On 14 January 2022, at 12:25 a.m., Alice von Hildebrand, affectionately known as Lily by those close to her, passed away in her sleep at 98 years of age after a brief illness. She was a well-loved philosopher, author, and defender of the Catholic faith.
In their post announcing it, The Hildebrand Project said: ‘Those who knew Lily often heard her say that the wick of her candle was growing ever shorter. In fact, she yearned for death — to see the face of Our Lord, to be reunited at last with her husband Dietrich, her parents, her dearest friend Madeleine Stebbins — with the peace that only true innocence and profound faith can grant.’
Alice von Hildebrand was born Alice Jourdain in Belgium in 1923. Near the beginning of World War II, she fled Europe and in 1940 arrived in New York City. There she studied philosophy at Fordham University, and in 1947 began teaching it at Hunter College. She would eventually become a professor there, experiencing a successful career as an educator and being widely admired, despite the anti-Catholic ethos of the place.
In 1959, she married the famous philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1989-77), who had also fled Europe in the wake of Hitler’s brutal regime. Dietrich was a man referred to by Pope Pius XII as the ‘twentieth-century Doctor of the Church’. He published widely on ethics, spirituality, liturgy, and all things relating to the human heart – especially on love and marriage. Dietrich von Hildebrand was a heroic man, who, in Austria, founded an intellectual journal for the sole purpose of dismantling Nazi ideology and revealing its anti-Christian character. Such was his influence over public opinion that he was labelled ‘enemy number one’ for the Nazis’ takeover attempt, and Hitler began orchestrating his assassination.
When the Nazis invaded, he barely escaped with his life. He, too, fled to New York City as a refugee and began teaching at Fordham University, where he first met the woman who would become his second wife (after the death of his first wife, Gretchen, in 1957).
Despite being married to Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice was an incredible philosopher in her own right. She published a number of books, including a biography of her late husband entitled The Soul of a Lion
(2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002), Man and Woman: A Divine Invention
(2010), and By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride (1989), among others. She appeared frequently on EWTN and contributed to Catholic News Agency (CNA), and she helped start The Hildebrand Project in order to promote her late husband’s work.
The themes of her work complement those of her husband nicely. In her introduction to Dietrich’s book, Transformation in Christ (1990), she wrote that the very first words she heard from him were these:
We must have an unconditional readiness to change in order to be transformed in Christ.’
‘His words were a revelation for me,’ she wrote. ‘Even though I had been raised a Catholic, I had never been concretely taught how to relate my beliefs to everyday life . . . It is not enough for us to believe; we must know how to believe.’
Even though she was a philosopher, there was nothing about her work that people tend to associate with philosophy. Philosophy is usually regarded as something irrelevant to everyday affairs; an exercise in abstract thought experiments that don’t help us make decisions about our most pressing needs. If that is philosophy, however, it is not true philosophy, and Alice – and her late husband Dietrich – would have agreed. Both were grounded in reality because they wrote, frequently and beautifully, about the affairs of the human heart. Their philosophy was born from their passions.
They wrote about love, sexuality and marriage; about holiness and what it means to be transformed in Christ; about hope and despair and what it means to be human.
In one of her essays, simply called Communion, published in her late husband's book The Art of Living (Hildebrand Press: 2017), she laments the modern partition that has been erected between professional life and family life:
It is a very serious perversion to view professional work as the serious part of life, and family life as a relaxation. No, the time we spend with our loved ones is not the time to relax and take it easy, but rather the moment to put on our festival garment, the moment to accomplish a real sursum corda (the elevation of the heart to God). It is the moment to realize that my love for another person, is, humanly speaking, the precious pearl of my life, and that I must prepare myself for every encounter with the loved one, with the same grateful recollection I experienced at the moment of first falling in love.'
The theme of love, authentic love, is integral to her work because it is so integral to human life. In an era she thought to be progressively blind to the true nature and dignity of the human person, she and her husband fought for its recognition, and for the truth of our deepest desires that can only be satisfied in God. When it came to love, femininity, and philosophy, she was a staunch opponent of anything that wasn't the real deal. With great clarity and spiritual insight, she looked past the appearances of everything that masqueraded as love and truth to reveal them for the counterfeits they were.
In 2010, she gave an address on her late husband’s philosophy of love, and she spoke of modern philosophy as ‘a time of concentrated nonsense which sits well because it has the appearance of truth.’
Marriage was a particular pet topic of Alice and Dietrich, since they were so passionate about it being, when lived in faith, one of the deepest sources of human happiness.
In her introduction to Dietrich's book Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love (1991), she wrote:
Marriage calls each spouse to fight against himself for the sake of his beloved. This is why it has become so unpopular today. People are no longer willing to achieve the greatest of all victories, the victory over self.'
Alice von Hildebrand has left behind a powerful legacy of thought. In the pages she left behind, and in those of her husband, twenty-first century Catholics can find a wealth of clarity and spiritual beauty. In the wasteland of moral ambiguity that is the secular age, readers can find a sharpness of thought that pierces our numbness, enabling us to finally listen to the call of our hearts, the call of love, and the call of Christ – which are, at the end of the day, the same thing.
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022
Fiona Basile10 August 2022