Dr. Alice von Hildebrand Lying Selflessness

More than once in the course of my long life, I have come across women who, under the noble title of “motherly love”, hide a ruthless selfishness. They mendaciously label as “love” what is, in fact, plain possessiveness. They fall victims to an equivocation which today is highly favored by the devil: the ambiguity of the word “mine.”

Even though father and mother give their child an equal number of chromosomes, the role played by each of the conjoint is abysmally different. The father’s relationship to his child is, in some way “external, that is the bond between them is essentially through his wife. His role is to fecundate his spouse’s egg and from this moment, he is excluded from the drama developing in the mystery of her body.

She, on the contrary, is unbelievably blessed by having been “touched” by God Himself, the Creator of the immortal soul He places in the fecundated egg. This being “blessed” by God gives the female body a note of sacredness symbolized by the veil, lost sight of after Vatican II.

Mother and child are now tied by a bond that has no match in any other human relationship. She will feed him with her flesh and blood, until the dramatic moment of birth. After nine months of unmatchable intimacy with its mother, the child is now ready to enter the cold world. It is the mother’s mission to push him out of her body. To give birth is physically agonizing (“like a woman in labor” is the biblical expression when referring to severe pains), but it is also the end of a physical bond which is nothing short of amazing. Mother and child have now physically parted forever, but more than one mother might be tempted to feel that her child, being bonded with her in a unique way, still “belongs”’ to her.

This exterior “rejection”, necessary for giving birth, is a pattern that will repeat itself under different forms, for the rest of her life Having for months fed her baby at her breast, she must, one day, out of love, sever him that is deny him her precious milk. The moment has come to give him more nutritious food. She is the one who must encourage him to take his first steps, and once again, oppose the child’s laziness crying to be carried. She must again and again put him down and “force” him to leave his mother’s arms and stand on his own feet. Nevertheless, the closeness of the bond between mother and son is so strong that when the child falls and hurts himself, he will instinctively run to his mother. It is well known that soldiers dying on the battle field often call for their mother’s help.

The same scenario keeps repeating itself under various forms, until the son reaches a particularly dramatic moment: when he “falls in love. In many cases the young man has had only a very short acquaintance with the one he now calls his fiancée – possibly only a few months: she comes out of the blue, from a different family, a different background, yet now seems to be given pride of place in his heart. This must strike his mother as “unjust”, against “nature”. How can this “stranger” who knows so little about her son, all of a sudden intrude into his life, and make the tacit claim to be the queen of his heart. This fact inspired Max Scheler to claim that “mother” and “law” are irreconcilable concepts. It often happens that a mother dislikes her daughter in law to be, who is rarely “good enough” for her son, and that this antipathy is often fully reciprocated. We are facing a classic case of family conflict. A mother might feel “dethroned”, robbed of her birth-right to be number one in her son’s life. She will recall the innumerable loving acts that she has performed toward him, often at the at the cost of great sacrifices, selflessly serving her child‘s good. Now all of a sudden, she will feel robbed of her reward. There are many mothers, however, who through prayer and repeated acts of selflessness fully understand and accept that maternal love is essentially sacrificial love, and having prepared their souls for this difficult moment, generously open their heart to the one who has conquered their son’s affection.

My concern is about those mothers who mendaciously believe that in opposing and challenging in every possible subtle way, their son’s choice, they are truly selflessly seeking his true good: this sheds some light on the fearful words of the Psalm: “omnis homo mendax.” Such a mother has “sincerely” convinced herself that she is totally selfless and only wishes what is best for her son. In fact, the underlying motivation is a craving for possession. The word: “my son”, instead of meaning that he is a gift of God, is interpreted as “belonging to me”. It gives one the right to, which dominate him, on the mendacious conviction that she alone knows what is truly good best for him. The tragic thing is that such mothers have convinced themselves that they are totally sincere.  

They will make subtle plans to either prevent him from finding a bride, or ruthlessly criticize his choice and thereby sapping the very foundation of this budding relationship, while convincing herself “honestly” that she does so exclusively for “his happiness” and welfare. Some mothers have so artfully nurtured this mother-son relationship that it is bound to be an obstacle to a husband’s wife’s love: the sweet bond of mother-son love has degenerated into a heavy chain. 

Let me relate some of the sad and, at times, dramatic experiences that have crossed my path I know of a marriage that was very rocky from the start, because the husband deified his mother, constantly comparing her with his wife, and making her understand that she should try to be just like her mother in law. She duplicated by making him feel that her father was her ideal of manhood: a brilliant man, very successful in business, and that he should try to emulate him. Needless to say that the marriage was not a peaceful one.

I also recall the story of one of my husband’s students in Munich. Shortly Dietrich von Hildebrand left Germany, (-refusing to live in a country “ruled by a criminal” (sic) - this young man, named Paul, got engaged to a young woman whom he loved and who fully reciprocated this love.
Fifteen years later, that is in l948, when Dietrich von Hildebrand, - to his joy, was finally granted a permit to re-enter Germany and go back to a town that had played such a role in his life, his family, his numerous friends and his ex-students organized a celebration that was attended by a young assistant pastor of the name of Josef Ratzinger.

As expected Paul attended. After the talk, he rushed over to greet his ex-professor. Dietrich von Hildebrand immediately recognized him, greeted him warmly and inquired about his wife and asked him whether he had children. To his shock and amazement Paul answered sheepishly, “Dear Professor, I am not yet married but I am still engaged.” Dietrich von Hildebrand, dubbed Dr. Amoris, was dumb founded: his Italian background had marked him deeply, and he practically pinned Paul to the wall, exclaiming: “This is inadmissible. You MUST GET MARRIED IMMEDIATELY”. Paul then told him sheepishly that knowing his mother’s love for him – a love he fully reciprocated – he knew that her heart would break if he got married and left her alone – a widow, and now getting elderly. Paul finally made up his mind, but to his distress and the one of his, yet no longer “young” wife, they were denied the joy of having children.

