Posts Tagged 'Dietrich von Hildebrand'

Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

Freedom and Transformation

It’s often said that true freedom consists in the freedom to do what is right. Dietrich von Hildebrand breaks this down a bit in the 9th chapter of Transformation in Christ. In the chapter, titled “Striving for Perfection”, von Hildebrand distinguishes two dimensions of freedom. The first dimension pertains to “man’s basic capacity of assent and dissent itself” with relation to “value and non-value”. The second dimension consists of the will, choosing to act in accordance with the aforementioned assent to value or dissent to non-value.

By value, von Hildebrand means that which is good, true, beautiful, just, etc. Furthermore, both value and non-value address us; we do not address them. Thus we are primarily receptive moral beings in the world in which we are placed. This is not to deny free will, as in we are helpless receivers forced to participate in value and non-value alike. We are still free to assent or dissent to the value and non-value that addresses us. Or put another and more familiar way, free will is properly understood as man’s capacity to choose what is good and reject what is evil. Again, when value addresses us we must choose to either assent to it or dissent, but to choose is not enough. We must take the further step of acting in accordance with our assent or dissent.

We must also recognize that it is not enough to posses the first dimension of freedom without likewise possessing the second dimension, or vice versa. To assent to value or dissent to non-value is of little worth if it is not followed by action. I can assent to the truth that pornography is depraved (i.e. the antithesis to beauty), but still continue to visit pornographic websites. In this case, the assent to value is meaningless because my will is not acting according to its purpose which to carry out my choice for the good. This is what is meant by sin as a disintegration of the soul. Saint Paul knew this. We know what is right (i.e. assent to value), yet our will cannot or will not act accordingly. We are dis-integrated by sin.

On the other hand, if I am a person of strong will and supreme self-control, it does not necessarily follow that I am in possession of true freedom.  If I assent to non-value and dissent to value, following through with my will is actually harmful. As von Hildebrand writes:

There are many people who, while possesed of an iron will, [are] able to persue their aims with great energy and remarkable success, and giving proof of the utmost self-control, yet neglect their deeper spiritual freedom and refuse an adequate response to the call of value… Many of the great evildoers in history (Richard the Third for instance) were at the same time disciplined personalities whose will power left nothing to be desired.

Only when we assent to value or dissent to non-value and then act accordingly, will we be in possesion of true freedom. In this lies a proper understanding of our transformation in Christ.

What can, and should, be our own contribution to the process of our transformation in Christ? What is meant by the cooperation on our part to which St. Augustine refers in saying: “He who created thee without thee, shall not justify thee without thee” (Sermo 169.13)?

First, it is the free word of assent we are to speak to God and to our own transformation in Christ. In the free gift of ourselves that is implied in our decisive turn towards God (which finds its most tangible expression in the act of conversion); in the Volo uttered in the rite of Baptism as an express statement of the person’s being delivered to God; in the words of the Blessed Virgin, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word” – herein lies the basic actualization of our freedom in the process of our justification and sanctification. This is the word which God expects from us and from which we can never be dispensed.

But this alone does not suffice. We are also called upon to concur with our transformation in Christ by single acts subject to the command of our will; that is, by the operation of our freedom in the line of its second dimension.

The Necessity of Prayer for Contemplation

So if contemplation is so important for our lives, indeed it part and parcel to our transformation in Christ, how is it to be done? Dietrich von Hildebrand answers:

The true Christian must at any cost conquer a place in his life for contemplation. He must firmly refuse to let himself be dragged into a whirlpool of activities in which he is driven incessantly from one task to another, purpose succeeding purpose, without a pause. The present period of perpetual unrest, in which the machine has come to be the model, the causa exemplaris, of well-nigh all things, in which everything is caught in a process of instrumentalization, in which Leistung (“achievement”) with the emphasis on quantity and mere technical perfection, has assumed priority over being in a substantial and meaningful sense – this period of shallow hyperactivity is only too apt to drag us into that whirlpool of outward preoccupations.

All our actions, even those with a religious or moral importance, which therefore essentially appeal to the contemplative attitude, we tend to perform in the manner of discharging a duty or of acquitting ourselves of a task – not to say, of turning out the required output. We live in uninterrupted tension, never ceasing to be conquered about what has next to be settled; and many of us no longer know any alternative to work except recreation and amusement.

