The name of Karl Stern is not well known today even by Catholics.
This is unfortunate. Born in 1906, this German (later Canadian) psychiatrist was a remarkable man: a brilliant medical doctor, Catholic convert, Christian psychologist, inspiring teacher, accomplished musician, and notable author (above all his beautiful autobiography from 1951, The Pillar of Fire).
He was also Jewish, and his early career in Germany was cut off by Hitler's rise to power. Forced out of Nazi Germany in 1935, he emigrated to Montreal. In this most difficult period in his life, however, he found Jesus Christ and discovered that Christ's Church was the mysterious reality in history wherein his Jewish identity found fulfillment, racial and nationalist ideologies were overcome, and genuine psychological insights could be properly grounded.
Stern's conversion was a gradual journey through various influences. Growing up in a secularized household, he first experienced the power of real prayer while staying with some observant Orthodox Jewish friends. Here he discovered the psalms and prophets in a way that remained with him all his life. Nevertheless, he forgot religion for a time, embraced a diluted Marxism, and then Freudian psychology while in medical school.
As he studied neurology, worked with chronic mental patients institutionalized under squalid conditions, and then dissected their brains postmortem, Stern became overwhelmed by the apparent meaninglessness of human life. In 1932, he underwent psychoanalysis himself, but far from convincing him that this "question about meaning" was a projection of subconscious problems, he came away convinced that something fundamental within himself was greater than the material world.
Stern sensed a bond with them that was deeper than, and at the same time encompassed and did justice to, all of the experience of human connection he already had known.
Meanwhile his postdoctoral research work brought him into contact with people from all over the world. Now searching for meaning beyond materialism, Stem encountered and became close friends with Christians, a Catholic widow named Mrs. Flamm and the Yamagiwas, a young Japanese couple. They also were searching for the fullness of life, but they had begun to experience God's mysterious offer of himself in Jesus Christ. Stern sensed a bond with them that was deeper than, and at the same time encompassed and did justice to, all of the experience of human connection he already had known. He became convinced that the only possible source of this bond was Jesus, the Messiah hoped for by Jews and sought by the authentic struggle of hope against misery at the spiritual depths of every human heart.
In 1933, Stern decisively encountered Jesus through this friendship, and faith was born in him. But it would be ten more years before he would finally be baptized in Montreal. During this time he struggled with many issues, among them the fear that he had misunderstood the deep truth he had perceived in psychoanalysis, and that perhaps his hope in Jesus was nothing more than a subconscious projection. He met many more friends who helped him. One important friend was the Catholic convert and philosopher Jacques Maritain (himself a war refugee), who encouraged him to follow the movements in him that came not from "below" but from "above" his conscious life. Once he embraced the Catholic Faith, Stern would go on to develop a psychoanalytical vision that accounted for the authenticity of the religious sense that he himself had known, that recognized the openness of the person's life to the wonderful response of God in Christ.
John Janaro "Karl Stern." Magnificat (September, 2017).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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