Alice von Hildebrand went home to meet our Lord on January 14, 2022, at 12:25 a.m. “She died peacefully at home after a brief illness,” according to the Hildebrand Project.
I had the great opportunity to know this incredible human being in this lifetime and to interview her on October 1, 2018. We spoke about many things, including femininity, modernity, and the wisdom of old age—particularly looking toward death. Fr. Matthew MacDonald from the Archdiocese of New York also joined in the interview. Here, I share the wisdom of this great woman with the readers.
Alice Jourdain von Hildebrand was born in Belgium on March 11, 1923. She arrived in New York City in 1940 as a war refugee. Soon afterward, she met Dietrich von Hildebrand and began philosophy studies at Fordham University. The von Hildebrands were married in 1959 and collaborated on writing many books. Starting in 1947, Alice began teaching at Hunter College in New York City. After enduring 14 years of hardship from the college on account of her sex, she was appointed professor of philosophy, where she served for 37 years.
In addition to her many years at Hunter College, she also taught at the Catechetical Institute in Dunwoody, New York; Franciscan University of Steubenville; The Thomas More Institute in Rome; Ave Maria College; and the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Dr. von Hildebrand is the author of numerous books, including The Privilege of Being a Woman, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, By Love Refined, By Grief Refined, and The Soul of a Lion, as well as numerous published philosophical papers.
Alice von Hildebrand could be considered a radical for the traditional, the truth, and the Faith. Her authentic look at womanhood as an intentional and crowning design of creation challenges both those who see women as the lesser sex and those feminists who seek to abandon or exploit the riches of their own sex.
Kimberly Cook: I am blessed and honored to be at the home of Alice and the late Dietrich von Hildebrand. Both have contributed so much to Catholic philosophy and theology. Alice von Hildebrand is a personal hero to me for her work on the true meaning of femininity. What I wanted to ask you is: what is the main thing that women have gotten wrong in our society, particularly regarding femininity?
Alice von Hildebrand: They have listened to the devil, saying, to be a woman is to be inferior, to be a woman is to be a means of pleasure for men. But they are not respected and understood for what they are. And I simply say, if you read the Bible on your knees (because it’s only on our knees that we can understand it), Eve was created last.
And you will notice that there is a hierarchy. There’s inanimate matter, animate matter, lower animals, higher animals, man, and then comes the woman. She is created last. And when Adam saw her—when she was created, he was put to sleep and he did not see how Eve was taken from his body, and then he woke up and saw her. His response was enchantment, enchantment! Flesh of my flesh—knowing that she has the very same dignity. Now the love between them was something that the devil could not stand, because Satan is hatred and Christian life is love. And so, he tried to pervert it, and to look at her as a means of pleasure and not as a person of equal dignity. It was a very special dignity.
Just realize something to meditate upon, the conception of a new human person. The husband embraces his wife and injects in her body a substance capable, when united to her egg, to produce life. And this is what happens, a mystery. You see, therefore, a woman, when her husband embraces her, should be conscious of the fact that this is a sacred mystery that happens in her body—a new human person. But it’s not yet a person, it is simply a substance that God gives a soul. The soul comes not from the husband. It comes from God. He puts the soul in the fecundated egg.
Now, therefore at this very moment, meditate on this, there is an immediate contact between God and the female body. The husband is out of the picture. He has done his role. But there comes God, who touches the fecundated egg, and in this moment, there is a new human person. Therefore, the dignity of the female is that God, so to speak, has a direct contact with her body. This is why the woman should be veiled. Why is it that women are called upon to be veiled, which is not truly the same way of males? Why? Because whatever is sacred calls for veiling. The shamelessness of women today should make the devil rejoice and should make Christ cry, because there is no more consciousness of the fact that my body is a place where God is conceived.
My husband was perfectly right when he wrote, shortly after his conversion, “Reverence is the key of all virtues.” The two main men in my life were daily communicants, my father, his whole life long, and my husband, immediately after his conversion. Daily communicants! I never forgot when I was four years old and was conscious and was so impressed at my dear father’s reverence at Mass and understood that reverence is crucial. There are things that are sacred and that we must respond to. And this is the thing that the devil is trying to destroy because, have no illusion, woman has a key role in redemption. She has a key role in the Sacrament, and that she is veiled is not a sign of indignity, it is an honor. And today, the feminists are going to say that you are veiled because there is something shameful. No, we veil what is sacred!