I believe this is what I called “noise”. So how are we to overcome all this noise and achieve a contemplative frame of mind1? von Hildebrand answers:

First, we should consecrate every day a certain space of time to inward prayer. There must be such a fraction of the day, in which we drop all our topical or habitual concerns before God, facing Him in complete emptiness, so as to be filled by the holy presence of Christ alone.

Yet, we must guard from performing the inner prayer as though we were dispatching a business among others, assimilating it to the rhythm of current tasks. We must really loose the spasm of activity and be dominated by the consciousness of departing in our inward prayer towards the superior realm of ultimate being, in radical transcendence of the aims and concerns which habitually rule the course of our thoughts.

All these we must leave behind, pronouncing a nescivi (“I have forgotten”)….

Inward prayer is the utmost antithesis to all tense activity: we cannot practice it fruitfully unless we succeed in extricating ourselves from the rhythm of affairs to be settled. To preserve that pragmatic attitude during our inward prayer is to falsify the latter’s essence to the point of absurdity.

1 This is not to say our entire lives are to be spent in perpetual contemplation. Dietrich von  Hildebrand makes a sharp distinction between recollection and contemplation.  In Recollection “we become or make ourselves empty of pragmatical concerns, directing ourselves to the absolute…. In this respect, recollection is a preamble to contemplation…. Whereas our earthly life could not be purely contemplative, it should always remain recollected.”

On Contemplation and Beauty

Our old friend, Dietrich von Hildebrand again. This time on the subject of contemplation. From Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6:

In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.

Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?

That other feature of contemplation which must be present, to which the feature noted above is an addition, is the sense of timelessness. In contemplation proper, we are taken up out of the world of time, or rather, the temporal world around us ceases to exist.

In regards to the question in the second paragraph quoted above, I am afraid of the great awkwardness with which many people in 2008 would answer such a question. Dietrich von Hildebrand was by all accounts a highly cultured and educated man with a supreme appreciation for beauty, whether it be found in nature, art, or music. Perhaps only he could ask such a question with child-like naivete. He may have been unaware that not everyone has the gift of being able to appreciate beauty or even recognize it as he did. Nevertheless, I will trust, or at least hope, that everyone has had the kind of “supreme moment” noted above; if not a full realization of such contemplative joy, at least a hint of it.

However, if there are many who have not had such an experience, it is certainly because of the noise that fills our world. Without silence of heart and soul, contemplation is impossible. Our soul needs silence so that it can hear the voice of its maker.

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)

Compounding the problem of our inability to assume a contemplitive posture, we appear to have also lost a true appreciation for beauty. We are not sure why we need to study poetry anymore, or why we should care about making art that elevates the soul, or why we should care about the great works of Mozart and J.S. Bach. We can’t even agree about what is beautiful. I suppose even a trash can full of shit can look beautiful if you’re depraved enough to see it. Have you seen what counts as art these days?

I am reminded of the famous words of Fyodor Dostoevsky through his great character Prince Myshkin: “beauty will save the world.” It would seem so. Beauty will save the world because it will draw us back into contemplation. When authentic beauty is appreciated and reverenced in our culture, it is a sure sign that our souls have once again found value in silence and can once again hear the voice of God.

Imagine a world in which beauty is reverenced. What place would there be for war? How could rape or any sort of violence against a human being exist when the essential beauty of each person is apprecated in its fullness? How could pornography exist in a world that honors true beauty? Of course, sin will always be a reality of our world, but if our culture, with all its great power to influence and shape minds, would only embrace goodness, truth, and beauty, what a different place this world would be.

Indeed, beauty just might save the world.

True Simplicity

In Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand deals with, what he calls, true simplicity. By this he means a sole orientation of one’s life toward God, the unum necessarium. This simplicity is contrasted with a life devoted to one of many things, where consideration of God’s will is but one consideration among many. This kind of complex life is splintered because it is not solely directed toward God. To quote that famous passage from Saint Augustine, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”. When we try to serve God and mammon our lives become split. Sin introduces disunity in the soul, precisely because it takes our gaze from God. The true simplicity that should accompany a Christian life is now disrupted. Only when sin is removed from our lives, and this is accomplished only through a transformation in Christ, does unity reign within our soul as we direct our gaze toward God alone. As Dietrich von Hildebrand is quick to point out, true simplicity is very difficult to obtain and cannot be fully obtained this side of the beatific vision. However, this is the holiness of life to which we are are called. “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev 19.2)

From Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ :

A person confined within his natural attitude may not squander his interests on a multitude of trivial irrelevancies: he may concentrate upon an important cause, consecrate himself to a noble vocation, or be overwhelmed with a great love. However, he will then be exhausted, as it were, by that one thing, valuable maybe, but yet only one among many human concerns. Everything else is obscured, and he cannot afford to pay adequate attention even to a genuine good if it be unconnected with the thing which now engrosses his interest.

