Edith Stein

Woman’s formation

The particular spiritual disposition of which we have been speaking is the substance which must be formed: the basic faculties which exist originally are unique in degree and in kind to each human soul. It is not inanimate material which must be entirely developed or formed in an exterior way, as is clay by the artist’s hand or stone by the weather’s elemental forces; it is rather a living formative root which possesses within itself the driving power (inner form) toward development in a particular direction; the seed must grow and ripen into the perfect gestalt, perfect creation. Thus envisaged, formation of the spirit is a developmental process similar to that of the plant. However, the plant’s organic growth and development do not come about wholly from within: there are also exterior influences which work together to determine its formation, such as climate, soil, etc.; just so, in the soul’s formation, exterior factors as well as interior ones, play a role. We have seen that the soul can be developed only through activation of its faculties; and the faculties depend on material to be activated (and, indeed, on material which is suitable to them): the senses, through impressions which they receive and process, the intellect through mental performance, the will through achievements which are characteristic to it, the emotions through the variety of feelings, moods, and attitudes. Definite motives which place the faculties into motion are needed for all of this.

Simple contact with other people and with one’s surroundings is often sufficient to stimulate certain responses. Ordinary daily existence conditions the formation of the spirit. However, instruction and guidance are needed for other responses, especially those involving the higher faculties. Allowance should be made for spontaneity as well as planned work and instruction. Formation requires the creation of educational subject matters which will place duties before intellect and will, stir the emotions, and fulfill the soul. But here we enter into the realm of values—the good, the beautiful, the noble, the sacred—the specific values which are unique to each soul and to its individual quality.

Cognitive work and achievements of the will are free actions; so, too, surrender to or rejection of original, involuntary, self-governing emotional stimulations is a matter of freedom. Thus, the human being awakened to freedom is not simply delivered to exterior formative influences; but, on the contrary, he can yield himself to them or reject them as he searches for or avoids possible formative influences. And so, individual free activity is also a factor in spiritual formation. All of the exterior educational factors—everyday existence, planned as well as free, self-developmental work—are bound in their efficacy to the first factor, the natural predisposition; they cannot endow the person with qualities which are not in him by nature. All human education can only provide subject matter and render it “palatable”; it can lead the way and “demonstrate” in order to stimulate activity, but it cannot force acceptance or imitation. Nature sets the limits of personal formative work. Nature and the subject’s freedom of will impose limits on spiritual formation. But there is one Educator for whom these limits do not exist: God, who has given nature, can transform it in a manner which turns it from its natural course of development (just as He can intervene by His miracles in the normal course of external natural occurrences). And even though He has excluded also a mechanically necessary rule of the human will by His gift of freedom, He can bring the will’s interior inclination toward a decision to execute that which is presented to it.

Thus we have attained a certain insight into the nature of education: the process of shaping the natural spiritual predisposition. In customary usage, the term “education” also signifies the result of these processes—the gestalt which the soul assumes thereby, perhaps also the soul thus formed, and even the spiritual matters which it receives.

In trying to formulate a proper educational program for women, the stress is often laid on questions of method. Whoever is concerned with the spiritual formation of woman must first of all be aware of the material with which he is dealing, that is, the predisposition of the human being whom he is supposed to educate. He must especially understand the unique quality of feminine spirituality and the individual nature of his pupils. He must also be aware of earlier influences, such as home environment, which have already affected and still affect his students.

He must know whether they are in harmony or not with his own aims and purposes or whether, if they are not, an effort should be made to eliminate them. The educator must be fully conscious of the objectives he has set for himself and for others, which, of course, depend on his total vision of the world. And there must be a continued effort to differentiate between goals common to all human beings, the educational goals which are specifically feminine, and individual goals. These cannot be set up arbitrarily but are determined by God Himself. Holy Scripture counsels us on the destiny of the human being in general and that of woman in particular. Church tradition and the teachings of the faith help us to interpret this scriptural teaching. The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s word describes the multiplicity of gifts afforded in the Mystical Body of Christ. The individual must discover his own unique gift.

