Empathy in the school of St. Edith Stein (2/2)

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Empathy as a source of relational, personal and spiritual growth

(from Alphonsian Academy blog)

In our last reflection, we realised that for Edith Stein, the empathic act refers to the subjective, inner perception of another’s experience. Indeed, from a phenomenological point of view, Stein insists that empathy is an inner knowledge of what the other is experiencing, and not an emotional sympathy that makes one feel what the other is feeling.[1] Therefore, it is always necessary to look with a certain detachment in order not to confuse our own experience with the experience of the other.

This empathic understanding of the other’s perspective fosters a personal enrichment regarding the perception of oneself and that of the other’s inner world.[2] In fact, according to Ottone, “the experience of the other produces each time a modification of oneself and of one’s own identity”.[3] In this sense, Edith recounts two significant events in her life to demonstrate how empathy was for her an opportunity for relational, personal and spiritual growth.

The empathy of her fellow students, who showed and emphasised her exceptional intellectual abilities, helped her to become more aware of her potential and decide to pursue her doctoral studies.[4] The empathetic gaze of her colleagues and their recognition thus enabled her to experience personal growth and develop greater self-confidence. Thus, Stein helps us to understand how, on an inter-relational level, the constructive empathic attitude of others can be a path of personal enrichment to know ourselves better and to realise our gifts and talents given by the Lord.

Another crucial event in her understanding of empathy was the death of her colleague Reinach, which saddened her greatly. When she met Reinach’s widow (who was also a friend of Stein’s), she thought she would find a broken woman. On the contrary, she was shocked to find that this woman was able to sublimate her sorrow through hope and faith in Christ’s resurrection, which gave her the strength to comfort others.[5] Edith then realised her misperception: she had projected her own sadness onto her. In an act of genuine empathy, Edith perceived the depth of her friend’s spiritual life. And this empathic experience transformed her so profoundly that it was the decisive cause of her conversion to Christianity.[6] This example shows us how empathic understanding of the experience of others can, according to Stein, contribute to our personal and spiritual development.

Stein’s phenomenological empathy can thus have at least two impacts on our spiritual life. First, God’s empathy towards us was manifested through the Incarnation of Jesus: in an empathic way, he became man (Phil 2:5-9).[7] Thus, God, through his Son, empathically perceives and understands human reality, our experiences and sufferings (Heb 2:18). Secondly, Christ has revealed to us a personal God who wants to establish an I-Thou relationship with us. Therefore, the saint invites us to turn our capacity for empathy towards God. In the sense that through an empathic relationship with God, we can, as adopted children (Rom 8:15), understand and perceive in prayer and contemplation the compassionate love of the Father and his Son towards us.[8] This spiritual and mystical experience, thanks to the grace of baptism, enables our soul to gain an authentic knowledge of our identity and personality on the relational, personal and spiritual levels.[9]

It can therefore be argued that St Edith Stein’s phenomenological reflection, in the light of her eight years of mystical experience in Carmel (1934-1942), enabled her to open up a rich path towards a Christian vision of empathy, which enables us to perceive the inner world of the other, but also to develop a spiritual relationship with the Other.[10]

Mario Boies, C.Ss.R., M.Ps.

[1]    Cf. E. Stein, «Il problema dell’empatia», in E. Costantini – P. Valori et al. (ed.), Il problema dell’empatia: Edith Stein. Introduzione e note a cura di Elio Costantini. Presentazione di Paolo Valori, Studium Edizioni, Roma 1985, 89-90.

[2]    Cf.  Ibid., 156-157 ; M.-M. Barrié, L’empathie à l’école du Christ : phénoménologie, neurosciences, accompagnement spirituel, (Recherches carmélitaines, no. 20), Editions du Carmel, Toulouse 2020, 33-34 ; R. Körner, «L’empatia nel senso di Edith Stein: una atto fondamentale della persona nel processo cristiano della fede», Simposio Internazionale. Edith Stein: testimone per oggi, profeta per domani. Teresianum, Roma, Ottobre (1998), e4, in http://www.ocd.pcn.net/edsi_kor.htm, [Accesso: 01.06.2021].

[3]    R. Ottone, La chiave del castello: l’interesse teologico dell’empatia di Gesù, Edizioni Dehoniane EDB, Bologna 2018, 132-133.

[4]    Cf. C. Lippinois, «Une vie pour l’empathie: Edith Stein», Temporel (2012), e5, in http://temporel.fr/Une-vie-pour-l-empathie-Edith, [Accesso: 01.06.2021].

[5]    Cf. Ibid.

[6]    Cf. Ibid.

[7]    Cf. R. Ottone, La chiave del castello, 525-529 ; R. Korner, «L’Empatia nel senso di Edith Stein: un atto fondamentale della persona nel processo cristiano della fede» (1998), e7, in http://www.ocd.pcn.net/edsi_kor.htm, [Accesso: accesso: 01.06.2021].

[8]    Cf. C. Lippinois, «Une vie pour l’empathie», e4 ; R. Korner, «L’Empatia nel senso di Edith Stein», e6-7.

[9]    Cf. M.-M. Barrié, L’empathie à l’école du Christ, 138.

[10]    Cf. C. Lippinois, «Une vie pour l’empathie», e9.

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