Alice Von Hildebrand: Ships in the Dark – A reflection on Edith Stein & Dietrich Von Hildebrand
Ships in the dark.
In hindsight, one both marvels and regrets that two people who had so much in common never developed a great friendship. I am thinking of St. Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand. They were born on the same day: Columbus day, but he was her senior by two years. He was born in Florence, and spent much of his youth in this beautiful city; not surprisingly he was strongly marked by his Italian background. Italian was his first language. She was born in a Jewish family in Breslau, and was marked by her background: Jewish and north German. Both received their doctorate from the University of Goettingen, but once again he preceded her by several years: he received his Ph.D. in 1912; she in 1917. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, and from this moment on was an ardent Roman Catholic, deeply convinced that the Church was the Holy Bride of Christ. Edith needed time, and made several regrettable detours before she found her way to the Holy Arch. Once she was “home” she took giant steps toward sainthood and died a martyr in Auschwitz in 1944. She is now Saint Edith Stein. He came from a very liberal background: both father and mother would have labeled themselves Protestants, but religion played no role whatsoever in their lives. Their god was beauty; ugliness a sin. But God’s grace greeted young Dietrich. Already as a child when reading a biblical story for children, he mysteriously sensed that it was not an attractive novel; the “notes” sang the music of another world. As a teenager, he strongly challenged his father’s relativism. The latter interpreted this opposition as a lack of maturity. “He was clearly too young to understand that truth is relative, dependent upon culture, and the spirit of the time”.
His meeting with Max Scheler (a fallen away Catholic) who nevertheless in some mysterious way believed that the Church had the truth, was decisive. From this moment on he was “in via” and even though his early marriage and the birth of his son, delayed his entering the Church, Easter Saturday 1914 was for him a glorious day. Until his death in 1977, he never recalled without emotion the day that he pronounced the words “Anathema Sit” his rejection of the vague Protestantism that he was acquainted with and joined the choir of those who joyfully recognize her to be a saint. From the moment of her baptism, like an arrow directed by the Divine Archer, Edith Stein strove for holiness. I need not be eloquent: fortunately many beautiful books have been written on the subject.
Dietrich von Hildebrand’s path was different. As mentioned his path to the Church had no obstacles to overcome, but a very rich cultural life, a very early marriage, and becoming a father at the age of 22 absorbed much of his time and energy. But as mentioned when he joyfully pronounced the “Anathema Sit” to all errors and heresies for the rest of his life, he was and remained an ardent son of the Church, never missing Mass unless grave obstacles prevented him from attending. His ardent love for the Holy Church found its expression in several books, the most important of which is Transformation in Christ, which has become a Catholic classic. This ardent love never abated. On his death bed, he confided his literary bequest to me, he added; “If, however, you find a single word which is not in harmony with the teaching of the Holy Church; burn it.” I rejoice at the thought that he and Edith Stein now have met in heaven.
Edith Stein coming from a Jewish background (her mother always attended the Synagogue) had to make several detours before finding her way “home.” A brilliant student, she was the best in whatever she did. But alas, not only did she lose her faith. This loss was accompanied by her embracing the dangerous philosophy of Spinoza whose unbaptized talents inevitably led him to grave errors which have a powerful attraction for his followers. These “Intellectual smart alecks” have plagued the history of philosophy, and alas, do not practice intellectual “birth control,” never lack a large progeny, and are “awed” by their own talents. To this very day, Spinoza attracts intellectuals blind to the fact that humility is a condition “sine qua non” to perceive “sensitive” truths, i.e. those which are dealing with the crucial questions that “every man raises when he faces death” (to quote the French philosopher, Jacques Chevalier). Edith Stein fell into this trap and carried the latter’s Ethics’ in her pocket, as an intellectual treasure. Great talents, not baptized by humility, are the most likely victims of this brilliant intellectual trap. Spinoza’s philosophy is dangerously misleading, because it sounds so “elevating”. By contrast, since his youth, Dietrich von Hildebrand instinctively was “allergic” to any form of relativism. It was a grace as he was to realize years later when he entered the Catholic church.
