Saturday, March 22, 2008

Memories of Dietrich Von Hildebrand

by Ronda Chervin, Ph.D.
It was truly a miracle that I met Gogo (as all his friends called him). Here is how it happened.

I was brought up as a total atheist, though my background was culturally Jewish. I studied philosophy hoping to find truth but only found skepticism, relativism, and historicism. I was looking for love but only found fascinating, sinful, disappointing relationships. By the age of 20 I was in despair of ever finding love or truth.

One Saturday my mother, who never surfed the TV, not ever, turned on the set in the middle of the afternoon, and there was a program called the Catholic Hour with two philosophers on it: Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Alice Jourdain. "Ronda, come see, there are some philosophers on TV." To my amazement, these philosophers were talking as if truth, love, goodness and beauty were objective realities.

I wrote them a long letter describing my futile search and asked if they could help me. It turned out that Alice (Lily – shortly afterwards to become Gogo's second wife) lived but 2 blocks away from me on the West Side of New York city. Neither she nor I, nor Madeleine (to be Stebbins) who was her roommate will ever forget our first meeting. Somehow, even though I was an atheist, I knew that there was something extraordinary in that apartment. Never had anyone looked into my eyes with such compassion and insight as did Lily. Afterwards, I danced down the street thinking, "I have met a saint."

Impressed by my yearning for truth, Lily suggested that I make a visit to the classes of Dietrich Von Hildebrand at Fordham and if I was enthusiastic, why not transfer my Woodrow Wilson scholarship from Johns Hopkins graduate school to Fordham.

Stephen Schwarz escorted me to Fordham. Two things caught my attention. The first was that, unlike the professors at Johns Hopkins who seemed to me to be dessicated academics, Von Hildebrand and Balduin Schwarz were vibrant men, overflowing with joy. Secondly I noticed that they could refute skepticism, relativism and historicism in a few sentences.

I like to think that two of my favorite saints also had something to do with the miracle of my mother turning on the TV at that moment: St. Therese of Lisieux who, during her dark night, prayed so much for atheists, and St. Edith Stein – who, having been an atheistic philosophy student from a Jewish background herself, surely she would want me to meet her "cousin" philosopher, Von Hildebrand.

Of course, being such a thoroughgoing atheist who had been brought up to think that all religious people were stupid and weak, I didn't think that the wonderful traits of Von Hildebrand, Lily, and the Schwarzs: Balduin, Leni (a convert from an atheist Jewish background) and Stephen, their son, had anything to do with their religion. I just wanted to be with them.

Zealous Gogo, at the urging of Lily, quickly arranged for my scholarship to be transferred and within a month I was taking courses at Fordham.

Ecstasy is the only word to describe my reaction to each of Gogo's classes, as I realized that truth was real, and what glorious truths, such as proofs that moral values were absolute. Simultaneously I was lapping up the love the members of the lay community surrounding me with. Getting to know them took place at lunches at the Schwarz house, and on the D-train of the NY subway from the Manhattan to the Bronx and back again, for I was able to travel a whole hour each way with either Gogo or Balduin who were riding up to the classes I was taking and they were teaching.

The miraculous events that led me to become a Catholic a year after meeting Gogo and Lily are told in my autobiography En Route to Eternity. A large part came from reading the authors recommended by them such as Augustine, Newman, and Chesterton. The night before my baptism I was visiting the Schwarzs who would become my godparents. Gogo was there. On my way home, I grabbed his arm and asked, "But suppose it isn't true, after all?" I expected some insight into philosophy or psychology of religion, but he replied with the simplicity of a peasant, "but think of the miracles!"

I found the personality of Gogo overwhelmingly. That the same man could be so serious, so deep, but also so spontaneous and affectionate, delighted me. We used to attend the same daily Mass, walking from different directions. Always I would find him singing opera loudly along the way. I often thought of this as the Italian side of his personality whereas the philosophical side was more German.

These personality traits of Gogo made whatever he wanted to teach me not so much didactic as enticing. And this was not only in the realm of philosophy. My father was a lover of classical music who filled our early childhood with the sound of music every hour he was home. As a teenager I rebelled and listened only to popular tunes. By college I gradually grew to love classical music, but had very little sense of choral music. I will never forget sitting in a room next to Gogo who was playing a 78 recording of Mozart's Laudate Dominum. To make sure I understood the beauty of it, he grabbed my arm with his hand and emphasized each climax of the singing with an extra squeeze accompanied by his radiant smile.

