Alice von Hildebrand is with us for the summer, as usual. She is busy putting the finishing touches on the story of her years of teaching at Hunter City College of New York, soon to be published under the title, Memoirs of a Happy Failure. The manuscript includes several photographs. One in particular stood out.
It's not just that I haven't seen many pictures of her and her husband together; it's that the gesture is so exceptionally eloquent and moving.
A few days after I noticed this, she fowarded to me a copy of the conversion story of one of her former students, Stephanie Block.* Here is part of it.
One semester turned into another and fascinated, I took every course Alice Jourdain von Hildebrand offered. Which brought me to new problems. If there were absolute Truths and we human beings had the capacity to know and respond to them, what else might I have misunderstood? Was God real? Was Jesus Christ more than a myth hatched during the Passover Plot? Were there moral absolutes demanding my submission? I no longer wanted to ask Professor Jourdain anything in class, afraid that she would use the question to expose my imbecility. Why didn’t I already know these things?
I timidly sounded out the other students. We did what students have done since there have been colleges – passed around books we found inspirational and stayed up late in the coffee shop discussing them. A number of those books turned out to have been written by Dr. Jourdain’s husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand. I was told that he was what Pope Pius XII had called “a twentieth century Doctor of the Church.” That meant nothing to me and my fellow students clearly found the indifference irritating. I’d have to meet the man, they challenged. He was usually at Hunter College, working in Professor Jourdain’s office while she taught. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for him to speak with students who had “special” questions.
I mulled this over. The more I hesitated, they more they extolled Dr. von Hildebrand’s merits. He began to swell in my mind’s eye from mere mortal into a demigod. He wrote, I was told, books on his knees. Perhaps he was also able to read minds and would see through the counterfeit of mine. No, I thought, I’d just assume keep a respectful distance.
But the day came, anyway. Standing in a small knot of students one evening, deep in discussion, Alice Jourdain came sweeping out of class and ushered us into her office. This was unexpected. I positioned myself as far to the rear of the room as I could.
Perhaps I was introduced. I don’t recall. I, who was considered brash and aggressive in high school, was overwhelmed with shyness. Dietrich von Hildebrand was a good deal older than his wife but had an alarming degree of vitality that exploded into every corner of the office. The conversation, which I do recall, concerned the beauty of love and Dietrich von Hildebrand bent over his wife’s hand to kiss it. The gesture was at once inexpressibly tender and gallant. Those damned fluorescent lights were overcome by something softer, warmer, and much brighter.
I think we seldom realize how much spiritual reality (for good and ill) is conveyed in our gestures, our tone, our posture, our expressions. Conform ourselves to Truth, live by grace, and we can evangelize without words.
*The whole story is published in a collection of conversion stories compiled by Donna Streichen.