God has given each human being a threefold destiny: to grow into the likeness of God through the development of his faculties, to procreate descendants, and to hold dominion over the earth. In addition, it is promised that a life of faith and personal union with the Redeemer will be rewarded by eternal contemplation of God. These destinies, natural and supernatural, are identical for both man and woman. But in the realm of duties, differences determined by sex exist. Lordship over the earth is the primary occupation of man: for this, the woman is placed at his side as helpmate. The primary calling of woman is the procreation and raising of children; for this, the man is given to her as protector. Thus it is suitable that the same gifts occur in both, but in different proportions and relation. In the case of the man, gifts for struggle, conquest, and dominion are especially necessary: bodily force for taking possession of that exterior to him, intellect for a cognitive type of penetration of the world, the powers of will and action for works of creative nature. With the woman there are capabilities of caring, protecting, and promoting that which is becoming and growing. She has the gift thereby to live in an intimately bound physical compass and to collect her forces in silence; on the other hand, she is created to endure pain, to adapt and abnegate herself. She is psychically directed to the concrete, the individual, and the personal: she has the ability to grasp the concrete in its individuality and to adapt herself to it, and she has the longing to help this peculiarity to its development. An equipment equal to the man’s is included in the adaptive ability, as well as the possibility of performing the same work as he does, either in common with him or in his place.

In the Old Testament, those testimonies from the Fall on, i.e., those which reckon with fallen nature, marriage and maternity are presented with a certain exclusiveness as the destiny of woman. These are even the means for fulfilling her supernatural goal: she is to bear children and raise them in faith in the Redeemer so that one day she will behold her salvation in them. (This interpretation is also voiced from time to time in the Pauline epistles.) Next to this, the New Testament places the ideal of virginity. In place of the marriage bond, there is offered the most intimate, personal communion with the Savior, the development of all faculties in His service, and spiritual maternity—i.e., the winning of souls and their formation for God. One should not interpret this differentiation of vocation as if in one case it were only the natural goal being considered, and, in the other case, only the supernatural one. The woman who fulfills her natural destiny as wife and mother also has her duties for God’s kingdom—initially, the propagation of human beings destined for this kingdom, but then, also works for the salvation of souls; only for her, this lies first within the family circle. On the other hand, even in the life which is wholly consecrated to God, there is also need for the development of natural forces, except that now they can be more exclusively dedicated to problems pertaining to the kingdom of God and can thereby even benefit for a wider circle of people.

These works for God’s kingdom are not foreign to feminine nature but, on the contrary, are its highest fulfillment and also the highest conceivable enhancement of the human being. This is true as long as the action of personal relationship is born out of love for God and neighbor, works through love of God and neighbor, and leads to love of God and neighbor.

Thus the education of the Christian woman has a dual goal: to lead her to that which makes her capable of either fulfilling her duties as wife and mother in the natural and supernatural sense or of consecrating all her powers to the kingdom of God in a God-dedicated virginity. (Marriage and the religious life should not be set up as alternatives. Signs indicate that our time needs people who will lead a God dedicated life “in the world”; this is certainly not to say, however, that conventual life is “outmoded.”)

What can we do to aim towards this goal? We have already indicated that woman was created for this purpose; in fallen nature, however, there are drives working at the same time in opposition to it. So it will be a question of supplying the educational subject matters which are necessary and conducive to the soul’s pure development and qualified to impede unwholesome drives. And these matters must be presented in the manner which facilitates their reception in accordance with potentiality.

The emotions have been seen as the center of woman’s soul. For that reason, emotional formation will have to be centrally placed in woman’s formation. Emotion exists in sentiments such as joy and sorrow, moods such as cheerfulness and gloom, attitudes such as enthusiasm and indignation, and dispositions such as love and hate. Such emotional responses demonstrate the conflict of the individual with the world and also with himself. It is only the person who is deeply involved with life whose emotions are stirred. Whoever is aiming to arouse emotion must bring it into contact with something which will hasten this involvement. Above all, these are human destinies and human actions as history and literature present them to the young—naturally, this will be contemporary events as well. It is beauty in all its ramifications and the rest of the aesthetic categories. It is truth which prompts the searching human spirit into endless pursuit. It is everything which works in this world with the mysterious force and pull of another world. The subjects which are especially affective in emotional training are religion, history, German, and possibly other languages if the student succeeds in overcoming the external linguistic difficulties and is able to penetrate to the spiritual content.

