souls to help her pray.”[67] Esther herself has been sent by “the Queen of Carmel,” therefore, to petition her Carmelite daughters to shelter the persecuted Jews, “praying secretly and sacrificing secretly” for them, until “the twelve tribes have found their Lord” in the Crucified.[68] This prayer, this self-offering for another, is Stein’s “Song at the Scaffold.”

Sister Allen has written that the guillotine used to execute the Carmelites of Compiegne and many others during the Reign of Terror symbolizes the Cartesian split between mind and body, the disintegration or fragmentation of reason and emotion in the modern person.[69] Historically, the death of the sixteen Carmelites, singing their Salve Regina and their Veni Creator Spiritus at the scaffold, brought the reign of terror to its end, humanizing the hushed crowd of bystanders through its powerful witness of faith, innocence, and sisterly unity.[70] For Stein, reading Le Fort’s historical fiction about the martyrs in the light of The Eternal Woman, everything else previously written about woman is “superfluous.” Stein cites Le Fort’s Eternal Woman in her magnum opus, Finite and Eternal Being,[71] and she turns her attention to the idea of the symbol in her very last writings, “Ways to Know God: The ‘Symbolic Theology’ of Dionysius the Areopagite and Its Objective Presuppositions” and The Science of the Cross. Stein’s “Conversations at Night” belong to this body of symbolic writing, within which Esther and the Virgin Mary figure as personal symbols for Stein, expressing and securing her own eternity as woman and her hope in Christ for humankind.

Editorial Statement: This essay is a version of a lecture delivered at the "Concept of Woman Seminar," which explored the work of Sr. Prudence Allen. The event was hosted by the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity of the McGrath Institute for Church Life. The papers from the seminar will be collected here as they are published.

Featured Image: Orthodox pilgrim praying in front of icon of Saint Mary in Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Ukraine, Taken on: 7 January 2013, Taken by: Petar Milošević; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

[1] Edith Stein, Letter 192, in Self-Portrait in Letters, 1916−1942, trans. Josephine Koeppel, OCD (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1993), 196̶−97; qtd. Sister Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman, Vol. III: The Search for Communion of Persons, 1500−2015 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), 383−384.

[2] Stein, Letter 158, in Self-Portrait in Letters, 159.

[3] The Song from the Scaffold must have been Le Fort’s “Christmas gift” to Stein, since she thanks Le Fort in October , 1933, for sending her a copy of her “beautiful praise of Mary,” namely, The Eternal Woman, for which Stein had begged her in a letter the previous month. See Letters 156 and 158 in Self-Portrait in Letters. For a study of the significance of the story of the martyred Carmelites to Le Fort, Stein, and Bernanos, see Felix M. Schandl, O.Carm., “Gewaltexzess und Glaubenskraft: Edith Stein, Gertrud von le Fort und die ‘Gespräche der Karmelitinnen’ von Compiègne,” ThPh 81 (2006): 76−92.

[4] Prudence Allen, Concept of Woman, Vol. III: The Search for the Communion of Persons, 326−27.

[5] Henri de Lubac, The Splendour of the Church, trans. Michael Mason ([1956] Glen Rock, NJ: Deus Books, 1963), Splendour of the Church, 217−18.

[6] Freda Mary Oben, “Translator’s Preface to the Second Edition,” in Edith Stein, Essays on Woman, trans. Freda Mary Oben, 2nd rev. ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), vii.

[7] Stein, “The Significance of Woman’s Intrinsic Value in National Life,” in Essays on Woman, 264.

[8] Stein, “Ethos of Woman’s Professions,” in Essays on Woman, 51.

[9] Stein, “Principles of Women’s Education,” in Essays on Woman, 133.

[10] Ibid., 132−33.

[11] Stein, “Problems of Women’s Education,” in Essays on Woman, 201

[12] Stein, “Separate Vocations of Man and Woman,” in Essays on Woman, 84.