Kimberly Cook: So, is feminism a rejection of yourself as a woman?
Alice von Hildebrand: No. It is a systematic rejection or refusal to understand what is a woman’s mission. She doesn’t want it. You can say that to be a male is an honor and to be a female is not. They’re not understanding that to conceive and to give birth to a child is something infinitely more important. You know, don’t forget that all accomplishments of men will be destroyed at the end of time, everything will be burned, but every woman who has given birth to a child came to eternity. And therefore, today, in my feeling, what is most important is for women to rediscover the beauty and greatness of their mission. I’m proud to be a woman. I have not chosen it, but I’m proud to be. I beg God every day, “Give me the grace to live up to my dignity as a woman.”
Kimberly Cook: That’s beautiful. And I know Edith Stein inspired Pope John Paul II in a lot of ways. One was speaking about a new feminism, which fosters in a culture that respects and supports life. What do you think about those words? Is it really a feminism?
Alice von Hildebrand: You know, I prefer to use the word “femininity” because for me feminism is a sort of rejection of the dignity of women, as women. I mean to say, they must be like men. I recall my despair the first day that I was told that women were becoming soldiers. I mean, their mission is to give life. The devil hates women because they have such a key role. I always loved being a girl and one of the reasons was definitely my beloved father’s respect for his wife. I was so struck by it, his respect, the way that he addressed her.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: Is modern feminism, with its tendency to impose a domination over men and over themselves, not having that interior reverence for the beauty of being a woman?
Alice von Hildebrand: You know I’m absolutely convinced that because women are given a key role, don’t forget that the most perfect human being is a woman, namely Mary. And from this point of view, it is quite understandable what the devil tries to do, and this has been done from close to a hundred years, to try to convince women that their role is inferior, that they are cooks and they are servants. This is what has happened, now we live in a world where women are more and more dominant and less and less Christian. I recall Cardinal Burke was here a long time ago, and he said, “We are living in an apocalyptic time, a time of utter confusion.” And I feel it very strongly, that women have the mission to lift their role as mother. Even nuns, they are not mother, and yet they are mother, they are truly the true mother, because to be a mother is to be totally self-giving and to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me.” Done to me! In other words, to receive, to accept, to be fecundated. That is the greatness of a woman’s role. I love these words, “Be it done to me.”
Kimberly Cook: So that is woman’s sacred mission, right?
Alice von Hildebrand: Yes.
Kimberly Cook: And how do women live up to their femininity?
Alice von Hildebrand: Prayer. Prayer. You know, as a matter of fact, today is the great feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, whom I love. I believe I was three years old when she was canonized. And what is her mission? To say to God, “I am yours. I am yours. Do with me what You will.” Already as a little girl, as a little child she understood that. And so, therefore, get up in the morning and say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Go to bed and rejoice and understand that to be the servant of God is an honor!
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: One of her great quotes is, “In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love.”
Kimberly Cook: You say that Christianity and femininity are so intimately linked. Is this because of Mary and the role of giving life?
Alice von Hildebrand: I think that a man should thank God for being a man because he’s given a very clear mission to protect. A woman should thank God for being a woman because her very special mission is to give life, to corroborate with God. I love it! And the older I am, the more I love being a woman. Which doesn’t mean to denigrate what manhood is, but simply to say that this is what He wanted me to do.
Kimberly Cook: To say, this is my mission, right?
Alice von Hildebrand: There is no sense in my looking at someone else’s mission. Simply say, “What do You want me to do and give me the grace to give it.” You know, St. Augustine wrote, “Give me what You order, and then order what You will.” He wrote this in the 5th century. Give me the strength to do it. Give me the grace to do it. And then I can transcend walls. I love these words: Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis. Give me what You command. And then command what You will. If You give me the strength, I’d be capable of doing great things, but then the joy of it should be, “Without Your help, God, I can do nothing.” Nothing! We are beggars. And it is an honor to be a beggar and then to go to the feet of Christ and beg Him to give us the strength. “Without You, I can do nothing. But with Your help, I will transcend walls.”
Kimberly Cook: And I think we don’t like weakness in our culture, but you have said that many great female saints have been courageous and strong, but that has not compromised their femininity.
