Alice von Hildebrand: ‘A Happy Failure’

After reading Memoirs of a Happy Failure by Alice von Hildebrand several years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing the great Belgian-born philosopher, professor, and author.  I wanted to know more of the story behind some of the themes of the book, which began with her escape to the United States during World War II and focused on the challenging years she spent teaching–and resisting the growing relativism in academia–at Hunter College in New York City.

Von Hildebrand’s recent death had me pulling out the contents of that long email exchange from 2016 in which she generously reflected on these years of her life.

My first question: Why name your book Memoirs of a Happy Failure?

“Because it conveys an important message,” she answered.  Failure, even radical failure, is a justified term because she was “shamefully treated at Hunter: lowest salary in the department, for years…no medical coverage, never knowing whether I would have a job the next semester…given the most exhausting schedule.”  Yet, despite it all, she had immense success with her students and earned their affection and admiration.

The response of her colleagues?   “Jealousy, edging on hatred…(they) could only explain my success by claiming that all I was doing was (preaching) Catholicism.”  She describes, among other things, ridicule at faculty meetings, injustice, meanness, sending spies into the classroom, and the telling of new appointees to warn students not to take her classes.  Upon finally receiving tenure, she was told, “that you received tenure is nothing short of a miracle.”

Yet, there was a great joy seeing some of her students convert. Therefore her career could still be called “happy because many of my students – truth hungry – were fed…then coup de theater: (I was) evaluated by students as the best professor competing against close to 800 professors.  All things are possible with God!”

“He won!” she pointed out.  I can almost see her smile at the memory.

I wondered why she had chosen to focus almost exclusively on the years at Hunter in the book.

She replied, “Because if you want to destroy a society you should aim…to destroy the family and to pervert education.  We no longer educate children; we give them information perverted by relativism and subjectivism.”  She witnessed firsthand the deterioration of the culture and the despair of the young people who were not taught that there was anything such as absolute truth.

We live now with the results of this lacking philosophy.

Dr. von Hildebrand elaborated to me on three such consequences, the first being feminism.  “The devil has convinced some women that maternity is the one great obstacle to their attaining human fame, i.e. the one that has been the privilege of men from the beginning.  When (Satan) succeeded in doing so (let us think of Simone de Beauvoir) the door was wide open to abortion, his greatest victory since original sin: the Mother of the Living (Eve) accepting to murder her children.  All women, whether married or unmarried are called to motherhood; to denigrate motherhood is threatening the very foundation of society.

Secondly, she named relativism, “the intellectual cancer devastating our society…an intellectual revolt against key truths: metaphysical, ethical, religious.  Science is accepted and glorified because it does not tell me how to lead a human life…there is no ‘you should’ or ‘you should not’.  Modern man does not want to obey.  He escapes from moral obligations by claiming that it is all subjective: it is up to me to live as I please.”

And finally, pornography: “the most disgusting presentation of a sphere in which, in the most mysterious way, God and the woman collaborate to bring a new life into existence.”

The idea of the universal maternity of womanhood is beautifully illustrated in Dr. von Hildebrand’s own life.  Although she did not have her own children, as I read her memoir, the word “fruitful” kept coming to mind, especially in her relationship with her students.  She actually became godmother to several of them as they entered the Church.  She names among her happiest memories “the incredible joy of seeing that several of my students came out of the dark of prejudice and error.”

I wanted her thoughts on why there was such a pointed attack on Catholicism in particular at the college.

Because Catholicism, she responded, is “the only religion that has an authority, a magisterium, claiming that it is the only one founded by Christ.  (This is a) key role of faith: my intellect kneels to revelation: Credo ut intelligam.  (The Church is) authoritarian…(She) keeps reminding man of his creaturehood, and a creature should listen and obey.  Modern man wants to do as he pleases…The devil is very open-minded toward other religions: each has its own doctrine.  None has the divine seal of truth.”

This attack has everything to do with what we see today.  The natural results are “the sapping of man’s relationship to God, and opening the door to any perversion.”  She pointed out the Supreme Court decisions of which legalize “the murder of the Innocents (and give ) a perversion the same dignity as marriage.  May God have mercy. But He expects us to fight.”

Yes, fight.  Against all of it.  As she did, in her corner of the world, in her way, using her gifts and her resources.  And God blessed her and anointed her.

Our dialogue helped me to take courage myself, that in my own little struggles, ultimately, the battle is the Lord’s.  That He has prepared us from the beginning for our own confrontations with evil even if -no, especially if- the battle takes place on our knees.  Or in the home, among Legos and Cheerios, late-night feedings, and stomach bugs.  Or the office, or the grocery store…you get the picture.  And that everything in our life, however insignificant it seems at the time, has a purpose and is part of a plan bigger than we are able to grasp.

“God in His Wisdom does not show us the whole way we have to travel,” Dr. von Hildebrand writes in her preface of Memoirs.  “How many of us would turn back, if we only knew what was awaiting us.  I thank Him for not having revealed to me how arduous my task would be: to hold high the flag in defense of the objectivity of truth in a fortress of relativism.”

Bound up in the love of Christ and the Body of the Church, this sister in faith shared her maternal love with me, and with each reader.  “God has woven a beautiful nest out of the ‘twigs’ of my life,” she reflects, reassuring us of  “the providence of God in everything” and His tender love for even the little sparrows who He delights in using.

Maybe especially them.

May she rest in peace.

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