Despite having a life radically different than the one she expected as a Belgian youth, philosopher Dr. Alice von Hildebrand says God supported her through every challenge. “God has chosen the pattern of my life - totally different from what I had imagined. I feel like the female Habakkuk brought into the lion’s den,” Dr. Alice von Hildebrand told CNA in a recent interview. “When I look back on my life, the words that come to my mind from my heart are: misericodias domini in aeternum cantabo,” she stated, Latin words from the Psalms which translate to “I will sing the mercies of the Lord forever.” Von Hildebrand’s autobiography, “Memoirs of a Happy Failure,” delves into the account of her life and highlights God’s sustaining grace behind every corner of her journey. “Dr. von Hildebrand has faced many obstacles along the way: from fleeing the Nazi menace in her youth; to the challenge of gaining a foothold in what was then a male-dominated profession; to the often-hostile ideological battles she faced as an increasingly rare witness to the existence of objective truth,” stated New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in the book’s forward address, saying that he found in her story the quiet confidence of God’s grace. After escaping Europe during the terror of World War II, Alice von Hildebrand ventured to America on a journey that was originally planned to last a month. “Because of the war, it was impossible to go back,” she stated, accepting the fact that her life would remain in America. In the book, von Hildebrand explores what she describes as the series of providential events which led to her acquaintance with the esteemed philosopher Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand, while he gave a talk in his modest apartment in Central Park, New York City. After arriving in America as a refugee, she recalled, Dr. Dietrich was living a life totally destitute but completely dedicated to truth and wisdom. “The moment he opened his mouth, I knew that it was what I was looking for: the perfume of the supernatural, the radiant beauty of truth, the unity of all values: truth, beauty, and goodness,” Alice von Hildebrand noted, saying that the night she met Dietrich, who was to be her future husband, was the moment she decided to devote her life to the love of wisdom. Despite having an excellent Catholic education in her home country, she said that she had never met someone who radiated to such an extent the joy of being Catholic. “This is why I decided to complete my Ph.D in the USA and finally settled here for good,” she explained, eventually marrying Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand in 1959. However, completing her doctorate was not the biggest challenge she would face. After being repeatedly turned down by Catholic colleges that did not accept women as philosophy teachers, von Hildebrand found work in an unexpected place. “Accidentally, a priest friend recommended me to the chairman of the department of Psychology and Philosophy at Hunter College. I remained there for 37 years,” she said, but not without various challenges, oppression, and trials. Discovering that teaching at a secular college was radically anti-Catholic, she experienced obstacles on every level, from staff, students, and colleagues. “In secular universities, the word ‘objective truth’ triggers panic,” she reflected. The book notes that von Hildebrand waited 15 years just to receive her own desk, and details her experiences of facing prejudice as a woman and a Catholic. “God said, ‘I know you do not belong there,’ as my colleagues repeated time and again. ‘But, I have a work for you to do, and you cannot do it on your own. I will help you,’” she reflected. She added that while she never desired to teach at a secular university, it was at this university that she would find an opportunity to challenge the foundations of relativism through objective truth in philosophy. “Quite a few students were starving: coming from an atheistic background, they were desperately trying to find meaning to life,” she noted. Von Hildebrand said that some students responded warmly to God’s grace in accepting objective truth. However, some incidents with students ended in her tears, as the book recalls, and always resulted in many prayers. “Someone — God — wanted me there. After 13 years I was granted tenure,” von Hildebrand stated, explaining that she passed a Gestapo-like interview of two hours by 15 heads of department and two deans. She said she later found out that no other professor was ever cross-examined like this before receiving tenure, making her career at Hunter’s College nothing short of a miracle. In the end, she believes that some of the key chapters to her work are found in the student conversions that she witnessed in the classroom, receiving the President’s Award, and having the highest student evaluation in the college, competing with close to 800 professors. “God won, but the road was hard. He gave me victory because He was the one who placed me in the lion’s den and gave me grace,” she concluded.
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