Alice von Hildebrand: You know, you can only become a saint in the free work in which God has placed you. What is the sense of my dreaming to be a great missionary in foreign countries? It’s nonsense. It’s dreaming. Whereas we say, “What do You want me to do now?” I mean, that was the Holy Virgin. “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me.” And if your mission is to be a cook in a monastery and you do so with all your heart and soul, it is the road to sanctity. You know, most of us dream our lives, imagine if we were someone else and doing something different. No. It’s what God wants me to do now.
Kimberly Cook: How do we know what God wants us to do?
Alice von Hildebrand: By going on your knees and say, “Show me Lord, what You want me to do now.” And you will know His answer. Ask Him.
Kimberly Cook: What do you think is the biggest message to tell young people today?
Alice von Hildebrand: To try to make them understand the incredible beauty of being a Christian. Because when you compare the various cultures, in none of them is the dignity or the beauty of being a human person shown so luminously. It’s magnificent. We should get up in the morning thanking God. I hope that on my deathbed, one of my last words is going to be, “Forgive me, oh Lord. Thank you. Have mercy on me.” You know, we have lynx eyes for the faults of others, and we are blind toward our own fault. My eyes go outward and see if another person makes a fault; I will see it. But no, we have to look inward and then try to say, all of us have to say, “Forgive me, oh Lord, for I am a poor sinner.” And rejoice in doing so. And then to kiss His feet. Notice Mary Magdalene threw herself at Christ’s feet because she trusted in His mercy. Judas realized that he had committed an abominable crime. The moment he realized that he could not heal himself, by himself, he hung himself up in a tree. He couldn’t do it by himself. But with Your help, oh Lord, you can do all things. We want to do things on our own. No. I am helpless and miserable, but with His help, I can transcend walls.
You are much younger than I am, much, much younger. It might be that you still live for a long time. But in my case, I know with absolute certainty, the wick of my candle is every moment shorter. And therefore, you wake up and say, “How would you like to die?” I say, “Begging God’s forgiveness, forgiving those who have offended us.” And say to God, “I love You,” conscious of my own weakness. Don’t forget, there are many things I have committed. And I’m not fully conscious of them because it’s not really pleasant to say, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault.” It’s much more pleasant to say, “It’s your fault. It’s your fault.” From this point of view, I can understand the life of the little Therese of the Child Jesus, this holy simplicity of a child saying to God, “This is what I am without Your help. But with Your help, I can transcend walls.” I love her.
Kimberly Cook: What’s funny about Therese is that she embraces weakness, littleness. All of the faults that she has, she constantly talks about those without trying to hide them. She’s not afraid to be weak and little. And everybody loves her.
Alice von Hildebrand: Well, we love God. We are weak and miserable. But I repeat, we have to keep saying, “With Your help, I will transcend. With Your help. Never alone.” And in our society, you will notice how many people praise themselves. “I did this all by myself. I needed no one else’s help.” You see, don’t forget the two trump cards of the devil are to encourage our praise and to weaken our concupiscence. These are the two big trumps, pride and concupiscence.
I recall that I was in France for Holy Week, and I went to confession. And, you know, told the priest what I thought were my weaknesses and sins. And then he was silent. And I said, “Father, I have completed my confession.” And he said, “Are you quite sure that you have not committed a sin of impurity?” You know, I was, at the time, 75 or so. Meaning to say that he heard it so often that when someone did not mention this particular sin, because of my age or by grace, whatever it might be, he said, “Are you sure you have not committed the sin?” It’s so easy for the devil to make us sin. Easy.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: Through the sin of impurity, obviously it’s not of God, but God allows it sometimes to teach us how to be humble and how to surrender. You know, I think sometimes people with a lot of natural virtue, God allows them to fall into sins of impurity to kind of teach them humility. Kind of like what St. Paul went through with the thorn in the flesh. And he asked God to take that away. And God says to him, “My grace is sufficient.”
Alice von Hildebrand: My grace is sufficient…. (claps and laughs) I love that! Beautiful.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: Yes. Yes. I do think, a lot of people, when they come to the confessional, they often confess feelings. And I say to them, “The feeling is not where the sin is. It’s what you do with the feelings that can be sin.”
Kimberly Cook: The action.
Alice von Hildebrand: With your will.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: And something that I also encourage people to do when they struggle with impurity, and obviously this is not a magic bullet, I encourage them to turn to Christ on the cross and ask Him to purify their hearts. I also encourage them, particularly men, when they see a woman who is physically attractive, to thank God for that woman’s beauty. But to pray for that woman, that she may be blessed by the Lord, she may be faithful, happy, and holy in this life, and have eternal life in the life of the world to come.
