Alice von Hildebrand, Catholic philosopher and scholar, died on January 14, 2022. Well-known and respected in the Catholic world, her charism extended far beyond its borders. An interview conducted by the author and two friends in October 2011 grew into a friendship that bore fruit for both sides.
“If anything that I say is not true, I will gladly take the credit for it; it is entirely my own error. If, however, I say something true, I can claim no responsibility. It has only come through me from above.” I am sitting on a spongy sofa while Dr. Alice von Hildebrand (“Lily” to me and my companions) perches wren-like on a hard, straight-backed chair directly in front of us, our knees almost touching. It is 2011 and we’re meeting in her home in New Rochelle, New York. Her hands are in constant motion, the gestures a perfect complement to her thick Belgian accent.
We are leaning toward one another, partly out of necessity since at eighty-eight Lily is hard of hearing, but also because I don’t want to miss a word. From the moment the three of us stepped into her apartment, she had taken charge, 100 percent the philosophy professor, leading us straight to the sofa and pulling up her chair. We hadn’t known what to expect of this first meeting, but immediately realized here was someone so passionate about the highest questions of life that it was not going to be a relaxing chat over a cup of tea.
Lily herself described this intensity perfectly when speaking of her late husband, Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand: “It was marriage on stilts.” She felt she needed intellectual stilts to be able to reach his level. Well, Lily must have had some pretty serviceable ones, because while she would often say with a self-deprecating chuckle that “in all things practical we made a pathetic pair,” in philosophical and spiritual matters she and Dietrich were true partners, spurring on one another’s output of books and articles. Pope Pius XII called him “Doctor of the Church of the Twentieth Century,” while Pope Francis made her Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory, a papal knighthood.
Now, as we strain to keep up on our own mental stilts, Lily’s charm and wit pull us along. It is easy to see why, during her career at Hunter College, she’d been voted best professor by her students.
In 1940, when she was just seventeen, Lily fled her native Belgium for the United States. Along the way, a near miss with a Nazi submarine led to a sublime experience. “I had the clear sense that I had ‘touched eternity,’ where time vanishes and everything is present,” she wrote in her 2014 Memoirs of a Happy Failure. With this renewed perspective she applied herself to philosophy and theology, studying with Dietrich at Fordham University and collaborating with him till his death in 1977. For the next forty-five years she continued their life’s work until she passed away. Instead of biological children, she regarded the many young people she swept into her orbit as sons and daughters. I and several of my fellow Bruderhof members were among them. Despite the difference between our Anabaptism and her Catholicism, our common desire to serve Christ immediately bonded us. We were able to share her thoughts on womanhood, immortality, love.
She, in turn, took us into her heart, often saying, “Tell me something beautiful about the Bruderhof,” and delighting in whatever anecdotes we offered. Lily never neglected to pass on her greetings to our elders or to pray for them, entering as fully as possible into our lives and inviting us into hers. One of us, Vivian Warren, accompanied her on several trips, and I stayed with her in her apartment to provide care and companionship after she broke a hip.
What is the first thing you would do upon arriving home from the hospital? Relax, focus on gathering strength; perhaps eat a real meal. Not Lily. She headed straight for her computer to painstakingly type an article she had been putting together in her head. She was extremely concerned for America and its direction, for moral relativism and respect for life, and prayed for her adopted country many hours each day.
Lily also grappled with Jesus’ last prayer that all believers would be one (John 17:21) and the seeming impossibility of it. Perhaps this was one reason she opened her doors to us.
I asked a few of Lily’s Bruderhof “daughters” to share their remembrances. Alison recalls Lily’s fundamental gratefulness and “symphony of thank-yous,” as she put it, for every little thing. Carmen points to Lily’s joy in sharing – “a meal, a piece of chocolate, the Gospel” – and a favorite prayer by Saint Teresa of Ávila she often recited:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
Thinking of the turmoil and confusion that this prayer answers, Louise writes of Lily’s hope that God’s truth would prevail: “I saw that her belief in God as the only truth was what held her through everything she encountered. Lily knew that God was the ultimate power and so she lived in simple, humble obedience. This is something any one of us can do.”
I remember Lily telling me, “Just as in the gospel we have the story of the woman who said, ‘The dogs eat the crumbs that the children let fall,’ even a crumb of God’s truth can enrich our souls, and it’s only in eternity that we’re going to see the whole body of it.”
Lily once defined a saint as “someone who, through God’s grace, sees.” Now she can surely see, and like a good mother she has channeled her spiritual resources well to provide us with plenty of nourishing bread until we too can join her at its Source.