'Remnant of Paradise' offers sample of Catholic philosopher's essays -- and perhaps a motivation to explore more of her and her husband's work.
Remnant of Paradise: Selected Essays is a sampler that can serve as an introduction to the life and work of Alice von Hildebrand, who died in January 2022 at age 98. But since von Hildebrand, a philosopher in her own right, spent her career promoting the work of her husband, Remnant of Paradise might also lead one eventually to discover the life and work of Dietrich von Hildebrand. And thereby it would accomplish much.
“Your husband is no doubt one of the very great ethical thinkers of the 20th century,” Pope St. John Paul II told Alice von Hildebrand during a private audience at the Vatican in 1980. The exchange is contained in an essay written for Crisis magazine in May 2005, just after the pope’s death. It is one of the essays contained in this book.
The slim volume has been published by the Hildebrand Project, an organization that Alice von Hildebrand herself helped set up. The book contains some of her best essays, going back to 1967, covering her signature concerns, such as feminism vs. femininity, the blessings of old age, the objective nature of truth, and conversion. Some essays had not been published previously.
Her wit and feistiness come through on every page. One essay in particular caught my eye, because it contains an idea I found to be unique and original. Writing for The Wanderer newspaper, von Hildebrand suggested that the Church add to its liturgical calendar a feast honoring Mary, Queen of Widows. We don’t often think of it, but the Blessed Mother lived much of her life as a widow, and surely, many widows (and widowers) can take solace in the fact that Mary knows what they are going through.
The title of the book comes from a 2006 essay von Hildebrand penned for Crisis, “The Canons of Friendship.”
“Friendship is the remnant of paradise,” she begins the essay. It’s an intriguing thought, and one wishes von Hildebrand had explained it further in the piece. She does offer important guidance on what friendship is and what it requires, however, and that is even more important today, when the word “friend” has been used so liberally that it tends to lose its meaning.
“Gratitude is the blessed oil on which friendship and marriage thrive,” she writes. “Noble friendships and happy marriages … are characterized by the fact that one is always willing to acknowledge one’s fault, one’s weakness, and to ask for forgiveness.”
Getting back to her account of the audience with John Paul II, she also described the pope’s outstanding ability, related by many others who met him, of making one feel that one is the only other person in the world at that moment.
“The thing that struck me most was his presence. I truly had the impression that this man – who carried the whole burden of the Church on his shoulders – was giving me his full attention and could have repeated back my every word. He was fully there, as if my modest message mattered to him.”
The power of truth
The second half of the book is filled with short tributes to Alice von Hildebrand, some of which contain memorable anecdotes. Among the notables here are Cardinal Raymond Burke, Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, poet laureate Dana Gioia, and philosopher Peter Kreeft. But there are remembrances from people who were just friends – one of the “titles” von Hildebrand held in such high regard. One, former student Robert Kreppel, recalled that her classroom at New York’s Hunter College was “always popular.”
Popular with students, perhaps, but not with fellow faculty and administrators of the secular college. Some suspected her of proselytizing.
As Josef Seifert, founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, wrote in an obituary, “She frequently faced opposition from her own colleagues, in part out of envy (for she quickly became very well liked by her students) and in part because some of her colleagues were quite anti-Catholic and some of her students had converted to Catholicism. In her autobiography, she notes this opposition with some surprise because she never spoke of Catholicism in the classroom.”
The book alludes to one student’s conversion, stemming simply from a classroom discussion of Plato and Aristotle. For von Hildebrand, once students embraced the idea that there is truth and one can find it, the door is open to God.
We can only imagine how Alice von Hildebrand would react to some of the trends found in society today – both on campus and elsewhere. The blurring of a true human anthropology with the idea that “gender” is fluid, for example, is but the most outrageous example.
But the truth is eternal, and ideologies have come and gone. Reading Remnant of Paradise is a good way to latch onto that truth – and then delve deeper.