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Sensing The Sacred In The Writings Of Dietrich Von Hildebrand

June 5, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


From the inception of this Wanderer column in 2015, one of the primary aims of “Restoring the Sacred” has been to explain the importance of cultivating and preserving a sense of the sacred in the life of the Church, in our lives as individual Catholics, and in the wider culture.
It is long overdue that I should share with you in this regard the compelling insights of one of the greatest Catholic minds and souls of the twentieth century, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977). A profound perception of the sacred runs like a strong undercurrent throughout the writings of this remarkable “Knight for truth,” as his wife Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has so aptly dubbed him. His words bristle with a zeal for the sacred that stemmed from his heightened perception of the utter transcendence and majesty of God.
Observing that “religion and the sacred are inseparably bound together,” Dietrich von Hildebrand notes that the “longing for God” is invariably accompanied by “a longing for the sacred and a sense of the difference between the sacred and the profane”; in Catholics this inspires a specific desire for the sacred within the Church (Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1971, p. xxiii; Trojan Horse in the City of God, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1967, p. 135, respectively).
Refuting the myth that the common man feels alienated by the “sacred atmosphere” which permeates among other things magnificent Gothic and Baroque churches, von Hildebrand stresses that quite to the contrary, the ordinary man in the pew will “In no way…resent the fact that God is infinitely above him” (Trojan Horse in the City of God, p. 135). Those who want to replace the sacred with a profane atmosphere are in fact offering the common man “stones for bread” (ibid.).
Von Hildebrand is unsparing in his critique of what has been a deliberate campaign by many since at least the 1960s to desacralize Catholic worship: “…hatred of the sacred is in reality hatred of God. For if the sacred is despised, so will the holy in the full sense of the word” (Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith, p. xxiii).
He also points out the harm done by flattening the distinction between what is more sacred and what is less sacred, as for example, when loving Christ in one’s neighbor is portrayed as entirely equivalent to loving Christ directly in Himself, thereby ignoring the “vast difference between our communion with Christ Himself and our finding Him in our neighbor,” for being “united in a direct I-Thou communion with Jesus Christ — the Infinitely Holy One — should be the great longing of our lives” (Trojan Horse in the City of God, p. 138).
As another manifestation of the denial that some things are more sacred than others, the impression has been created in certain quarters that every action is equally sacred, that there is for example no significant difference between the “sacredness” of setting the table and that of taking one’s children to Sunday Mass, since both are done with the intention of serving God.
Taken to its absurd extreme, this mentality could lead a parent to conclude that there is no need to go to Sunday Mass since God is equally served by staying home and serving one’s family there. This mentality is also at work in those who want to eliminate the distinction between the lay state of life and the priesthood and religious life. Von Hildebrand describes this as a loss of “the sense of gradation in the service of the kingdom of God,” a failure to recognize the higher sacredness of actions that pertain more directly to the service of God (Liturgy and Personality, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1986, pp. 124-125).
Much of what von Hildebrand has to say about the sense of the sacred addresses the fitting celebration of the liturgy. For as he explains, the aim of the sacred liturgy is to render “the adequate answer to God’s majesty and holiness” (Liturgy and Personality, p. 111). He speaks of the “profoundly sacred spirit” of the liturgy, “a world of ultimate greatness and truth,” a “sacred realm where there is no place for anything profane,” a realm illuminated by “the true face of Christ in its ineffable mysterious beauty,” and enveloping us in “the air of the supernatural” (ibid., pp. 134, 155).
To enter upon what is sacred requires a certain preparation, a stepped ascent from what is below to what is above. The Transfiguration did not take place at “sea level,” but rather transpired only after Christ had taken Saints Peter, John, and James up to the summit of a high mountain. It is just such a stepped ascent that von Hildebrand identifies in the stages of the Mass leading spiritually upward toward the sublime moment of the consecration (Liturgy and Personality, p. 127). In fact he refers to the consecration as a “transfiguration” that streams light into our sin-darkened world (ibid., p. 129).
Closely related and almost synonymous with the sense of the sacred is the virtue of reverence, a subject that appears quite frequently as a leitmotif in von Hildebrand’s writings. Defining reverence as “the proper answer to the majesty of values, to the ‘message’ they convey to us of God, of the absolute, the infinitely superior,” he notes that the entire sacred liturgy is “pervaded with this reverence before the majestas Domini, the clear consciousness of His absolute dominion, and the acknowledgment that we receive all from Him” (Liturgy and Personality, pp. 50, 56).
It is a matter of adoring God because He is “infinitely glorious, inconceivably holy,” a God of “endless majesty and holiness” (ibid., pp. 67, 70). Each of the components of the sacred liturgy serves to establish our proper relationship to God, for it is permeated with the fear of the Lord (ibid., p. 55).
The expressions of reverence in the Mass are many — von Hildebrand cites the care that is taken in the purification of the sacred vessels that have touched the Holy Eucharist, the kissing of sacred objects (the altar and the Gospel book), the various bodily postures and gestures of divine worship on the part of both the priestly celebrant and the faithful. Even the “harmonious structure and order” of the liturgy are a testament to reverence for what is being carried out (Liturgy and Personality, p. 58).
There is also a feedback to the soul that arises from these exterior acts of reverence, as von Hildebrand explains: “Exterior behavior is not only an expression of the inner attitude, but it also has an influence on our inner attitude, and facilitates at least the engendering of the inner attitude of reverence” (“The Role of Reverence in Education,” in The New Tower of Babel: Essays, Burns and Oates, London, 1954, p. 174).
The sacred liturgy in turn inculcates a spirit of reverence toward whatever else is deserving of reverence: reverence for one’s neighbor, reverence for one’s own body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and reverence too for all of God’s creation as having “felt the sacred touch of His finger” (Liturgy and Personality, pp. 59, 61-62).
In his work The Art of Living, which he co-authored with his wife Alice, von Hildebrand notes that reverence is the “presupposition for every true love,” and asks, “How could one really love another person, how could he make sacrifices for him, if he sensed nothing of the preciousness and plenitude which is potentially enclosed in man’s soul, if he had no reverence for this being?” (The Art of Living, p. 9).
Dietrich von Hildebrand likewise identifies reverence as “a fundamental component” of the virtue of purity, for: “The pure man always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and His creation,” including reverence toward that which is reserved to those who are married, an inner sanctum that “belongs in a special manner to God” (In Defense of Purity, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1935, pp. 60-61).

Irreverence At The Root

Von Hildebrand identifies the absence of reverence as one of the crucial flaws of our time, and goes so far as to describe irreverence as a root of such evils as birth control, divorce, fornication, euthanasia, and suicide (“The Role of Reverence in Education,” p. 172).
It is a costly error, for without reverence a man “suspects nothing of the breadth and depth of the world, of the mysterious depths and the immeasurable fullness of values which are bespoken by every ray of the sun and every plant, and which are revealed in the innocent laughter of a child, as well as the repentant tears of a sinner” (The Art of Living, p. 5).
It breeds “a smug familiarity toward God” that is fatal to the sense of the sacred, which requires of man a readiness “to admit the existence of something greater than himself” (“The Role of Reverence in Education,” p. 167, 169, 176).
In calling us to follow Him, Christ requires from us a total and radical change of our entire selves, an entire “transformation,” as von Hildebrand describes it, “a passionate will to give oneself over to Christ” springing from “our consciousness of our infinite weakness before Him” (Transformation in Christ: On the Cristian Attitude of Mind, New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1948, pp. 5-6). It is in cultivating a sense of the sacred that we acknowledge our “infinite weakness” and rejoice in His infinite strength.

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