It is not so with true simplicity, involving an exclusive devotion to the unum necessarium alone. With this, new forces spring up in the man; an abundance of spiritual intensity arises from his participation in the life of Christ. New torrents are released, of which he knew nothing before; he is now enabled to react adequately, in a far greater measure than in his former life, to human individualities and the manifoldness of situations…

How inexhaustible becomes thereby the capacity for devoting ourselves to our fellow creatures and to their legitimate cares. Only think of the saints: St. Paul for example, when he says, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?” (2 Cor 11.29). This is a measure of love which transcends all natural categories. Or again, what a never relaxing intensity in attending to a variety of high tasks do we find in St. Albert the Great, adding the immensity of his scientific work to his monastic duties and his episcopal functions! With similar intent we may point to the life of a St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

From the natural standpoint, such a simultaneity of nobly performed duties might well seem impossible. But the saints could achieve such an abundance of life precisely because they were simple and by reason of their simplicity participated in the life of Christ.

In the preceding passage an important concept is taken for granted, of which Dietrich von Hildebrand treats elsewhere in Transformation in Christ. Simplicity in the natural order implies a narrowness of life (first paragraph quoted above), while simplicity in sole devotion to God implies great depth. The reason for this is to be found in the hierarchy of being. God, the alpha and omega, at the top, down to angels, to humans, to animals, to plant life, to non-biological matter, and so forth. When we orientate our lives toward God, we become focused on the unum necessarium, the ultimate and divine logos of the world, the source of life itself. This implies great depth, in that we are able to encounter the world in conspectu Dei (in view of God), and thus we are capable of seeing “things” (and people) as they really are. However, when our focus is on things of this world this depth of meaning is lost. No longer are we orientated towards the source of all life. We are instead focused on the things of this world, in which no light of meaning can be shed on anything else. We thus become narrow.

I cannot recommend highly enough a complete and careful reading of Transformation in Christ (Amazon link). It’s a lengthy book (500 pages), but it is not difficult. It was meant to be read slowly, and I suggest having a pencil or highlighter in hand. In fact, this is a work to be studied, not read. Transformation in Christ is one of the great spiritual classics of the last century, written by a truly great man. To learn more about Dietrich von Hildebrand, I highly recommend The Soul of a Lion (Amazon link), written by his wife, Alice von Hildebrand – a distinguished philosopher in her own right. Buy both together and get free shipping from Amazon!

Self-Knowledge in Christ

This Dietrich von Hildebrand fellow is really good. Someone should take an interest in him and try to revive his works or something. Oh, who can we find to do such a thing!

In this passage from Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand makes a distinction between true self-knowledge rooted in the removal of vice from our lives, and a false self-knowledge that seeks to know ourselves merely because we find ourselves to be interesting.

Whenever we take a purely psychological interest in ourselves and thus analyze our character in the manner of mere spectators, we peruse a false and sterile self-knowledge… The fact that the person in question happens to be ourselves merely intensifies our curiosity, without changing its quality. We experience ourselves as we would a character in a novel, without in any way feeling responsible for his defects…

This type of self-knowledge is not rooted in any willingness to change, and so it is completely sterile from the standpoint of moral progress. People who are wont to diagnose their blemishes in this neutral and purely psychological mood will draw from such discoveries no increased power to overcome their defects. On the contrary, such an indolently neutral self-knowledge will make them even more inclined to resign themselves to those defects as a matter of course. They are more remote from the chance of curing those ills than they would if they knew nothing about them. They are often disposed to admit their faults overtly, without restraint or reticence: not however from the motive of humility, nor under the impulse of guilt-consciousness, but because they pique themselves on presenting their vices, a psychologically absorbing sight.

Clearly, this false type of self-knowledge is much more common in our day and age. Rarely do we find anyone who is serious about rooting out sin in their lives. I suspect this is because what used to be thought of as sin is no longer thought of as such. Quite the contrary, what was formerly called a vice is now something to be proud of – one characteristic among many that make up who we are. I like the Beatles. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m good at math. I enjoy masturbation. (I’m pretty sure I heard this list in my college days).