Kimberly Cook: That’s beautiful.
Alice von Hildebrand: We live in a society, the modern world, in which, in whatever situation we find ourselves, the devil manages to tempt us. When I was a child, I don’t recall ever seeing a pornographic magazine. Never! Now, it’s all over.
Kimberly Cook: And not only men, but women are really struggling now with visual pornography.
Alice von Hildebrand: Which did not exist before. And I simply say, the devil never sleeps. And once women are impure, men are lost. It’s so easy for them to catch a man into temptation.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: Absolutely. And children as young as five years old are falling into pornography use.
Alice von Hildebrand: I was totally and absolutely protected as a child. I did not know that certain things existed, and I beg God for my ingratitude. My father was a very extraordinary man, a daily communicant his whole life long. And when he took me to Church, his reverence was such that I knew when I was four years old, this is a sacred place.
Kimberly Cook: How can we teach our children that it’s a sacred place?
Alice von Hildebrand: By living it. This is what my father taught me from the time I was four. He took me to Church on Sunday, and when he entered Church, his reverence…he taught it to me, not by preaching—he was not a preacher—but by being reverent. And believe me, today what the devil is trying to do is to totally eliminate reverence.
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: Absolutely. There is a culture of abuse that has been fostered and that’s an effect of concupiscence, that we tend to use things rather than love things. And people often confuse use for love. And we see that, not only within human sexuality in the culture, but also within the life of worship sometimes. People can approach the Mass like Thomas approached our Lord after the Resurrection. And just as he said, “Unless I touch the wounds in His hands, His feet and side, I will not believe.” So today, the temptation, particularly within worship and the liturgy, is to say, “Unless I know everything that’s going on, and I feel something, and I’m doing something, I’m really not praying.” And people don’t know how to receive, and from that reception of the Lord, to return that gift of the Lord, given to them in Holy Communion, the precious Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, back to the Lord in their own hearts, through their love.
Alice von Hildebrand: Another thing that strikes me is that we live in a world where war is waged against silence. When 90 percent of Americans come home, they turn on the TV, you know, noise, because they dread to be silent. Because the moment you’re silent, you discover your poverty and your misery. And that’s what they dread. They blind themselves.
Kimberly Cook: And it’s often said that God allows blindness from our sin. He allows us to give into that blindness.
Alice von Hildebrand: But you know, I keep repeating to myself, “The forces of Hell shall not prevail!” But I do believe we are living in an apocalyptic time, a time of confusion and conflict. You know it is said we are living in a time of confusion, such for even the elect. And I beg God to take me soon before I get myself confused.
Kimberly Cook: One prayer that I love is just, “Suffer me not to be separated from You.”
Alice von Hildebrand: Nunca a te separari permittas. Nunca a te separari permittas. You know, why is it that even at the monastery, seven times a day, they interrupt whatever they are doing and then say, “God, come to my help.” Because of the law of spiritual gravity. We start here, and if we are not conscious….
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: We sink.
Kimberly Cook: The noonday devil.
Alice von Hildebrand: But nevertheless, with God’s grace, I will transcend walls. I’m convinced of it. Come to my help. The blessing of being old is that you’re so conscious that every moment brings you closer to your coffin, that you spontaneously keep praying, “Come to my help, oh Lord, come to my help. Give me, not only a good death. I would like to have a holy death.”
Kimberly Cook: And it’s difficult. People want to tell you that you don’t have to live like this. You know? You can find a better way than living the burdens of motherhood.
Alice von Hildebrand: The holy burden of motherhood, of course it is. God took me from going to the feast, and then brought me in the lion’s den. I was close to my Ph.D. I had left my very rich aunt and I had nothing, so I needed a job desperately. I go to confession and the priest, after confession, talked to me and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Father, I am desperately looking for a job. I need one.” And I said, “I’m close to my Ph.D. in Philosophy and I’ve been applying to all Catholic colleges. All of them turned me down, even though I had a very good curriculum vitae, because they don’t take women to teach Philosophy.” And then came the feminist revenge.
Kimberly Cook: Yes! Times have changed!
