Former CNA editor recalls the 'privilege' of working with Alice von Hildebrand

Alice Von Hildebrand Alice von Hildebrand | Courtesy of Hildebrand Project

When I first met Alice von Hildebrand, I really shouldn’t have. As a senior studying history at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I wasn’t actually invited to the graduate school of philosophy’s already packed event hosting the beloved author and philosopher. Franciscan is one of the few philosophy departments in higher education (that I’m aware of) that studies so much of the works of her late husband, Dietrich, and it seemed like the entire campus (or perhaps just the theology nerds who I ran with) was abuzz with excitement over her visit.

But, I was friends with the department chair’s daughter and she clued a few of us undergraduate students in on the details of the event and assured us no one would really notice if we stood in the back. 

“Should I really sneak into an event I wasn’t invited to? Especially when the presenter is speaking about faith and morals?” I wondered as I filed into the back of the crowded room. 

Admittedly, I got a “C” in my Philosophy of the Human Person class earlier that year which is probably how I justified my actions. Since it was unlikely that I’d ever get another chance to meet her, I told myself, I should take advantage of the opportunity now. Besides, my nascent conscience urged me, I really loved her book!

However, as providence would have it, I did get a chance to “meet” her again some five years later. Though this time not as a giddy undergrad clutching a copy of “The Privilege of Being a Woman,” straining to hear her remarks from the back of a conference room in Steubenville, Ohio. It was as an editor for her regular contributions to Catholic News Agency.

Although that evening back in 2010 was the only time I ever met her in person, “Lily” became a sort of digital pen pal when I was assigned the privilege of editing her work for Catholic News Agency a few years later. She graciously gifted the agency with dozens of essays containing prophetic wisdom and perspectives that have proven to be even more relevant now than when they were first published.

While Catholics may know of Alice von Hildebrand’s books and tireless work promoting her late husband Dietrich’s masterful canon of philosophical writings, they may not be aware of the virtual library of essays hosted right here on Catholic News Agency. As a wife and mother, I especially appreciate the accessibility of her writings for both their depth and practical application.

It should be noted that when Alice wrote these articles her eyesight was already beginning to fail and her physical health was declining, although her mind was as sharp as ever. When she submitted her work she would apologize for the grammatical and punctuational errors she knew they contained while at the same time remarking that these works were her “swan song.” She told me that she felt a special urgency to write these even as her strength began to fail. Revisiting some of her articles today, I can see just how right she was to respond to that call. Although Lily has departed this life, I hope that even more people will benefit from her writings here on this website.

Many of her articles focused on the importance of gratitude and reverence. I remember one in particular titled, “The art of helping.” She wrote that we should rejoice in being asked for help because it meant that God was giving us an opportunity to repay our debt to him.

“The real Christian — the one living in the consciousness that it is a privilege to help our brothers — understands that to be asked for help grants us an opportunity of showing our love for Christ,” she wrote, “and is also a grace enabling us to pay our own debt toward him: indeed we are all bankrupt, and we should welcome as a grace every single opportunity to pay some of our debt.”

Another one of my favorites, “Love and friendship,” contains the zinger, “... my experiences in the classroom have taught me so much that I cannot help but wish that my teaching had been as enriching to my students as their errors have enriched my mind.” After teaching philosophy at Hunter College in New York for 37 years, she certainly had some interesting stories to share.

Written nearly 10 years ago, von Hildebrand’s essay “Rip van Winkle’s nightmare” has proved to be even more timely now than it was when it was first published. In it she takes the reader along a journey with the fabled Rip van Winkle who, instead of sleeping through the American Revolution, slumbers his way through the 20th century and wakes up in the present day. The things that would have shocked and disgusted any person 100 years ago are now accepted and even celebrated, she points out.

“Just as there is a hierarchy of truths, there is also a hierarchy of errors, and last but not least, a hierarchy of stupidities,” she wrote.

She often remarked, quoting her late husband Dietrich, that what is called “culture” today is actually a type of “anti-culture.” In her essay “A touch of metaphysical humor” von Hildebrand pinpointed the root of so many of society’s ills by saying, “We have lost sense for mystery, for sacredness and this might explain why our society is not only sick but in many ways ‘comatose.’ A society that has lost the sense of the sacred is a society which has chosen death.”

The last time I wrote to Alice von Hildebrand was over five years ago when I had just decided not to return from my maternity leave at CNA in order to stay home full time with my two daughters. As I drafted the email, I remember feeling a pang of shame. Looking back I can see that it was the breath of the Evil One in my ear telling me that my choice to stay home with my children, instead of continuing my career, was an inferior one that I’d quickly come to regret. I should have known that if there was anyone who understood my decision, it was Lily. 

“Of course I’ll miss our contact,” was her frank response, “but a mother should be home with her children. No one can replace her.”

Perhaps some mothers who work outside the home will bristle at such a remark, but I don’t share these words to shame anyone for her choices or circumstances. I share these words to encourage those of us who may not feel any real importance in the endless marathon of being a stay-at-home mother. I bring to mind her words when I feel the most run-down and discouraged by motherhood, tempted to believe that I should be doing something “better” or “more useful” with my time. 

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Alice often championed women as the “privleged” sex in her writings. While Aristotle painted women as the passive, and therefore inferior, sex von Hildebrand explained that (with all due respect) the Greek philosopher failed to look beyond physical strength and appreciate the true honor that is written into a woman’s very body.

In her essay, “Praise of receptivity” von Hildebrand reminded the reader that God didn’t create one sex superior to another, but rather He made them complementary, “enriching one another.” However, she notes that while Adam was made “from the slime of the earth” Eve was brought forth from Adam, “a fact which gives the female body a special dignity.”

Will anyone remember the words I’ve pounded out on a keyboard years after I die? Most likely not. But will my children, who I’ve offered my body up for four times over, give thanks for their lives and offer up a little prayer for me? I certainly hope so. 

When I told my now 5-year-old that I was writing an article about a friend of mine who had recently died, she sincerely asked, “So, is she a saint now?” 

“I think so,” I told her. “She spent her life teaching others the truth about God.” 

Alice von Hildebrand, pray for us.

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