We live in a universe fraught with change and instability. In this unstable and changing universe, everyone needs something constant on which they can depend. Let’s call it their “grounding and centering point.”
Sheldon, a character from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” is particularly conscious of this fact. His “grounding and centering point” is his spot on the couch. No one else is allowed to sit on his spot, and he sees it as the one constant and certain thing in his life.
In episode 7 of season 4, Sheldon makes a sincere apology to his friend Howard. As a very serious token of his sincerity, he gives Howard his spot on the couch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1O5SF4gIycA
This is a rather silly example, but it illustrates the concept of a centering point. In our lives, this centering point should be God. God is immutable and eternal. He is thus the ultimate foundation for our existence and our enduring identity. Our answer to the existential question “Who am I?” never changes; it is perpetually: “I am a son/daughter of God.”
Now, how does all of this relate to Dietrich von Hildebrand? We find evidence of Hildebrand’s true centering point in his anti-Nazi memoirs: “My Battle Against Hitler.” As the story unfolds, we see Hildebrand make many difficult decisions to maintain his stalwart integrity. Rather than compromise his beliefs, he gives up deeply significant things - things which many of us would have considered our centering point, our “spot” on the couch of life.
When the Nazi regime came to power, Hildebrand held a prestigious professorship in Munich. Rather than keep his position and be inevitably forced to compromise his beliefs, he preemptively resigned. In this act, he gave up not only the prestige of his academic position, but also his financial security.
Eventually, Hidlebrand made the heart-breaking decision to permanently leave his home in Germany and move to Austria. This was a real sacrifice, because he deeply loved his home (“the house on the Maria-Theresia Strasse”), as well as Germany itself. In an age of disordered nationalism, Hildebrand nurtured a true patriotism for his homeland.
In his memoirs, he admires the heroism of his first wife, Gretchen, for being willing to leave their home:
“She took part fully in all my plans, and it was admirable how little she worried about our future and how little she complained about leaving Munich, which was a terrible blow for her. But it was more than just that: the parting from the house, which she loved dearly, and from home, which Munich had become for her in the fullest sense of the word. Once again she revealed her greatness and her capacity for heroism. In ultimate matters of conscience and first principles, no sacrifice was too great for her.”
Certainly we can read between the lines here and see how deeply Hildebrand himself felt the sacrifice of leaving his beloved Germany and his home.
Why was Hildebrand able to make these sacrifices? What was his centering point in life, if not his identity as a professor, his established home in Munich, or even Germany, his homeland? The answer comes from the mouth of Hildebrand himself, in the beginning pages of his memoirs: “For I am first a Catholic, then a Catholic, and yet again a Catholic, and so on and on.”
Hildebrand’s centering point was not his house, his career, or even Germany itself - although these things were all deeply important to him and it was hard for him to leave them. His centering point was his identity in God. This could never be taken from him, no matter what evils arose to power in the world. Even the corruption of his dear Germany, the most dreadful of all changes, was not enough to shake him from his center.
He was therefore able to maintain his identity and his mission, even in a foreign land. Hildebrand continued to fight for the truth in Austria, where he established the premier anti-Nazi publication in Europe and continued to defend the truth in his daily conversations and encounters.
We can all be inspired by the example of Dietrich von Hildebrand: to make our centering point something truly eternal. Thus we will be free to fearlessly accomplish our mission in life, no matter what changes may come or what sacrifices we may need to make along the way.