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Lion Souls, Broken Hearts, and Brilliant Minds: The Value of Suffering in the Philosophies of Hildebrand and Wojtyla

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“How could I in a few lines do justice to a man whose life and work have left such an indelible mark on the history of the Church in this century of tragedies and triumphs?...In every life there are epiphanous moments, incidents or encounters that disclose something of the person’s inner character, moments in which some special quality of the person shines through.”
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand
Suffering can be the furnace in which the extraordinary and magnificent are refined in us. Though at the time we may not realize the redemptive power of tragedies as they happen, in retrospect we often find that our darkest moments were the most constructive in shaping who we are as persons. I think the same can be said for Dietrich von Hildebrand and Karol Wojtyla (and countless other philosophers) in the shaping of their thoughts. Suffering has the unique task of pushing man to his utter limits. It is at the border of these limits that we can see horizons unimaginable to us before. Both Hildebrand and Wojtyla can attest to this.
Both men suffered immensely in life.
Both witnessed atrocities being done unto other human persons.
Both courageously opposed oppressive regimes which sought to grievously
trespass against the rights and the dignity of individuals.
Both developed robust philosophies which sought to put the human person at the
center.
Because of the immense suffering Hildebrand and Wojtyla both endured and witnessed, the world has benefitted from the works of these two brilliant minds.
Dietrich von Hildebrand was persecuted from every angle by those sympathetic to the Nazi regime as early as the 1920s (My Battle Against Hitler, 1). With an inborn reverence for all things beautiful, the ugliness and insidious intentions of National Socialism were extremely alarming to Hildebrand. He made it his mission to spread awareness among his fellow countrymen and prepare his slumbering Germany for the devastation that was looming in the near future. Before the rest of the world had caught on to the deceptive rhetoric of Adolf Hitler, Hildebrand had already seen the darkness advancing like a parade.
As John Henry Crosby, the founder of the Hildebrand Project, so eloquently stated, “Hitler’s meteoric rise was more than a source of profound grief for Hildebrand. It confronted him with a decision. Would he remain in Germany or not? Indeed, could he remain? What did his conscience demand of him? What was God asking of him?” (Ibid). As the ultimate test of his human endurance, it appeared that God was asking Dietrich to flee his homeland. Parting with his beloved city of Munich, the lush green hills of Germany, his lifelong friends, and his adored childhood home in the Maria-Theresia-Strasse, Hildebrand left Germany (5). It is clear that “in abandoning Germany, he threw himself into the arms of God” (3).
God was asking him to suffer.  
In his own words, Hildebrand declared that it would be much “better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into compromises against my conscience” (1). He then went on a campaign of writing and lecturing against the atrocities of National Socialism. In a final effort to save Austria from the pending danger, he set up headquarters for his newfound circle of intellectual resistance in Vienna. Facing harsh criticisms on every side and dire financial consequences, the results of these years of hardship were countless essays, lectures, and philosophical treatises on the dignity of the human person, reverence, beauty, and Christ (just to name a few of his favorite topics).  

During one of the darkest hours of humanity, Dietrich dared to write about light.  

Surrounded by so much ugliness, he mused on the nature of beauty. Amidst so many atrocities being committed against the human person, he wrote of inherent value. He allowed his sufferings and the sufferings of the whole world to penetrate him, fueling a creative fire that sparked many wonderful works that are still studied to this day; works of philosophy that have changed my life and softened my heart.

In the face of so much suffering, Hildebrand saw goodness as being the only solution.  In his section from The Art of Living dealing with goodness, he points out (rather reflectively) that “one should not mistake goodness for weak surrender, a surrender without resistance.  The truly good man can be immovable when one tries to divert him from the right path, and the salvation of his neighbor calls imperatively for sternness” (53-54).  It was in the midst of intense suffering that the sternness and strength of Hildebrand’s goodness called him out of himself and into a world ripe with terror – despite any dangers it would pose to himself.  For a man who has truly cultivated a life of virtue, it is impossible to sit idle when he sees wrong being done.
Karol Wojtyla was no stranger to suffering either.
With his mother dying while he was a young boy, Karol’s familiarity with death began early in his life. Growing up in Poland during the same era that Hildebrand was fighting against the rise of National Socialism in Austria, Wojtyla witnessed the plight of the Jews as Nazism began to savagely devour his own country. Death surrounded the young Wojtyla. Poverty and starvation were facts of life in the Jewish Ghettos throughout Poland. While at the same time discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Wojtyla fell in love with the works of St. John of the Cross — works about the redemptive value of suffering.

I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that without John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, perhaps the world would have never known a Pope John Paul II. It was the redemptive power of tragedy that spurned Wojtyla onward in his quest to fight for the marginalized, the under-valued, the downtrodden. Like Hildebrand, he could not, and would not, remain silent. Following suit with Hildebrand, Wojtyla, too, developed a philosophy which placed the dignity of the human person at the center stage.  
Beautiful aspects of personalism in both Hildebrand and Wojtyla’s philosophies blossomed out of the darkness of their sufferings. Seeking answers to the senseless atrocities of their time, they took solace in proclaiming the truth to a very broken world. Karol Wojtyla would go on to become one of the most beloved popes in history, mirroring the love of God the Father. Hildebrand would go on to inspire people all over the world to pursue philosophy revolving around beauty, value and the human person. With the heart of God in Wojtyla, and the soul of a lion in Hildebrand, it is clear that lives of suffering often pave the way for futures filled with light.


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