Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic philosopher and theologian, and the widow of philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. She taught philosophy at Hunter College and has written several books. In a recent wide-ranging interview in her New York home Hildebrand spoke at length on topics ranging from womanhood, marriage and celibacy, to the eternal destiny of the human soul. This is the fourth article in a series of excerpts from this interview:
Or have you ever thought that when you listen to music, (and when I say music I mean classical music – I cannot tell you the joy I experience when I hear Mozart!) that it tickles your ear? No. Or when you see a beautiful landscape, do you feel it with your eyes? No. There is something more. These experiences involve spiritual senses.
Once you lose your sense of the meaning of life, or of the love of God, or love of your neighbor, if you lose that spiritual sense of self-giving and sharing, what is left? Physical pleasure. And you know, pleasure by itself is tragic. This is because when you have a craving, the craving gets more and more intense, and then, when you satisfy the craving all you are left with is a moment of keen satisfaction located somewhere in your body. Then it's over. And what happens? You have to start all over again. No pleasure or set of pleasures lasts forever. The essence of pleasure is that it is of short duration.
But God created us for immortality. What we long for is more than what pleasure can give.
What does it mean to be made for immortality? It means there is something inside you that is going to last for ever and ever and ever. In my apartment building there are all sorts of people; it's a little microcosm of humanity. Sometimes I feel so sorry for the people because it seems that all they are doing is making money and more money—for what? You can't take gold with you in your casket. Yet many of them only live for sheer pleasure; they forget that they are actually made for immortality.
Pleasure always comes to an end. My taste buds died a few months ago. When I eat it's all chalk or sand, or whatever it is. I taste nothing. The pleasure is gone. Nevertheless I must feed myself because if I don't eat you know what happens. So the pleasure in eating is gone. Now for the first time in my life I truly understand God's goodness in giving us human beings taste buds. Up to now I have taken them for granted. And now I say to myself, did I truly thank God for the pleasure of taste?
But now – please listen, this is crucial – to experience pleasure, to truly experience pleasure, we need to thank God. We must join pleasure to gratitude. When we do this, pleasure is no longer just a physical sensation. Your experience is one of joy. Do you understand the difference? Unfortunately what people want today is only pleasure, and consequently in all their fleshly pursuits they lack true joy. That is sad, because joy is what can truly satisfy.
I was once teaching a course on metaphysics and trying to give arguments for the immortality of the soul. My body's going to die, I argued – maybe very soon – but my soul is immortal. I proceeded to present my case. At the end, a man raised his hand and said, "If you succeed in convincing me that I have an immortal soul, then I will declare you to be my worst enemy. If I have an immortal soul, as you say, then I will be held responsible for my lifestyle." His words broke my heart.
Just think: each of us will be held responsible for our lives. And this is because we are made for immortality. Our lives do not, or at least should not, consist solely of fleeting pleasures. We should be focusing on things of eternal value. Too many of us want to maximize fun and pleasure, to make it more intense and longer-lasting. We try every which way to eliminate suffering in our lives. And alleviating pain and suffering certainly has its place. But we cannot forget Christ's message, "whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matt. 16:24)
Christ's way – ultimately, his way of redemption – leads through suffering. Christ knew suffering. He knew anguish. He knew fear. Yes, even suffering has a meaning. That is why it is such a blessing to have faith, to know there is a God who has created you and loves you, and who has a plan for you beyond this temporal existence of ours. To know you have an immortal soul, and to respect it as such, is a true blessing. Respect your soul, and respect the souls of those around you. Then your life will have lasting meaning.