This is in no way meant to condemn the greater culture, but rather a challenge to those who have been (hopefully) radically transformed by the Gospel message and are thus called to be a light to the world, the salt of the earth. If sin is no longer recognized as such, it is surely our fault. If it is we who are called to “go forth and make disciples of all nations”, then the reason vice is exalted in our age is because we have failed to carry out this commission of Christ. We have failed to proclaim the good news – that Christ is Lord and sin no longer has any power over us.

Does this mean we are to go around condemning the sins of others, “beating them over the head”, as it were, pretending that we are the holy, the few, the true righteous? Of course, not! At the heart of the Gospel message is a love that, while standing firmly in the truth of our moral responsibilities, does not condemn the world. Surely, sin is to be abhorred in all of its forms, but this is not the abhorrence of the self-righteous, but the lament of a lover. When we see someone we love (and we are called to love all, even, and perhaps most especially, our enemies) bound by something we know to be mortally wounding to their soul, it is out of love that we plead for their freedom and salvation. This plea is most immediately raised toward Our Lord, in whom we, and those we love, have such freedom from sin. We intercede on behalf of the beloved, recognizing the stain of sin on our own souls, and that the mercy God has shown us will now be bestowed on the one we love.

Of course, we are to convey our grievous concerns to those whom we have the surety (and often we do not) of sinful behavior. It is our moral duty. But if such a duty, and how tough a duty it is to carry out, is not rooted in love, it will be of little or no avail.


I do not often pontificate like this on my blog. I intend this blog to be more of a commonplace book than a lecture podium, and as such my blog tends to be a collection of quotes from those far more eloquent than I. Only once in a very long while does this commonplace book turn into a journal. I suppose this is one of those times.

As far as the “homily”, I just needed to get this topic off my chest – to think out loud. Of late, I have been struck by the literally overwhelming love of God. I have a hard time putting it into words, as many who know me may be able to attest. Sometimes I think I end up talking about “love” so much and with such ineloquence that I end up explaining God’s love with no more depth than a bumper sticker. I know that love is at the heart of the Gospel. I know love is why Christ came. And more fundamentally, love is why we exist. This is a love so unfathomable that it is beyond all words. It is the love that animated Mother Teresa and the many, many Saints throughout the ages. To quote a great Catholic theologian of the last century, “love alone is credible” – all else fades away and is purged by the fire.

I am often surprised by the numbers of people visiting this blog. I expect many are accidental or very brief visits, and while “all are welcome” (to quote a very bad Catholic hymn) the intended audience is often myself. I publish this post in the knowledge that someone other than myself may find it helpful.

The Sacrifice of Christ at the Heart of the Sacrament of Penance

Dietrich von Hildebrand, quoted from Transformation in Christ (Ignatius Press 2001):

Objectively, even, contrition as such involves a radical inward change (and a change that cannot be accomplished without contrition). The painful evocation and condemnation of past sins, the groping for a new basis of orientation, the movement of reconversion to God – these aspects by themselves testify to an essential inward change. But all this is far from being equivalent to an abolition of the guilt incurred. The disuniting effect of the latter persists, and continues to lie in the path of a reconciliation with God. That guilt can only be eliminated by God’s act of pardon, and be compensated for by the blood of Christ, of which it is said in the hymn of St. Thomas: “Of which a single drop, for sinners split, can purge the entire world from all its guilt.”

The sacrament of Penance, strictly speaking, is not indispensable for redeeming man from his guilt. In regard to a venial sin, the act of repentance itself may be an adequate substitute for the sacrament; in regard to a grave sin, an act of perfect contrition may similarly suffice, provided that confession is impracticable – just as in the baptism of desire and the baptism of blood, an inner act and a heroic action, respectively may stand for the sacrament of Baptism. But even in such cases it is not the indwelling force of the human act of penitence as such which abolishes the guilt; this is done always, and solely, by Christ through His death on the Cross. The change of heart, as implied in contrition, merely opens the path for the influx of the redeeming blood of Christ. Penitence reestablishes the link with Christ, by virtue of which the fruits of Christ’s deed of redemption may be applied to us.

Even the penitence of the Prophets, and all of those who lived before Christ, did not achieve the removal of guilt on its own strength: here, too, the forgiveness of guilt was due to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ.

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