Dietrich von Hildebrand’s question for Lent: are we ready for a radical change?

Dietrich von Hildebrand (CNS)

It is a shame Dietrich von Hildebrand is not better known in the UK. A famous convert, philosopher and writer on spiritual themes, von Hildebrand (1889-1977) always writes with rare clarity, wisdom and intensity. A couple of years ago I read – and blogged about – von Hildebrand’s My Battle With Hitler. For Lent I have decided to read his classic work Transformation in Christ (Ignatius).

I prefer the word “transformation” to “conversion”: the latter is used so often of those who have entered the Church that it has lost its power, whereas the former radiates the supernatural dimension of conversion and points us to our actual goal: not so much joining an institution as (to repeat a quotation from St Paul which is the leitmotif of the book) putting off “the old man…and [putting on] the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”

So far, the book does not disappoint. In the first chapter, “The Readiness for Change”, von Hildebrand uses his insight in human psychology to help the reader see that the phrase “to die to self” implies a radical change. Many people are persuaded to change some of their bad habits or vices but are too afraid or obstinate to entrust themselves entirely to Christ. The author distinguishes between “the decisive cleavage” which “separates the unreserved radical readiness to change from the somehow limited and partial one.”

We sometimes fear we will lose our “individuality” in following Christ. The author reminds us that grace perfects our nature and brings to fruition the particular talents which God has entrusted to us. Indeed, the greatest examples of attractive and engaging individuality are the saints; he cites St Catherine of Siena and St Francis of Assisi as two very different personalities who share in the same holiness.

Von Hildebrand also advises in this chapter that we surrender those friendships that threaten “our fidelity to God”. This, he suggests, demonstrates a deeper fidelity towards the friend whom “we feel powerless to help”, and can more effectively promote “his spiritual good as well as our own.” It is not advice one normally hears.

Further chapters in the book (I keep reminding myself to read it slowly and not skim it) include “Contrition”, “Self-Knowledge” “True Consciousness” and “Humility”. If other words of insight or advice strike me as I read, I will blog about them as I go on.