“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
These words, uttered with a malevolent drawl by Frank Costello, open Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed. Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, isa fictional adaptation of the Boston mobster Whitey Bulger—a dominating, forceful figure capable of terrifying brutality in the gratification of his lust for power and pleasure as a tyrant of the streets. As the film unfolds, it shows how Costello’s minions shrink in submission to his every word. Through fear and threat of violence, he commands the obedience of the inferior personalities around him, and inflicts a heavy price on those who withhold it—few do.
Most of us, when asked to categorize Costello’s sort of personality, would respond with a range of observations converging on something like largeness or dominance, distinguishable from a Churchill’s or a Napoleon’s only by the moral squalor of his aims. Goethe claimed that humanity is divided between the mediocre and those who rise to being “personalities” by the exercise of their genius.
However, such common-sense definitions of “personality” as Goethe proposes are far too simplistic, says another German philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his 1931 book Liturgy and Personality, recently republished by the Hildebrand Project. Far from being a reliable mark of greatness, Hildebrand argued persuasively, an acumen for assertiveness and success has very little inherent connection to a truly great personality. What counts is the capacity to perceive and respond to objective value.
Clear and Common Sensibles
Before taking a closer look at this claim, a brief word about Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) is in order. As a writer of great insight, von Hildebrand has the power to bring me up short every time I read his work, beginning with the first book of his that I read, Transformation in Christ, which came into my hands a decade ago. There, I was introduced to a mind and heart exquisitely tuned to the workings of grace in the human soul.
Trained in the late 19th- and early 20th-century philosophical school of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, Hildebrand honed to a keen edge his sense of attention to the common objects of experience in life, both natural and supernatural. By suspending his own subjective curiosity and allowing the truth of what was before him to present itself without a veil of probing questions, he gained insights into reality that were not granted to those who were unwilling to quiet themselves sufficiently to allow what they were studying to disclose itself. His writing proceeds like a sculptor circling a ponderous block of stone, carving away excess material to expose the form he beholds in his mind’s eye—presently concealed within the marble, but emerging with each deliberate bite of the chisel. One by one, each concept has its false or imprecise versions punctiliously carved away and discarded—not this, no, nor this either, but this—until the pure form radiates its essence in repose, another David astride the brittle chips at its feet. To read Hildebrand is to receive an education in making the right distinctions.
Liturgy and Personality is no exception to this habit of attentive observation. It is first observable in the way he defines the concept of personality. A “normal” human being, in his view, is not the average of all the instances of the species, but rather the complete person “in whom are revealed the great fundamental traits of man, undistorted and unbroken.” A “normal” person, in other words, means “man fully alive,” an instance in which all human potential is realized, and therefore far more rare than the average.
Hildebrand claims that we can achieve the fullness of humanity by being alive and responsive to values. When a being presents to us its excellence or preciousness, when an event manifests a singular or universal meaning, when a work of art or spectacle of nature beguiles our senses and causes us to forget ourselves momentarily, we have discovered a value. These values possess a hierarchy among themselves; in order to perfect the personality, a person must discover what is objectively valuable, and make a true and adequate response to that value: a greater, more heartfelt response to what is truly great, and a lesser, partial response to what is inferior.
Contrary to this “fullness” is the person who is configured by his own subjective desires and preferences, dismissing what is inconvenient or overwhelming, regardless of its value. But this stance falsifies reality. As Bishop Robert Barron puts it in his lucid preface to the book, values for such less-than-full human beings “are not bent to the ego’s purpose, but rather, they bend the ego to their purpose.” A soul malleable under the weight of value is Hildebrand’s definition of “personality,” and therefore has little to do with the power of a personality to command attention upon striding into a room. It has everything to do with a personality being able to draw true and authentic conclusions about the circumstances that are encountered upon entering the room in the first place.
Hildebrand is therefore arguing that the great personality is one who swims not only against the tide of our fallen human nature, but also through a tsunami of cultural and technological incentives that play to our inherent weaknesses. Thus, the world urges us to ignore the realm of objective values and their demands, and to sink into the petty satisfaction of preference. But the true personality as defined by Hildebrand will resist. For, in the surging of this flood of distraction and mediocrity, Hildebrand points to a levee that stands fast, a stalwart refuge through the ages that serves as the source of all real value. The refuge to which he sends us is the liturgy.
Thus far, the reader of this review could be forgiven for suspecting that Hildebrand was a philosopher first and a Christian second; but in the first chapter of Liturgy and Personality Hildebrand unmistakably grounds his work in Christian spiritual theology. Since all that possesses value “is a reflection of His eternal light and imitates God according to its own fashion,” value spurs the human creature to the glorification of God in the conscious utterance of praise and overflow of adoring love.
