If you asked me to name the three most influential Catholic writers in my faith journey, there is no question that Alice von Hildebrand would be among them. I first encountered her writing as a young mother when looking on our shelves for something "easy" to read. Her slim volume "The Privilege of Being a Woman" seemed to fit the bill. It looked like it would make me smarter, had a pretty blue cover (I like blue), and most notably, was only about 100 pages. Little did I know that the Holy Spirit would use those few pages to open my eyes and heart a little wider... and transform me into someone a little (or a lot) better than I was.
I am tempted to say that Alice von Hildebrand's little book saved my marriage but that seems too dramatic since there wasn't any direct threat at the time. But it is is completely accurate to say that it (along with Fulton Sheen's Three to Get Married) changed my understanding of marriage, my place in marriage, and the meaning of my feminine identity... and built a strong foundation against the challenges that would inevitably come.
When I saw recently that St. Benedict Press had published the memoirs of Alice von Hildebrand, I stared with the hunger of a child in a candy store. I didn't need it but I needed it... know what I mean? When they sent it to me to review, I haunted my mailbox waiting and read it within two days of receiving it. I wasn't disappointed.
I wouldn't call the book exciting in the modern sense. Even the most dramatic moments of her life (escaping Nazi Germany, for example) are told in an understated way. And it is fitting. We live in a time when we feel that we must add emojis and exclamation points to everything in order to be understood... but von Hildebrand speaks of all of her life in the same reverent and tempered tone. With the innate understanding that the Holy Spirit is present through each moment as powerfully as the next. And as I read through the events of her life, from big to small, I understood that the most dramatic moments are really the ones in which the soul is moved toward God. Everything else is just window dressing.
Memoirs of a Happy Failure follows von Hildebrand from her childhood in Germany, education in the United States, marriage to Dietrich von Hildebrand (one of the great theologians of our time), all the way through her retirement from teaching philosophy at Hunter College in New York. It was a time before the internet and "education via meme." A slower time but no less rampant with the errors of relativism and modernism. Von Hildebrand combatted these enemies through the faithful and bold teaching of Philosophy. She wrote:
"How often did my students say to me, "I never heard this before," to which I would answer that to learn is to become acquainted with insights one has not had before. I had come to see that relativism is the one great obstacle to faith. Once this bastion is torn down, the rest follows. Man's longing for God is thereby "unleashed."
The book, like much of Alice von Hildebrand's writing, left me with a feeling of deep peace and confidence in the power of God working through the mundane. It also left me with a renewed hunger for a renewed pursuit of the intellectual life and a profound appreciation for the under-appreciated queen of the sciences: Philosophy.
You can buy "Memoirs of a Happy Failure" at St. Benedict Press and I strongly recommend doing so!