Another memory from these early days of the friendship, which would last until the end of his life, is of his insistence that those of us who rode with him on the subway from Fordham back to Manhattan pray Compline out loud in Latin. It was for me such an exemplification of the later buzz-word "counter-cultural" but also of freedom of spirit. In later years I followed his lead by insisting that friends pray the rosary aloud with me in airports during long waits at the gate.

Gogo played a large role in my marriage to Martin Chervin, a man from an orthodox Jewish background who had become an atheist as a teen but who wanted to know Christ. When I got interested in Martin as a possible spouse, I was on the verge of becoming a Catholic. At the time, he was a divorced playboy. I was confused. I thought a good way of getting rid of him would be to introduce him to Gogo and Lily and the Schwarz family. Surely they would tell me to drop this dangerous friendship immediately. Instead they all loved him and encouraged us in what turned out to be a long chaste courtship and helped us get a dispensation from Martin's previous non-religious marriage. We went through a long process with the New York and Roman tribunals. Finally Gogo was instrumental in persuading a prominent Cardinal to intervene for a dispensation in favorem fide.

It seemed as if Martin would soon become a Catholic. A major influence on him was the reading of Transformation in Christ. He recognized the genius of Gogo's combination of consummate understanding of human nature with sublime faith.
Even more, my husband, who had the same kind of joie de vivre as Gogo, could only have understood a faith like Gogo's, which included rejoicing in the goods of the earth, as well as opening to the redemptive gifts. Before meeting Gogo he thought of Catholics as either tight Puritanical types or rebellious sinners. It took him many years to finally become a Catholic, because he detested the American post-Vatican II Mass. Shortly before Gogo's death he made a bargain with God that should Gogo survive longer, at a time when his life seemed almost at an end, he would take it as a sign to become a Catholic in spite of his dislike of the English Mass. Gogo was spared a short time longer and Martin did become a Catholic

Gogo also had an influence on the conversion of my atheist mother. She was horrified at my interest in Roman Catholicism, but the personality of Gogo opened her to investigating the faith for herself. He decided to meet her informally at our home for individual teaching sessions to overcome her formidable doubts. In a charming gesture, the first time he came he presented her with a huge bouquet of peonies.

A few less important but telling memories:

Before his conversion, Martin and I were once traveling in Europe and went out of our way to go to Florence to see Gogo and Lily. I was praying constantly that whatever Gogo said would be a turning point for Martin to becoming a Catholic. We had a lovely visit but mostly the conversation was humorous and anecdotal instead of deep. At the end I was alone for a few moments and told Gogo how sorry I was that no important points had come up. Immediately Gogo's humorous expression changed to great seriousness and he exclaimed "What a sin on my part to have talked so much thoughtlessly!" I was touched by his readiness to acknowledge a fault even when it was unintentional.

Summers included a yearly meeting of a lay community that most of the Von Hildebrand circle were part of. I occasionally came to these meetings in Bavaria. The Mass was celebrated in a small chapel with parts of the congregation on either side – men on one side and women on the other. It always delighted me to see that, even after many years of marriage, Gogo could not bear to be separated from Lily – so throughout the Mass he would turn his head and gaze upon her with love.

A memory that fits with the name of the book The Soul of a Lion took place when Gogo and Lily came to Loyola Marymount University where I was teaching in the early 70's. Gogo gave the first talk. During the break, Lily told me that I must sit next to him while she was speaking and be sure that he stayed calm because he could have a fatal heart attack at any moment. During the question period the wife of a colleague of mine challenged Lily on some point. Gogo took it as an insult and tried to leap up to seize the floor. I grabbed him to hold him down. He turned on me swiftly and remarked: "Ronda, you can't keep me down. I am not a lamb, I am a lion."

We all knew that Gogo had a bad heart. Once, toward the end of his life, I had a nightmare that he was falling down a staircase to his doom. After that, whenever I was with him and there were stairs I pushed myself ahead of him so that I might cushion a fall.

As a professor of philosophy I have taught Gogo's books for decades with great impact. Some of my philosophy majors such as Michael Healy and James Harold, now at Franciscan University of Steubenville, went on to graduate school to study his thought. I cannot teach his ideas, or those of Lily, my life long friend, without a sense of the presence of their minds and hearts and souls permeating my smaller personhood. What a legacy. Viva the Von Hildebrands!
[Ronda Chervin is presently an adjunct philosopher at Lenoir Rhyne College in North Carolina. For more information about her numerous books about Catholic living, as well as videos and audios, go to The present article is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.]