From the May/June, 2017 issue of Touchstone


Worship Becomes Us by Dan Sheffler

Book Review

Worship Becomes Us

Liturgy and Personality
by Dietrich von Hildebrand

Hildebrand Press, 2016 (orig. pub. 1932)
(160 pages, $17.99, paperback)

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a giant. In the realm of Christian ethics and devotion, he is known for his perennial Transformation in Christ. In the realm of political action, he fought Hitler by running an anti-Nazi journal from Austria, at one point topping Hitler's list of political enemies. In philosophy, he articulated a compelling vision of Christian personalism, alongside thinkers like Max Scheler, Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), and Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).

Students of Christian personalism generally and of Hildebrand in particular will find the recent publication of a new edition of Liturgy and Personality (Hildebrand Press) especially welcome. A short yet dense book of this kind could only be the mature product of long meditation and development. Indeed, Hildebrand recorded in his Memoirs that he wrote the book in only twenty-three days: "The fruit was ripe; all I needed to do was to pluck it from the tree."

Central to his argument, Hildebrand draws a distinction between "person" and "personality." Everyone is a person, but few develop into fully mature personalities. A personality, he says, is "the man who rises above the average only because he fully realizes the classical human attitudes." Hildebrand bases the organization of the book, then, on an enumeration of the attitudes he considers to be classically human: communion, reverence, response-to-value, awakenedness, discretio, continuity, an organic element, and the classical spirit. If there is any fault to be found in Hildebrand's treatment, I can only find it in the lack of any argument that these attitudes in particular must characterize a fully formed personality. In each case, Hildebrand simply depicts the man who possesses each attitude and the various distortions and excesses that can occur, relying on our sympathy for the former and our abhorrence of the latter to carry the day.

In order to cultivate these classical human attitudes, Hildebrand argues that we must respond to what he calls "the values." This requires that we have the capacity to recognize those things that are objectively worthwhile and the capacity to give ourselves in a way that responds appropriately to their true worth. In this, Hildebrand gives us a rather Augustinian picture of human life, arguing that we become more and more what we are meant to be as we turn from lesser to greater goods—a trajectory that culminates in God.

After he analyzes one of the classical human attitudes in each chapter, Hildebrand turns to examine the profound capacity of the Catholic Liturgy to cultivate this particular attitude. He accomplishes this by citing numerous instances in which the Liturgy requires the worshiper to adopt just the right spiritual posture or evokes in the worshiper a proper sentiment by striking just the right note. Throughout, Hildebrand has in mind the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Liturgy, especially Holy Mass and the Divine Office. One virtue of this new edition is that it includes English translations of all the bits and pieces that Hildebrand quotes in Latin. Even a reader who has no interest in this Liturgy will find the spiritual insights at the beginning of each chapter compelling. Yet even as a non-Catholic who has attended only one Latin Mass, I found much of what Hildebrand has to say about the Liturgy rewarding and applicable to the broader practices of Christian worship.

Taken as a whole, this book gives us a little pill to counteract all that diseased prattle we hear about "self-fulfillment." While Hildebrand may not give us an elaborate argument here, he does give us a vision. This book alone will not win over a skeptic who thinks that all value is relative or that worship is primitive, but it will display to a shallow and perverse generation how deep and good the life of worship can be. 

Dan Sheffler is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Kentucky.

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“Worship Becomes Us” first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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