Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Stein’s early work with phenomenology concentrated on what the human mind can know and how this knowledge is perceived or received by consciousness. In her life and thought following her conversion, knowledge became less important as a philosophical construct than the knowledge of God gained through prayer and meditation. Stein viewed this later knowledge not as the product of human effort alone but as the gift of faith.

In her development from philosopher to mystic, Stein underwent a dramatic conversion from a life of purely intellectual studies to a life powerfully focused on God. The hunger for God that suffuses her writings as a Carmelite nun produced a transformation of her life, another gift from God, she suggests throughout this work, not so much produced by faith as manifested as faith. Thus, Stein relocated the locus of control in the creation of faith from the believer to God. Faith is by Stein’s definition a state of grace.

Despite God’s unknowable nature as ultimate truth, as both Aquinas and Stein accepted, she continued to apply her training in phenomenology to her quest for union with God. In her writings about mystics and mysticism, she notes how religious states and experiences compare with ordinary consciousness. The earliest person to attempt to catalog the characteristic states and stages of mysticism was Dionysus the Areopagite. In this early medieval writer, Stein found some of the elements of the spiritual life that became part of her discipline as a Carmelite nun, two of which are a thorough grounding in Scripture and the recognition that a transcendent relationship with the divine is often followed by a period of darkness and even confusion.

The harmony between knowledge and faith implied by the interrelationships of the documents in this collection rests on these key ideas: Higher knowledge is imparted through revelation, and the soul’s journey toward God is powered by grace instead of intellectual effort alone.