Alice von Hildebrand: And now it’s difficult for men to find a job. This is what is happening. And then, he said, “Well, I happen to have met, at a conference, the head of the department of Philosophy at Hunter College. And he gave him a phone call and said, “You know, I happen to know a young girl and I think she’s very talented and she’s looking for a job.” He said, “Just an hour ago, one of my professors told me that he needed to have an urgent operation. We need someone to start teaching on Monday.” That was on Friday. And I had never taught in my life. I had only been in the United States for seven years and had spoken French most of the time. And I entered the classroom, trembling, and I taught. When I left at twelve, I said, “Tomorrow I’m going to find a pink slip in my box.” When I ran into the chairman of the department, he said, “You know by the way, the girls liked you very much.” Hunter was all female at that time.
Kimberly Cook: But your time was very challenging there. They paid you very little.
Alice von Hildebrand: Incredible! You know, I was a nobody. I had written very little. But two of my colleagues, after I had been there for two or three months, went to President Shuster and said, “This girl is not made to teach at a secular university. She should be teaching in a small Catholic college in the Midwest.” Shuster gave me a private telephone call. I know exactly the time, because I was living in a very, very miserable room. And he called me and he said, “I have good news for you. I found a very good position for you in the Midwest.” And I immediately said, “Mr. President, I’m not interested in it. Actually, my students are so responsive, I think that I have a mission to be teaching in a secular college.” That was the worst thing that I could possibly have said.
For 14 years he kept me in suspense. I was paid per hour. I had no medical coverage. You know, after 14 years, 14, I finally got my tenure. And then I bumped into someone who was on the board of higher education at a conference. And he said to me, “Oh by the way, congratulations, you got your tenure.” And he said, this is a quote, “Do you believe in miracles?” He was a Roman Catholic. And I said, “Yes.” He said, “I assure you that you got your tenure by nothing short of a miracle, because three top-notch rabbis in New York went to the board of higher education to protest.” Why? Because I was attracting students. When I left Hunter, I took an early retirement because I had been given the schedule of teaching until 10 p.m. And for years and years and years and years I came home at 11. There was a time when I just said, “It’s getting to be too much.” And on top of it, I wanted to dedicate myself to my husband’s work. So, at 60, I took an early retirement, with the lowest possible pension. But I live like a nun. You know, I have no needs, I don’t need anything. It’s not what you earn, it is what you spend.
Kimberly Cook: So, with the respect they had for your husband, they still did not give you that kind of respect?
Alice von Hildebrand: They had no respect for my husband. You know, someone who writes Transformation in Christ is not the sort of person appreciated at Hunter College. This is why I purposely gave my maiden name. I kept my maiden name because to have the name “von Hildebrand” was, for me, a very negative factor. I hid it. He was considered to be a danger.
I had not been there for eight months before they started to persecute me. And my classes were packed. I was giving them food and they were starving. You know, Chesterton says, “The real criminals are intellectuals.” Because everything is relative. It’s all up to you. If you want certainty, turn to science. In science you have certainty, but apart from that, it’s all up to you. This is why we live in a decadent society. And then, I end my career by competing against 600 professors. I got the award for Excellence in Teaching.
Kimberly Cook: God has used you in a very powerful way. You have touched many women.
Alice von Hildebrand: No, I have not. God put me in the lion’s den and He gave me the strength. That’s it. My life has been nothing short of a miracle. And had you told me when I was a child in Belgium that I’d be teaching in a foreign university, I would have said, “You are mad.”
Fr. Matthew MacDonald: A book that you wrote on Pope Paul VI, that wasn’t published about you and your husband’s interactions, I’d be very interested in talking to you more about that.
Alice von Hildebrand: He had awe for the papacy. And his awe for the papacy was such that even though he had some reservations about individual decisions of Paul VI, he never lost sight of the beauty of the papacy. When it came to Humane Vitae, all of us said that he was very strong and very courageous.
Kimberly Cook: That was divinely inspired it seems.
Alice von Hildebrand: Yes.
Kimberly Cook: And now we see the effects of contraception in our culture. It’s rampant.
Alice von Hildebrand: Yes, I know. It’s not questioned whether it is immoral. They absolutely take it for granted. My brother was born in January. My sister was born in January, one year later. And I was born in March, two years later. So, my mother had three children in 26 months. I was number three.
Kimberly Cook: And many saints were the youngest children of many.
Alice von Hildebrand: I know. In our society, the purpose of life is self-fulfillment. Not to serve God, but self-fulfillment.
Kimberly Cook: Thank you so much. Your words on femininity have meant so much to me through the years.