Today is Alice von Hildebrand’s 98th birthday. I was delighted to meet this wonderful philosopher, teacher, and author when I set out to visit her at her home in New Rochelle a couple years ago. The widow of eminent philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice exudes a profound joy – that is, a joy that is rooted in her deep existential gratitude through which she has grown to love the reality of her present circumstances, no matter what they may be.
In honour of her birthday, I read this piece of hers titled, “Made for Joy“, in which she writes:
During the war I was on the last American ship to leave France, and we were arrested by a German submarine. We were given one hour to leave the ship. I was absolutely convinced I was going to die. Absolutely! And I had such an overwhelming experience. In a tenth of a hundredth of a second I saw my life in front of me in the greatest possible detail that you can imagine. It was unbelievable. What did I realize?
God has created each person for a purpose. He has his plan of love for you, for me, for everyone. The problem is that we make our own plans. We want them to be realized in a certain way and at a particular time. Then we get resentful when our plans don’t materialize. Yet, you have to come to a place in your life where you can say, “You, O Lord, you choose for me.”
Saint Teresa of Lisieux said something that has made an enormous impression on me: “I like best what God has chosen for me.”
And that quotation of St. Thérèse reminds me of the Simpleton in Rebbe Nachman’s tale.
In “The Simpleton and The Sophisticate“, Rebbe Nachman tells the story of two men. One is simple and the other is clever.
The Sophisticate is, to borrow Tennyson’s words about Ulysses, always roaming with a hungry heart. He is constantly pursuing further education, changing his trades and professions, and travelling from city to city. In modern terms, he’s a social climber with some serious lifestyle creep.
The Simpleton, by contrast, became a simple shoemaker, remained in his hometown, settled down and, Rebbe Nachman tells us, “He was always happy: he was simply full of joy all the time.”
It is told:
[The Simpleton] possessed every kind of food, drink and clothing. He would say to his wife: “My wife! Give me to eat!” She would give him a piece of bread and he would eat it. Afterwards he would say: “Give me beans and gravy.” She would cut him another slice of bread and he would eat it, praising the food. “This gravy is so beautiful! It is so good! He would ask her to give him meat and other good foods. For every kind of food that he requested, she would give him a piece of bread. He would take the most exquisite delight in it, highly praising the food – “So tasty! So good!” – as if he was actually eating that very food. And the truth is that when he ate the bread, he actually did taste each kind of food that he wanted, all because of his great simplicity and joy.
I love this part of the story because it is so evocative of the mysterious joy to be found in loving the reality of one’s present circumstances. The Simpleton is considered by others to be a fool, but the hearer of this tale cannot help but be moved by the attractiveness of his joy.
Alice von Hildebrand, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Rebbe Nachman’s Simpleton all testify to the joy that comes the comes from receiving everything with gratitude – including the things that we weren’t planning or hoping for. And when we lovingly receive even our difficulties, misfortunes, and disappointments in this way, then we actually transform what these things are to us and for us.