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What Alice von Hildebrand Taught Me

January 25, 2022 by

Thank you, Lily.

I can still see her sitting in the airport: her head bowed, eyes closed, completely motionless. Lost in deep prayer, utterly oblivious to the mass of humanity rushing past to make flights or catch runaway children. Lily was doing what she often talked about: “breathing to God,” her definition of prayer.

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand (Lily, as her friends called her) and I were on our way home from five days in Alabama where she did an interview for EWTN Bookmark on her latest book, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, as well as a show with Father Mitch Pacwa. The days we spent together were wonderful, giving me a window into her life and character that only comes from the companionship of traveling together, sharing meals and walks and late-night discussions in our guest house.

Much has been and will be written about the scholastic, literary, and philosophical contributions Dr. von Hildebrand has made to the world, but to me she was simply Lily, a wonderful friend who had an enormous influence on my development as a woman. She was small of stature and always frail (she once jokingly told me that “when I’m buried the worms are going to have very little food! Not going to be a great day for them.”) But the greatness of her soul and spirit more than made up for her tiny frame, and I always came away from my visits with her knowing I had been in the presence of someone special.

VivianAliceEmbedThe author with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand

Born in 1923 in Belgium, Alice Jourdain moved to the United States when she was seventeen years old, one of many fleeing Europe. She lived in New York, attended college, and received her PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University in 1949. She was first introduced to the renowned philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand while shelving one of his books in the library at Manhattanville College. Two weeks later she met him in person at a talk he gave in his apartment. The subject was “Transformation in Christ: the Readiness to Change.” “From the first moment he began to speak, I felt that he was feeding my soul with a food I had always longed for. He spoke out of a deep spirit of recollection, and I drank in every word.” she writes in Memoirs of a Happy Failure.  This encounter led to more. She assisted him by typing manuscripts and eventually they married, pooling their lives, their faith, their love of philosophy and truth, and working tirelessly to call others to conversion and a more Christ-centered life.  

I won’t dwell any longer on the details of her life or literary contributions, as there are many qualified individuals who will surely do that. Rather, I wanted to share some personal encounters and conversations I had with her over the years. We had a lively email correspondence, and the following emails are so typical of her down-to-earth advice. This first was from a time when I was struggling with being single and often feeling alone. I asked her how to remember the beauty of life just as God has willed it, and to maintain a sense of peace and surrender to God at these lonely times. Lily wrote,

You might feel alone, but this is a lie: you are never alone. He is always there, loving you. It is, I believe, in the Gospel of St. John that Christ said: “I am alone; and yet I am never alone because I do my father's will.” This helped me so much when I became a widow, and came home at 11 pm. The apartment was so dark, so sad. Then I found the words I quoted, and realized that I need never be alone if I accept God’s will. I formed the habit of kissing the crucifix, and it gives me peace and joy. Indeed, when you feel alone, you should apologize to Christ for forgetting that he is there very close to you.

In another email she told me:

Beg our sweet Redeemer to give you the grace of learning to talk to him from morning to night (and night to morning). Tell him your joys, your sorrows, your hopes, and... create silence in your heart so that you can hear him respond. Indeed, marriage is a great gift, but if I told you what a crucifixion my sister’s marriage has been, you would realize that nobody has a guarantee [and] that the “YES” can entail terrible suffering. You dream about a beautiful marriage - and there are some, but we are made for HIM, and it is only in HIM that we shall find perfect joy.

Lily lived and breathed prayer and faith, and always encouraged me to ask our heavenly Father for what I wanted.

Dear Vivian;

I believe we should NEVER get tired of asking for God’s help and grace. That He does not immediately grant us what we ask for, is to test our faith. I am convinced that if you practice what is daringly call “holy pestering,” to keep asking Him that He grants you to fully and joyfully accept whatever He has chosen for you, ONE DAY He will grant your petition. And then you will fully understand why he took his time. Please, pray for me as I pray for you. Dr. Lily

Lily taught me to think about womanhood and femininity in a completely new way, and my conversations with her were pivotal in the development of my attitude as a woman. She had absolutely no use for the modern feminist movement’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence from men, remarking that the drive for “equality” with men was a telling sign of the lie of feminism: If women were truly confident in their femininity they would not strive to be like men, but would embrace the unique gifts of womanhood. To Lily being a woman was the most wonderful and awe-inspiring thing in the world. She loved to talk about how man was made from “the slime of the earth” (albeit then imbued with the breath of God) but woman was made from man (Gen. 2:7, 22). She spoke of Adam being awed at the sight of Eve, and calling her “the mother of the living” (Gen. 3:20).

But while Lily was given a unique gift in being able to bring great thoughts to expression, she was at the same time one of the most humble, unassuming people I have ever met. She struggled with the same fear of death and of standing before the throne of God that all mortals do. In recent years she always spoke of her last steps, and would say, “Pray for old ladies. The last steps are the hardest.” It was her ardent prayer that she would be taken when she was at her most thankful, with the words “thank you” on her lips.

I wasn’t there when she finally crossed over on January 14, 2022, but I am sure those were the words on her lips, because when you live your whole life with the kind of grace and humility and thankfulness she did, you will also enter the next world in peace and joy.

Thank you, Lily. You have taught me more than you will ever know.

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About the author

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren lives at The Mount Community, where she cares for the elderly and works in the community kitchen.

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