restricted access Awaken, O Spirit: The Vocation of Becoming in the Work of Edith Stein
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Awaken, O Spirit
The Vocation of Becoming in the Work of Edith Stein

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

revelation 3:20 (rsv)

For Edith Stein (1891–1942), human vocation is comprised of a call and a response. The call is issued from the Divine, and the human response is enabled by Divine assistance. Human vocation is not simply a matter concerning choice of occupation, but rather concerns the ultimate Gestalt or “shape” of one’s life. She writes the following to a former student of hers, Rose Magold, in a letter dated August 30, 1931: “The question of vocation cannot be solved merely through self-examination plus a scrutiny of the various possibilities. One must pray for the answer—you know that—and, in many cases, it must be sought by way of obedience. I have given this same advice several times, and those involved have arrived at peace and clarity by following it.”1 Stein argues that to be shaped within demands pliability to formation by external sources. As will be further [End Page 57] demonstrated, human vocation is a matter of intersubjective existence—a living in community—that awakens one to possibility and development. To awaken from vocational slumber is to heed the personal Divine summons to travel eastward toward the Son of glory.2

This article will trace the contours of Stein’s understanding of universal human vocation. First, I will analyze the Aristotelian and Thomistic potency-act hermeneutic as developed by Stein. The relationship between potency and act serves as the lynchpin of Stein’s entire philosophical project, which attempts to answer the question of being through a synthesis of Thomistic sacra doctrina and Husserlian phenomenological idealism. Second, I will take an inventory of the components of what Stein calls “intersubjectivity.” For Stein, personal vocation is not a matter of turning inward in solipsistic inquiry, but rather one of turning outward and opening to the agency of the other. Third and finally, I will assess the notion and function of grace in Stein’s vision. In presenting a teleological vision wherein finite being stretches toward infinite being, Stein frames the question of human vocation as an integral dimension of the question of being itself. By proceeding according to these three systematic checkpoints of Stein’s work, a concentrated appraisal will be submitted that will contribute to comprehending the notion of human vocation. In addition, this sketch will also aid in understanding the way in which Stein herself fulfilled a definite sense of vocation in her life.

I. The Revelatory Dialectic of Potency Act

Stein embarks on her philosophical project confident that she draws from the immutable riches of philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy): “Above and beyond the limitations of historical epochs and peoples there is something in which all those share who honestly search for truth.”3 As it was with her forebearers, so it remains for Stein: the question of being lies at the core of philosophical inquiry. [End Page 58] Stein’s lifelong philosophical project is marked by the struggle to understand, as fully as possible, the meaning and constitution of being (Sein). She finds Aristotle to be a helpful guide as he broaches the question within the heart of his Metaphysics.

And we think we know each thing most fully, when we know what it is, e.g. what man is or what fire is, rather than when we know its quality, its quantity, or where it is; since we know each of these things also, only when we know what the quantity or quality is. And indeed the question which, both now and of old, has always been raised, and always been the subject of doubt, viz. what being is, is just the question, what is substance


Stein suggests that her culminating work, Finite and Eternal Being, “may have grown out of this question as out of a living seed.”5 Likewise, Stein finds Aristotle’s hermeneutic for being, namely, potency and act, as the primary way...