19 September 2012

Catholic Speaker Month: Alice von Hildebrand

Before the entire month gets away from me, I'd like to take some time to welcome any new readers in observance of Support a Catholic Speaker Month, organized by Brandon Vogt. It is my pleasure to introduce you (or re-introduce you) to Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, who is a favorite speaker and writer of mine.
I first encountered Alice myself when she spoke a few years ago at a conference sponsored by the Right-to-Life Club at my alma mater. She spoke with passion about the pains, both socially and spiritually, that abortion has caused, and continues to cause, in our society today. She is a petite little lady, but she has a lively spirit about her. Not one to draw attention to myself, I didn't immediate introduce myself to her after her talk. But as luck would have it,  a large number of students involved in organizing the conference were obligated to attend a wedding that same evening, which left only myself and a good friend of mine available to take her out to dinner and return her to the airport the next day. It was a delight to listen to her more throughout our hearty Italian meal as she spoke about Aristotle and friendship, and especially her husband, Dietrich, about whom she speaks with joyful admiration (more about him later). It was also quite a sight to see her ride shotgun in my friend's bright red Ford Mustang on the way to her flight.

Alice and Pope Benedict, in Rome, on the occasion of a
conference honoring her husband's legacy.

Born in Belgium in 1923, Alice von Hildebrand came to the U.S. as a young woman, and eventually became a professor of philosophy, teaching for nearly 40 years before her retirement. She married another philosopher (Dietrich), with whom she is still deeply in love. She still actively speaks and publishes-her latest book is entitled Man and Woman: A Divine Intervention. Many of you have perhaps seen her on EWTN from time to time. A slightly more detailed biography can be found here and here.

To me, Alice is at her best when addressing issues related to human love. In addition to being very forthright about the consequences of abortion in her speaking, many of her books focus on human relationships and the identity of women in that context (her husband also wrote substantially on marriage). If you are short on time, a great introduction to her work is The Privilege of Being a Woman, a short little book that highlights the beauty of femininity in a style at-odds with the sentiments of contemporary feminism. It is a great brief overview of the historical and secular arguments of women as the 'inferior sex' (especially the insinuations about Christianity being misogynistic), and the reality of women's pride of place when situated in a supernatural context.

I believe my first contact with Dr. von Hildebrand was so potent because it came at precisely the time in my life (college) when the disillusionment of secular feminism began to permeate more of my own experience. Modern feminism extols the power and glory of women as arising from their individual powers of assertion and independence-in other words, secular feminism sees the glory of women in what they can gain for themselves. In this context, women have dignity and power according to their professional success, right to make sexual decisions, self-reliance, and social dominance. As someone who witnessed the sexual revolution firsthand, Alice espouses a different view, in which women have dignity and value because of the gifts we have received and our capacity for sacrifice and the nurturing of others. This excerpt from her "Letter to a Young Girl" never fails to touch me:
"Don't forget that He whom the whole universe cannot contain, was 'hidden in the womb of the Holy Virgin for nine months. Once you realize this, you will be awe-filled for the double mystery that God has confided to you: to conceive a human being made to God's image and likeness, and to give birth to it in pain and anguish. Do not forget that it was also in pain and anguish that Christ re-opened for us the gates of paradise-which has been shut by sin. To women has been granted the awesome privilege of nobly suffering so that a new human being, made to God's image and likeness, might come into the world."
Noble indeed! I have found that much of Alice's writing echoes that of Edith Stein's Essays on Woman, which I also highly recommend. Her style may not resonate with a purely secular audience, but her riffs on the notion that the value of women does not arise from what they make of themselves, but from how and for what they are made, is a refreshing contrast to the gospel of self-empowerment that saturates our culture.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, Alice was, and continues to be, deeply devoted to her husband, the late Dietrich von Hildebrand. It is not really possible to write a piece about Alice without mentioning him, as a significant portion of her speaking focuses on his life and work. In some circles, Dietrich was a fairly influential Catholic philosopher, and as a convert to the faith, wrote extensively about the spiritual life, human love, Christian personalism, and liturgy (His Transformation in Christ is a classic). Of Dietrich, Pope Benedict has said,"When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time." Pope Pius XII reputedly once called him a "20th century Doctor of the Church." Pretty high praise for someone about whom I previously had no knowledge. Coincidentally, not too long after I met Alice, I had the fortune of reading one of her husband's out of print books in a theology class, and immediately became a fan of his (if you can find it in a used bookstore or library, don't pass it up!). My deepest appreciation for Dietrich's writing is rooted in his iron-clad grasp on the reality of Christian life penetrating every moment of our existence. In constantly striving to imitate Christ and be in communion with Him, we become more truly and fully ourselves, and apprehend all of reality more clearly. It is, above all, reverence which enables us to fully apprehend the truth about all things and live in accordance with it. Thus, as Dietrich writes, why reverence has a principle role in the liturgy, allowing us to fully transform and perfect ourselves.

In addition to his spiritual writing, Dietrich was also among the first people (ca. 1920s) to more openly encourage the understanding of marriage's dual nature (unitive and procreative), long before Gaudium et Spes and Theology of the Body. In the midst of significant criticism, he was also among the initial defenders of Humanae Vitae, and authored his own book on purity and virginity. I have resisted including any anecdotes here because there are so many that I fear this post could not hold them all, but I assure you that you will not be disappointed by Dietrich von Hildebrand's zeal. I am very excited that some of his books are slowly returning to print.

In addition to her own philosophical writing, Alice closely collaborated with Dietrich on much of his work, and since his death has devoted herself to the preservation of his legacy. A few years ago Alice completed a biographical profile of her husband, The Soul of a Lion, which I cannot recommend highly enough. In addition to his conversion story, which is rooted in the power of beauty and art, the story of his life amidst the Nazi oppression of WWII in Europe is an inspiring read (he often referred to National Socialism as a "megalomaniacal blasphemous ignorance").

As Dr. von Hildebrand is not as young as she used to be, it is difficult for her to travel too extensively, but as she does still make the occasional TV or conference appearance, make sure to look for her. I hope you enjoy the work of her and her husband as much as I do!

Book List*:

The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002)

Man and Woman: A Divine Intervention (2010)

Transformation in Christ (1948)

The Soul of a Lion (2000)

In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity (out of print)

Liturgy and Personality: The Health Power of Formal Prayer (out of print)

*There are many more relevant books that I have not mentioned in this post. Contact me if you are interested in learning more!

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