The Christian distinctiveness in presenting a truth that could just as easily be found among the reasoning of pagan philosophers is the revelation that only in Christ is God adored according to his deserts; only the God-man apprehends and responds to the Godhead, the source of all value, with the loving glorification that is his due. Only in our union with Christ the Head of the Mystical Body does each one of us acquire the capacity to be united to that prayer, and it is in the liturgy of the Church—the Mass and the Divine Office—that we speak and are spoken by the true Word that glorifies the Father in an unsurpassable manner. In the liturgy, the one value of all values is presented, evoked, and adored; the divine and heavenly reality impresses itself upon the mind and heart, and by our participation in it, Hildebrand notes, “we make our own the fundamental attitudes embodied in it.” The liturgy is the privileged place of encounter with the living presence of God; only in the liturgy, then, can the human person acquire personality in its fullest sense. Hildebrand spends the rest of the work detailing the fundamental attitudes that, within a liturgical context, properly order the personality around God.
One of these fundamental attitudes is the capacity of the liturgy to form this “responsiveness-to-value” in the faithful. In order for the liturgy to have a formative effect on the personality, however, we must not fall victim to the tendency to pursue self-fulfillment by means of it; as soon as we do so, our adoration ceases to transform us, and the efficacy of our participation in the spirit of Christ evaporates.
This may at first seem a strange phenomenon. What could possibly be false in recognizing the power of the liturgy to draw us Godward, and seeking it out with all eagerness for our personal edification? Supposing the liturgy truly does have this profound effect, is this not simply to act upon the facts as they stand? Are the illnesses of the sick prolonged by seeking out a capable physician?
The nature of the danger is subtle, but real, and Hildebrand states it thus: any diversion of one’s attention from the object in its precious excellence to the positive effect that it exerts upon us falsifies the relationship to the whole realm of heavenly value. “The soul grows wings—that is, the deepest inner transformation takes place—only if there is a real penetration of values and a real self-forgetfulness is achieved,” Hildebrand insists. “Were this act of ‘beholding values’ to become a means of attaining such transformation, at that very moment it would cease to be a genuine irradiation by values, and they no longer would be taken in their proper seriousness; there would no longer be a true communion with the world of values, and the deep transformation would thus be halted.”
Given the swift currents of fallen nature and of culture, we cannot be reminded of this too often: all values, above all the Lord, must be given an adequate response that is due to it for no other reason than itself. Anything less is to slip into the contrary, subjective posture. Our reason for responding to the goodness of God is simply God; as the liturgy itself puts it, “For you alone are the Holy One; you alone are the Lord. You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ….”
Hildebrand draws upon common experience to drive home the point: what lover could truly be called a lover, who delights not in the goodness and beauty of the one she loves, but allows him to recede into the background in order to favor the sweetness of her feelings? This is sentimentality, of course, not love; this is the victory of subjective preference over responsiveness to the value of the other. There is an obvious congruence between Hildebrand’s insights and the observation of his fellow personalist, Karol Wojtyla, that sentimentality amounts to reducing another person to a means. Analogously, it is even more a perversion of personal ends into instrumental means to relate to God in this way. We don’t use God for our ends, in other words—he is our end. To regard him otherwise is to conceive of a version of God “in whose presence one does not linger, whose rays do not irradiate one, to whom one does not give oneself up in pure response-to-value…; the air [such persons] breathe daily is too much determined by the narrow scope of their particular lives, even though they might be embellished with religion.” According to Hildebrand, as soon as I delight in my own illumination rather than the light that irradiates me, that same light is obscured by the hulk of my own ego. Glancing with relish at my contrition in the moment of my repentance is to delight more in my own piety than the mercy that descends upon my pride like a flame and consumes it. Our Lord spoke truly when he taught that the left hand should not be aware of what the right is doing.
Yet Hildebrand does not think that one must already approach the worship of God with a perfectly-ordered soul; this would be to presuppose what the liturgy is meant to effect. It is enough that we approach with a determination to forget ourselves for a while and let our contact with the values perceived in creatures to open transparently to the face of Christ. He reassures us that, not without reason, our prayer often begins with “God, come to my assistance / Lord, make haste to help me”—a simple act that itself serves as a foundation for the necessary self-forgetfulness.
A Full Life
In the end, Hildebrand’s demonstrates that Frank Costello’s view of the world need not exhaust the options available to us. To be a product of one’s environment—this is determinism at its worst, a sentence of permanent imprisonment. To force one’s environment to conform to oneself—this is a cry of primal rage and defensiveness in a posture of alienation. Both of them fall short of the “man fully alive” that is held out to us in Christ, because both of them ignore a third possibility in which the fullness of humanity may be found.
This fullness is the emergence and purification of personality through communion with the realm of values, the enjoyment of goodness that is the result of willing the good that God is—longing for it, rejoicing over it, and loving it. Sadly, forgetfulness of this path is all too common.
But with guides such as Dietrich von Hildebrand to light the way, it need not be so. Deo gratias.
Father Nick Blaha, S.T.L. was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in 2011. He is a 2002 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, and he served for three years as a FOCUS missionary before receiving his priestly formation at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. He currently serves as pastor of three bilingual parishes in the urban core of Kansas City.