But, generally speaking, it is not enough only to stir the emotions. An evaluating factor exists in all emotional response. What the emotions have grasped are viewed as being either positively or negatively significant, either for the concerned individual himself or, independent of him, viewed in the significance of the object in itself. It is thereby possible for the emotional responses themselves to be judged as being “right” or “wrong,” “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” It is a matter of awakening joyful emotion for authentic beauty and goodness and disgust for that which is base and vulgar. It is important to guide the young person to perceive beauty and goodness, but this is not sufficient. Often the child is first awakened to the value of things by his awareness of the adult’s responses—above all, that of the teacher—enthusiasm inspires enthusiasm. The guidance of attitudes is simultaneously a method of training the ability to discriminate. One cannot introduce him only to the good and the beautiful: life will also bring him into contact with ugliness, and by then the child should have already learned to differentiate between the positive and the negative, the noble and the base, and to learn to adapt himself in suitable ways.

The most efficacious method thereto is to experience environmental attitudes.

The attitude of the developing individual towards the world depends greatly on environmental influences which are both arbitrary and instinctive. And thus it is of extraordinary significance that the child’s education be placed in the hands of people who themselves have received proper emotional formation. However, this most essential, even indispensable, method of emotional formation through value judgments is accompanied by a certain danger as well: feelings and emotional attitudes are “contagious”; they are easily picked up by one person from another. These attitudes are, indeed, but pure predispositions in the affected soul. In the first place, the mind is not open to the values presented; and these sentiments, moreover, are neither momentarily or generally vital. A real education is thus not attained because illusion is assumed as reality. Hence there is need for education relevant to the authenticity of sentiments, the differentiation of appearance from reality both in the environment and in one’s own soul. This is not possible without sufficient intellectual training. Intellect and emotion must cooperate in a particular way in order to transmute the purely emotional attitudes into one cognizant of values. (It is not our concern here to demonstrate this method of cooperation.) Whoever knows exactly why something is good or beautiful will not simply assume the attitudes of another. And then the exercise of this intellectual critique develops the ability to distinguish between spiritual truth and falsehood. Emotional reactions invoke action. The authentic art lover will gladly sacrifice comfort for the sake of artistic enjoyment. Those who truly love their neighbor will not be unsympathetic and apathetic to their neighbor’s need. Words should inspire action; otherwise, words are mere rhetoric camouflaging nothingness, concealing merely empty or illusory feelings and opinions.

In earlier decades, the subjects which trained the emotions constituted the principal aim of the education of young women. Such formation corresponded to feminine nature. But there was a neglect of the indispensable complement, the practical training and activation of the intellect. This kind of education produced a type of woman who lives on illusion, a woman who either denies realistic duties or surrenders herself helplessly to fluctuating sentiments and moods, who constantly seeks excitement. Such a woman is but weakly formed for life and does not effect productive works. The modern school seeks to remedy such deficiencies. It has introduced more subjects designed to train the mind—mathematics, natural sciences, and the classics. In order that the thematic content be grasped by the intellect, mere memorization is de-emphasized and spontaneity is encouraged. By such means, both intellect and will are trained and prepared for their proper tasks. Modern education also stresses community life and practical participation in it by such means as school clubs, walking tours, celebrations, and team activities. Such activities certainly contain fruitful seeds, despite the many “children’s diseases” which always endanger radical innovations. The great danger is that the reform may not take sufficiently into account the unique nature of woman and the type of education it needs, while being only too narrowly confined to the model of educational institutions for males. The changing demands of practical life make this danger obvious.

Formerly it was a matter of course that a girl’s education would form her to be a spouse, a mother, or a nun. For centuries, hardly any other feminine vocation was known. Girls were expected to be initiated into domestic activity and religious practices either in family or convent life, and thereby prepared for their later vocation. The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution revolutionized average domestic life so that it ceased to be a realm sufficient to engage all of woman’s potentialities. At the same time, the diminishing life of faith excluded convent life as a serious consideration for most people. In passive natures, this climate has led to an immersion into an overly sensual life or empty dreams and flirtations. In strongly active natures, there has resulted a turning away from the house towards professional activity. So the feminist movement came into being.