It is one of the tragic cases in which a mother betrays her “mission”: that is self-sacrifice. I do not imply that Paul’s mother explicitly told him that he was not “morally” entitled to leave her alone. There are, however, very subtle ways, typical of gentle women – as opposed to viragos – who communicate a clear message without uttering a single word.

I personally know two similar and yet different scenarios. I met both mothers and immediately detected that they were incredibly strong and domineering women: typical amazons. They had never let their son out of his “playpen”, had never given him a chance to make up his own mind: the all-powerful “mammy” “took care of everything”.  One of them came uninvited to our apartment – with her son in tow – (he too was my husband’s students). She brought with her a bottle of wine – clearly aiming at polishing the apple - (this was badly needed for her son was not made of the stuff that philosophers are made of). I assume that she had convinced him to get a degree in the field dedicated to wisdom. In the course of the conversation, my husband asked him whether he did not wish to get married. Mammy’s boy who seemed to be on a leash, mumbled sheepishly as if reciting a lesson learned by heart: “I would have liked to, but mammy is so right: today, it is no longer possible to find a girl who guarantees to be a loving and selfless wife and mother; they are all careerists and will inevitably deprive husband and children of the love she owes them.” Having through mamma, made the experience of what woman should be like, I came to the conclusion that marriage is out of the question. He never got married. No comments are necessary.

The other case is almost a duplicate: but this time, I was well acquainted with the son as circumstances brought us in frequent contact. One day his mother invited me to dinner. The scenario was nothing short of amazing: Mammy was the one deciding what he should eat and not eat. I had the feeling that he was six years old; “yes, mammy; no mammy; as you will”. Needless to say; he never got married. He died in his sixties, and his strong, robust mother buried him. He died a “martyr” of this type of motherly love.

The most tragic case I experienced is the one of a young man, coming from a deeply Catholic background: we studied together; he was then a seminarian. He entered a religious order, and because of his remarkable piety and intellectual talents, he quickly was given a key position. Then his mother died. Sometime before her demise, he had made the acquaintance of a woman who following what was then the fashion of the time, got fascinated by oriental spirituality. She dabbled with Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The Koran was next on her list of spiritual experimentation, and she became fascinated by Mohammed. When she had her fill of it, she turned to Greek orthodoxy. Finally enriched by her spiritual pilgrimage and all these challenging detours, she came back to Catholicism. She got married but soon obtained an annulment, claiming that that the “marriage” was never consummated. I do not recall how she made the acquaintance of the high ranking priest I mentioned above, but it was noticeable that she was becoming became increasingly friendly with him, roaming close to his office and offering her services. But as soon as his mother died, and to everyone amazement, he asked to be relieved from his vows. He was by then in his forties.

The rumor was that his mother, to whom he was deeply attached, had told him ever since he was a child that her most ardent wish was to have a son who received the holy orders. It is likely that every Catholic mother, deeply rooted in her faith, entertains a similar hope. Having a deep love for his mother, and not wishing to disappoint her, he followed her wishes.

Wittingly or unwittingly, she had chosen his vocation. I have no reason to assume that she “forced” him to become a priest, but the words of Ovid come to mind: “Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi sed saepe cadendo”. A drop hollows a stone: not by its strength but by repeatedly falling”. When God called her, he suddenly became aware that he was morally obligated to leave his order: he had been psychologically forced to become a priest. He had no vocation. His doing so would have been inconceivable as long as his mother was alive: she was understandably proud of his having risen so fast and so high in the hierarchy of this great order, and had he left while she was still alive, she would have dropped dead on the spot, giving him a bad conscience for the rest of his life. He had to wait until she was buried. Now he was free. To make a sad story short, as soon as he was released from his vows and been laicized, he married his new friend. One can fear, however, that he had gone from Scylla to Charybdis. I assume that his mother was a strong woman; his “wife” was stronger. To my profound grief and dismay, I was told that, after a while, they both left the Church, and she convinced him to become the pastor of a protestant sect.

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May God have mercy on them both.

This story is almost duplicated by the one of a Spanish priest, who became quite prominent and was a close friend of Jacques Maritain, and who, upon the death of his domineering mother, realized that he never had a vocation. He left the priesthood, but thank God, after being laicized, he got married, and served the Church as a devout husband and father.  
May God have mercy on such mothers; may He have mercy on their sons suffocated by their mother’s love.

Another amazing case which still puzzles me is the one of German Jews: mother with two sons from different marriages. Whereas she was not close to the older one, the younger one was the joy of her life. Having fled Nazi Germany, they landed in Belgium, and through the generosity and at times, heroism of some Belgian citizens, they survived the war and managed to come to the USA where her brother resided. He too – had fled Nazi Germany – and managed to come to the USA via Siberia. He was a MD. It was through him that I made their acquaintance. Whereas I met the older son but once, I saw the younger one and his mother several times. Their relationship was a very tender one. When invited at a party, they always sat next to each other, often holding hands like young fiancés. It was strange indeed, but upon my being told that mother and son shared a double bed to the very end of her life, I truly became puzzled. The idea of incest never crossed my mind, but the whole situation was so “strange” that it caused all those who knew them some concern.

I assume that their very deep bond could be explained by the fact that this mother-son relationship was all that they had not lost. Once again, we must leave it to God’s mercy. He alone knows the mystery called the human heart and how easily normal and abnormal, good and evil, can be intermingled.

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