[13] Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” in Essays on Woman, 118.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Stein, “The Church, Woman, and Youth,” in Essays on Woman, 241.

[16] Ibid., 248.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 241.

[19] Stein, Self-Portrait in Letters, 158. Stein was baptized on January 1, 1922; Le Fort joined the Roman Catholic Church in Rome in 1926.

[20] Sr. Laetifera Colet, SSpS, “Woman as Symbol in the Novels of Gertrud von le Fort,” Fu Jen Studies 1 (1968): 87−107, qtd. at 89.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 88.

[23] Gertrud von Le Fort, The Eternal Woman, trans. Placid Jordan, OSB (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1962), 6.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., xiii.

[26] Ibid.

[27] George H. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973), 147.

[28] Ibid., 1.

[29] Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” in Essays on Woman, 88−89.

[30] Le Fort, Eternal Woman, 1.

[31] Unless otherwise indicated, I use The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, n.d.). On the fulfillment of the Scriptures in Jesus’s Passion, see also Mt 27:9; Lk 22:37; Mk 14:49; Jn 19: 24, 28, 36.

[32] Le Fort, Eternal Woman, 2−3.

[33] Ibid., 98.

[34] Ibid., 100.

[35] Title given to Mary in the Litany of Loreto.

[36] Le Fort’s continuation of the story of Veronica and Enzio in a 1946 sequel makes this historical connection unmistakable.

[37] Gertrud von Le Fort, The Veil of Veronica, trans. Conrad M. R. Bonacina (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 158.

[38] See Kurt F. Reinhardt, The Theological Novel of Modern Europe: An Analysis of Masterpieces by Eight Authors (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969), 225−34.

[39] Gertrud von Le Fort, The Song at the Scaffold, trans. Olga Marx (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), 91.

[40] Ibid., 22.

[41] Ibid., 104.

[42] Ibid., 25−26.

[43] Edith Stein, “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” in Stein, The Hidden Life: Hagiographic Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, trans. Waltraut Stein (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1992), 6.

[44] Stein, Letter 238, in Self-Portrait in Letters, 250.

[45] Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, 139.

[46] See Letters 287 and 178 in Self-Portrait in Letters, 295 and 281.

[47] See Lk 1:42. Elizabeth’s salutation of Mary reechoes in the “Hail Mary” prayer.

[48] Stein, Hidden Life, 3.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Stein, “Love for Love: Life and Works of St. Teresa of Jesus,” in Hidden Life, 35.

[52] Ibid., 31.

[53] Ibid., 63.

[54] See Hidden Life, 67, 76.

[55] See Hidden Life, 105−07.

[56] Stein, “The Marriage of the Lamb: For September 14, 1940,” in Hidden Life, 98.

[57] The Marian ideal of the new person in the new community is motivational for the Schoenstatt Work, founded by Father Joseph Kentenich in Germany in 1914 through a covenant of love with Mary, our Lady of Schoenstatt.

[58] Stein, Hidden Life, 12−13.

[59] Ibid., 13.

[60] See Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt at an Ascent to the Meaning of Being, trans. Kurt F. Reinhardt, ed. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2002), 526. Stein’s theology of historical figuration is complex, because she (like Augustine before her) believes Christ to have been the prototype for Adam at Adam’s creation. She calls Mary’s Fiat the “culmination” of Israel’s striving, generation after generation, for obedience to God’s Law.

[61] Stein, Letter 281, in Self-Portrait in Letters, 291.

[62] Stein, “Conversation at Night,” in Hidden Life, 129.

[63] Ibid., 128.

[64] Ibid., 129.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., 130.

[67] Ibid., 133.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Allen, Concept of Woman, Vol. III: The Search for the Communion of Persons, 326.

[70] Ibid.,326, 338−39.

[71] Stein, Finite and Eternal Being, 587, note 259.


Ann Astell

Sr. Ann W. Astell is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of six books, most recently Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. She has edited seven collections of essays.

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