Why women need the Eucharist, according to St. Edith Stein

“All you need is love, love, love is all you need.” Like a lot of people, I grew up listening to The Beatles. My dad is a massive fan, and their music, along with other 60s pop greats, was the soundtrack of my childhood. So, while I might not have grown up a practicing Catholic, I understood from a very young age the essential nature of love.

When I encountered Jesus and came back to the Catholic Church, it made total sense that the heart of our worship — the “source and summit of our Christian lives” — was love of Christ in the Eucharist.

I get to go to the banquet of love every Sunday? Sign me up!

But as the years went on, as I struggled with being single longer than I wanted, I turned more and more to the Eucharist. There I found the love I was longing for in so many ways. Even when I did get married and became a mother, I still marveled at how the Eucharist seemed to speak the hidden desires of my soul: to be loved, to be embraced, to be beautiful.

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And I began to wonder, have we ever stopped to think about how the Eucharist might be especially fitted to our feminine hearts?

One woman who did stop to think about it was St. Edith Stein. Edith Stein was born in 1891 in a German Jewish family. She became a philosopher, specializing in phenomenology. Despite her Jewish upbringing, Edith considered herself agnostic. That all changed when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila — by the next morning, she decided to convert to Catholicism, even knowing the pain it would cause her family.

She eventually became a cloistered Carmelite nun, like her hero St. Teresa, and took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938, she was sent to the Netherlands to escape the Nazi regime, but just a few short years later, in 1942, she was arrested in retaliation for the Dutch bishops’ defiance of Hitler. She was martyred in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.

Before she entered Carmel, Edith wrote about what it meant to be a woman in the world today. And the one thing women really need, she argued, was the Eucharist.

Now, if you’re Catholic, this might strike you as anodyne. We know this, right? The Eucharist is the very heart of our faith! It is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ Jesus himself, truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. It is the source of all graces in this Christian life. We all need the Eucharist.

But for Edith, there’s more to it than that. She posited that we can think about human nature in three fundamental ways: as human beings, as individuals, but also importantly as male and female. I share my humanity with everyone, my individuality with no one else; but I am also a woman, and I possess a feminine soul because I am a woman, with a woman’s body, created in the image of my Creator. And as women, we encounter Our Lord in the Eucharist not just as generic human beings — as if there were such a thing — but as specifically feminine persons.

Edith writes in “Essays on Women”: “To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others.”

Why did Edith consider this so important for women in particular? What is it about a woman that she particularly needs this relationship with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament?

The feminine soul, according to St. Edith Stein, is oriented toward the human person in an unique way. (On the other hand, according to Stein, the masculine soul is more oriented toward the world beyond. Men need the Eucharist just as much as women do but in a slightly different way, one that is fitting for their masculinity, that calls them more fully out of themselves as priests and fathers to lay down their lives for others.) With this orientation toward the other, the deepest longing of a woman’s heart is to love and to receive love. This is the essence of the feminine genius: “The deepest longing of a woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely.”

But with every gift comes a potential temptation. St. Edith Stein didn’t hold back on how this distinctly feminine orientation toward the other can become distorted: “But this surrender becomes a perverted self-abandon and a form of slavery when it is given to another person and not to God; at the same time, it is an unjustified demand which no human being can fulfill. Only God can welcome a person’s total surrender in such a way that one does not lose one’s soul in the process but wins it.”

So what’s a woman to do?

By her God-given nature, she longs to give herself to another and be completely embraced in turn. But no other human can completely fulfill that role for her. Not a husband. Not children. Not a religious order. Not a vocation, a career, a community. Not anything.

According to St. Edith Stein, that is when a woman must go to the Lord in the Eucharist. She can give herself to him because he is God and “only God can welcome a person’s total surrender.” Therefore, the Eucharist is the only completely safe place where we can “forget” ourselves for a few blessed moments and give ourselves utterly to another as our hearts long to: knowing that we are loved completely, absolutely, securely, infinitely and eternally.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t countless opportunities to generously give ourselves to others. We can and do. But our self-gift to others must always flow from that first and complete gift of ourselves to the Lord. From that place of superabundant Eucharistic love, we can return to our many and varied roles as women and love abundantly in turn. Then we can “have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others” because God has the first place in our hearts — and we’re not desperately fighting to make sure we’re loved first. We already know we are.

It’s beautiful by design. The God of love made the feminine soul to surrender herself completely to love and then became present to receive her love as no one else can. By lavishing his love on her, she becomes free to become more and more herself and to love others freely.

All we need is Love, indeed.

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