Memoirs of a Happy Failure: A Conversation with Alice von Hildebrand

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Last fall I picked up a book in our parish bookstore – and couldn’t put it down. Alice von Hildebrand’s Memoirs of a Happy Failure captured me with it’s title. You see, it promised a glimpse into the life of a woman I had admired since encountering her work as a theology undergrad writing a thesis on spiritual maternity.

Courtesy of Claire Dwyer. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Claire Dwyer. All rights reserved.

It didn’t disappoint. For those days of reading, snuck in as time with six children allowed, I was immersed in the life and times of this brave Belgian woman. I felt like I was having coffee with a wise friend, who was retelling her remarkable story. On the edge of my seat, I learned about her sheltered Catholic childhood, her flight out of Nazi-occupied Europe, the suffering of a stifling existence among the New York elite, and the discovery of joy and freedom in the teachings of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the brilliant Catholic philosopher she eventually married. I marvelled at her account of struggling against not only the hostile establishment at Hunter College as a philosophy professor there, but also the relativism that had become entrenched in academia and was seeping into the culture.

The account of her escape to the United States with her sister after the Nazi invasion of Belgium left me breathless. Against great odds, they were able to flee to France, obtain visas at the final moment, and leave Europe on the last American ship. Even then, their safety was far from assured.  She begins her story with a flashback of the interception of their ship by a German U-boat. Imagine the moment when the two young women race to the deck only to find their lifeboat already full! But God used that instant to reveal some of the mystery of human existance to her: “I had the clear sense that I had ‘touched eternity’, where time vanishes and everything is present.”

Her first years in America were anything but happy, although she found solace in her faith, especially the Holy Mass, which she attended daily.

“Whenever I entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral and heard the words, ‘Introibo ad altare Dei…’ (‘I shall go in to the altar of God’), I felt completely ‘at home’ on earth wherever the Holy Catholic Church uttered these sacred words. The Mass was the very same, in every single detail, as the one I had heard in my home country since I was four years old. Here were my roots. To this day, these words, used for centuries and centuries, touch my heart – for in them I can taste the golden cord of tradition.”

Finally, though, she had an encounter which would change the trajectory of her life. One day, while working as a librarian, she was pushing an over-full trolley of books when one fell off. It was another note in God’s perfect symphony, because the book was In Defense of Purity by Dietrich von Hildebrand. Immediately interested, she began to read until reprimanded and told to get back to work! Just two weeks later, she would meet him in person and from that providential moment, nothing would be the same.

That meeting determined her future, which was to be the study and teaching of philosophy. Although she had studied Thomistic philosophy in Belgium, and found it clear and convincing, it was abstract and without heart. Von Hildebrand’s approach combined mind and heart and opened up the beauty of truth and the joy that it gives. A man of deep faith, Dietrich von Hildebrand exuded joy, a fact not lost on his new student. “After twenty nine-months of darkness,” she says, “the sun again rose in my life.”

The same source of his joy would be the source of her strength as she began a long and arduous career teaching philosophy in the profoundly secular environment at Hunter College which at times was “loaded and unbearable.”

To many professors terms like ‘God,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘objective moral values,’ were all religious concepts and hence illegitimate in the classroom. They believe, passionately, that one should endorse a democratic ‘pluralism’ of views, and make it clear that everyone has his own god, or no god at all, and that the questions of truth and moral values are matters of opinion. There is one absolute dogma in the liberal world, namely the universal relativity and subjectivity of all values. To challenge this dogma is already to violate the separation of church and state.

Unfortunately, the professors succeeded to a large degree. By the time they graduated, the majority of Catholic students had accepted relativism and lost their faith. One student said in class, “The worst thing that could have happened to me would be to find out that I have an immortal soul; then my actions would have consequences for me.”

Of course Dr. von Hildebrand defended objective truth in her classes. For that she paid dearly. Accused of “indoctrinating” her students with her Catholicism, she was badly treated by most of her colleagues and suffered much because of their prejudices. “From the very beginning of my career,” she writes ruefully, “I faced two significant stumbling obstacles: I was a woman and (horror!) a Catholic. I am still both.” (One of my favorites lines, I admit.)

I could offer my reflections on such a life, which, by Dr. von Hildebrand’s own admission, has been both a mystery and a miracle, but the author herself was kind enough to correspond with me recently and give her own insights.

My first question was, Why this title?

“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 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 completing AGAINST close to 800 professors. All things are possible with God!”

“He won!” she points 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 names 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.” (All emphases mine.)

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 predjudice and error.” These remarkable conversion stories are sprinkled throughout the book, little gems reflecting the light of faith in a career clouded with suffering and difficulty.

I wanted her thoughts on why there was such a pointed attack on Catholicism in particular at the college. Because Catholicism, she responds, is “the only religion that has an authority, a magisterium, claiming that it is the only one founded by Christ. (It is a) key role of faith: my intellect kneels to revelation: Credo ut intelligam. (The Church is ) authoritarian: you should, you should not. (It) 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 points 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.

“I…became increasingly conscious that God was choosing my life for me, and it awakened in both courage and gratitude. Never, absolutely never, would I have dreamed that my life would take the turn it took when I was living sheltered in Belgium. All I can do is sing “misericoridas Domini in aeternum canto.” (I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever.)

I couldn’t help but marvel at God’s marvelous plans as I read, and to take courage myself, that in my own little struggles 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. “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 shares 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.

Memoirs of a Happy Failure can be ordered through Tan Books or the EWTN religious catalogue, or on Amazon. When you purchase this book through the Amazon affiliate link in this post, you support the work we do at CatholicMom.com at no extra cost to you!

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About Author

Claire is a wife and mom of 6, mothering through the joys and challenges of teenager and toddler years, and delighting in the sacramentality of daily life. She graduated with a degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and now enjoys leading women’s studies and writing - when she can come up for air between loads of laundry. She also writes at eventhesparrow.com and womenofgrace.com.

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