Regrettably, the two philosophers that shared a deep admiration for their common professor Adolf Reinach, “missed” one another. They met at the burial of their revered teacher, Adolf was killed in Belgium in the First World War. Both had had a profound love and admiration for him. His love for truth and his talents promised that he would make brilliant contributions to philosophy. The few writings that he left were remarkable. They were both present at his burial on December 1917. Dietrich knew nothing of her; but having come to Goettingen in 1913, she had heard by word of mouth about the Koryphees (of which DvH was one of the members ), who left the university of Munich to study under Edmond Husserl whose book Logische Untersuchungen had challenged the prevalent relativistic philosophy that was dominating German universities. It was, as Dietrich von Hildebrand writes in his Memoirs, a ray of light. Upon arriving in the German university (regretfully leaving his dear Munich) and oppressed by the narrowness of a German university in a small town, he was consoled by the remarkable teaching of Adolf Reinach to whom, he tells us, in perfect harmony with Edith Stein, he owes his philosophical formation. Whereas Husserl, so admired by his book referred to above, was a disappointment: he was not a good teacher: his material was not well organized. Moreover, whatever course he taught mostly revolved around the thoughts that were preoccupying him at the time. It is worth remarking that in Edith Stein’s memoirs and DvH’s unpublished one, their evaluation of both Reinach and Husserl could make us believe that DvH’s written later, were plagiarized from hers; I can testify to the fact that he never read hers. But it inevitably convinces the reader that they are valid testimonies of an obvious fact.
To both Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, Reinach’s death was a source of deep sorrow; not only because of the debt they had toward him, but also because they both viewed him as a noble personality and as a revered friend. Their meeting at Adolf Reinach’s burial could have been the foundation of a great friendship. But alas, this bud did not bloom. Those who knew DvH, knew that even though his vision of a situation was powerful, his vision was limited, in the sense that his whole concentration was focused on one person, and blinded him to others. Adolf Reinach had a younger brother, Heinrich, and the latter had confided to him that he was heartbroken: deeply in love with a young woman, she had given him the cold shoulder. Dvh, often called “Doctor amoris”, and always hoping that, as in fairy tales, a love would end well (and they would be happy forever after), focused all his attention on the young lady who was Heinrich’s loved one. She was accompanied by her friend, Edith Stein. Dietrich had never heard her name, and knew nothing of her. He greeted her politely, but turned all his attention to Heinrich’s loved one planning to do everything in his power to convince her that Heinrich’s affections were a precious gift. He invited her to come to Munich (she lived in Berlin), to give Heinrich a chance of seeing her frequently. (footnote: He succeeded so well that they got engaged and married, wisely moving to Brazil when Hitler started persecuting the Jews. “It all ended happily.”). But the price Dietrich had to pay was, alas, to overlook Edith Stein, missing a unique chance to develop a great friendship with this remarkable woman. She was not yet converted at the time. God’s call came a few years later: she was staying at the home of her friend Hedwig Conrad Martius and her husband. Her hosts had to leave for a weekend, and Edith left alone, happened to find a book, the Memoirs of St. Teresa of Avila. It triggered her curiosity, so started reading it, and from the first moment, was so captivated that she read it through the whole night. When she put the book down, she had made up her mind to enter the Church. After receiving the proper instruction, she was baptized, and not surprisingly as we know her to be, from this moment on, she became a “slave of grace”. It was to lead her to the Carmel, and this calling, as we well know, broke her mother’s heart. Isaac was asked to “sacrifice Abraham”. It cost her tears of blood, and she accepted this crucifixion.
This brings me back to their second and last meeting. They were given another chance, years later in the summer of 1930, in Salzburg where both were invited as speakers at the summer school. By then, both of them were fairly well known, and were greeted by so many friends, that once again they missed this second and last chance to develop a friendship. Now they have met in the joy of eternity.
Alice von Hildebrand