The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 13, 2020 - 7:39:43

Bonus wisdom from Alice von Hildebrand

Jules van Schaijik, Mar 12, 2012

Saturday morning, over breakfast, Alice von Hildebrand began telling me things she had meant to mention the evening before in her lecture on the role of the heart in human life, but hadn't. Thinking others might like to hear what she was saying, I started recoring. I captured two nuggets I thought especially worth sharing.

The first is on sentimentality as a perversion of the heart, and on Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a perfect example of it: click here to listen

The second, a bit longer than the first, is a beautiful philosophical and scriptural reflection on the meaning of nakedness: click here to listen

Another point came up in our conversation, which I didn't record, but want to add anyway. It has to do with the fact that sometimes, especially in cases of suffering, the human heart (our affective center) is called upon to give a very different response to reality than the will (our freedom). The idea is developed by Dietrich von Hildebrand in the following passage from The Heart. Notice especially how important the idea is for 1) a proper understanding of "the cross" in human life, and 2) for man's ability to retain his full selfhood and individuality in his encounter with and submission to God:

We must here again repeat that the heart has a function other than the will, and that God has entrusted the heart to “speak” an irreplaceable word, a word which sometimes differs from that to which the will is called. It would be a disastrous error to overlook this fact and to think that the heart and will must always speak the same word. To deny that God has entrusted the heart to speak a word of its own leads to the conviction that the silencing of the heart is a religious ideal.

The call of God directed to our will has to be obeyed, whatever our heart may feel, or whatever it may object. But this does not at all imply that our heart should conform itself to the will in the sense that it should speak the same word as the will speaks.

Abraham, after hearing God’s command that he sacrifice his son Isaac, has to say “yes” with his will. But his heart had to bleed and respond with the greatest sorrow. His obedience to the commandment would not have been more perfect had his heart responded with joy. On the contrary, it would have been a monstrous attitude. According to the will of God, the sacrifice of his son called for a response of Abraham’s heart, namely, that of deepest sorrow. But notwithstanding the deep reluctance of heart, Abraham was obliged to accept this terrible cross and to conform his will to God’s commandment…

If we ask, for instance what is the God-pleasing attitude when a beloved person dies, our answer is that with our free personal center we should speak our fiat: we should accept the terrible cross imposed on us. This acceptation is an act of the will. But it is meant as a cross by God and this implies that our heart bleeds. The cross would have no place in our life if our heart conformed to God’s will in the sense that everything that God permits could only gladden our heart. The great and deep mission of the cross would be frustrated if holiness implied that as soon as something sad happens, and thus is at least permitted by God, the heart should no longer worry about it. And not only the role of the cross, but the fully personal character of man, would be frustrated. Man is not simply an instrument, he is a person to whom God addresses himself, whom God treats as a person since it depends upon man’s free will, his free decision, whether or not he will attain his eternal welfare. God also wants man to have his own individual life, to take positions with his heart, to direct himself to God with petition prayers for legitimate high goods in life…

…Man would be a mere mask, he would no longer have his specific individual life; all the gifts of God entrusted to him during this life would not really reach him, he would no longer have a real history, he would not possess a unique unrepeatable existence, if his heart did not give responses to all real goods, responses of Gratitude, of longing, of hope, of love.

Man could no longer live a full human life if his heart spoke the same fiat that his will speaks in all those cases where the endangering of a good endowed with a high value, or the loss of it, calls for a specific response of the heart. We emphasize here the sameness of the fiat, because the heart also speaks a certain fiat as opposed to any murmuring. The heart also submits to God’s will in throwing itself in the loving arms of God, but it does not for that reason cease to suffer. We need only think of the words of our Lord in Gethsemane: Pater mi, si possibile est, transeat a me calix iste, “Father, if it is possible, remove this chalice from me.