Dietrich von Hildebrand on how death summons us to what’s essential

One of my very favourite organizations, the Hildebrand Project, is committed to advancing the legacy of Dietrich von Hildebrand and of the wider personalist tradition.

Most recently, the Hildebrand Project team republished Dietrich von Hildebrand’s existential and theological meditation, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, which the twentieth-century philosopher wrote shortly before his own death.

The book is divided into two sections – the first of which considers the Natural Aspect of Death and the second of which considers Death in the Light of Christian faith.

To isolate a particular theme of the book I appreciate, Hildebrand offers some moving passages on how death summons us to what’s essential.

Under the heading “The solitary grandeur of death”, he says:

Death offers a striking contrast to all that is ungenuine and unnecessary. It has a solitary and authentic grandeur. Much that is worthless may exist somehow tied up with each of us, although by no means in the same degree. But death, with its uniqueness and singularity, with its deep significance and ultimate reality, forms a deep contrast to all the vanities and empty and false attitudes that surround our separate existences. I refer to the errors that grip up, but also to the dangers we merely imagine, to the “wounds” we may think we have received from the insensitivity of others; I refer also to the many transient and insignificant actions that fill so many hours of our lives. (p. 38)

I am amazed at how thinking about death each day contributes to both a greater focus on and detachment from my everyday tasks and responsibilities.

In another place, Hildebrand says:

Death now sorts out what really matters. Now what matters is how we have lived our earthly life. What has deeply moved us here? What have we done here? What have we failed to do? The worthless things, of course, which appealed to us because of some pleasant feature, now sink into insignificance. This is especially true of all the worldly interests that smothered us in so many details. The deep questions, however, remain. (p. 85)

If ever we are burdened by so many inconsequential matters, thinking about our own deaths can help us concentrate on what is essential and to focus on eternal concerns.

Here’s my testimonial video about the Hildebrand Project’s Summer Seminar on “The Past and Promise of Christian Personalism”:

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