Vocations other than domestic had been exercised for centuries almost exclusively by men. It was natural, therefore, that these vocations assumed a masculine stamp and that training for them was adapted to the masculine nature. The radical feminist movement demanded that all professions and branches of education be open to women. In the face of severe opposition, the movement was able to advance only very gradually until, almost suddenly, it obtained nearly all its demands after the revolution. In the beginning of the movement, the women who entered into professional life were predominantly those whose individual aptitude and inclination went in this direction; and they were able, comparatively speaking, to acclimate themselves easily. The economic crisis of recent years has forced against their will many women into professional life. Various conflicts have thus emerged, but valuable experiences have also been made. And we have reached the point where we may ask questions which, according to right reason, should have been cleared up before the movement began. Are there specifically feminine professions? What are they? Do women require education different from that given to men? If so, how should such education be organized?

Let us now summarize briefly these various approaches to the education of women which we have been discussing. The nature and destiny of woman require an education which can inspire works of effective love. Thus, emotional training is the most important factor required in the formation of woman; however, such authentic formation is related to intellectual clarity and energy as well as to practical competence. This education forms a proper disposition of the soul in accordance with objective values, and it enables a practical execution of this disposition. To place supernatural values above all earthly ones complies with an objective hierarchy of values. The initiation of this attitude presents as well an analogy with the future vocation of forming human beings for the kingdom of God. That is why the essence of all feminine education (as of education in general) must be religious education, one which can forcefully convey the truths of the faith in a manner which appeals to the emotions and inspires actions. Such formation is designed to exercise simultaneously the practical activities by the life of faith. The individual will be concerned with these activities through his entire life: the development of the life of faith and of prayer with the Church through the liturgy, as well as with creating a new personal relationship to the Lord, especially through an understanding of the Holy Eucharist and a truly Eucharistic life. Of course, such religious education can only be imparted by those personalities who are themselves filled with the spirit of faith and whose lives are fashioned by it.

Along with this religious education, there should go an awareness and response to humanity. Subjects which can contribute to such awareness are history, literature, biology, psychology, and pedagogy; of course, these subjects should be presented in a simplified form to meet the student’s potential. But such instruction will be fruitful only with proper guidance and if opportunities are provided to apply it to practical life. Necessary for intellectual development are the predominantly formal educational subjects—mathematics, the natural sciences, linguistics, and grammar. But they should not be overstressed at the expense of the student’s capacity or the more essential elements of feminine education.

Instructional methods should be free and flexible in order to take into account not only the specifically gifted but also to provide opportunity for all to study theoretical subjects and cultivate technical and artistic talents. The individual’s later choice of a profession must be kept in mind. Obviously, in doing all this, the teachers themselves must be thoroughly trained in their respective fields. And, of course, for women to be shaped in accordance with their authentic nature and destiny, they must be educated by authentic women.

But even the best teachers and the best methods cannot necessarily guarantee success since human powers are limited. However, formal education is only one part of the integral educational process. Formal education must reckon with the capacities of the student and with the outside influences to which the student is subjected; but it has neither the possibility to identify all these factors nor to deal effectively with them. Moreover, formal education ends long before the total educational process is completed. The instructor may even consider the education successful if the pupil has been prepared to continue her education independently in the initiated direction. But the circumstances of daily life often intervene and make it possible for the purely natural drives to prevail.

Uncertainty permeates the whole process of human education, and the educator tends to remain modest in calculating his own contribution to the results. Yet he must not yield to skepticism or despair. The educator should be convinced that his efforts are important, even though he cannot always measure the results of his efforts, even though sometimes he can never be aware of them at all. He must never forget that, above all, the primary and most essential Educator is not the human being but God Himself. He gives nature as He does life’s circumstances under which it comes to development; He also has the power to transform nature from within and to intervene with His works where human powers fail. If religious education succeeds in breaking down resistance to divine instruction, then one can be certain about everything else. We should also be convinced that, in the divine economy of salvation, no sincere effort remains fruitless even when human eyes can perceive nothing but failures.

Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. Maintained by the Austrian Province of the Teresian Carmel.

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MLA Citation

Stein, Edith. “Woman’s formation.” ----. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 2 Mar 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/stein/womans_formation/>.

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