Readiness to Change
by Dietrich von
These words of St. Paul are inscribed above the gate through which all
must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God. They implicitly contain
the quintessence of the process which baptized man must undergo before
he attains the unfolding of the new supernatural life received in Baptism.
“Put off the old man that
belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful
lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new man,
created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning
to become a new man in Christ, and an inner readiness to “put off the old
man” – a readiness to become something fundamentally different.
All good men desire
Even though he should lack religion, the will to change is not unknown
to man. He longs to develop and to perfect himself. He believes he can
overcome all vices and deficiencies of his nature by human force alone.
All morally aspiring men are conscious of the necessity of a purposeful
self-education which should cause them to change and to develop. They,
too, – as contrasted to the morally indifferent man who lets himself go
and abandons himself passively to his natural dispositions – reveal a certain
readiness to change. But for this, no spiritual and moral growth would
exist at all.
Yet, when man is touched by the light of Revelation, something entirely
new has come to pass. The revelation of the Old Testament alone suffices
to make the believer aware of man’s metaphysical situation and the terrible
wound inflicted upon his nature by original sin. He knows that no human
force can heal that wound; that he is in need of redemption. He grasps
the truth that repentance is powerless to remove the guilt of sin which
separates him from God, that good will and natural moral endeavor will
fail to restore him to the beauty of the paradisiac state. Within him lives
a deep yearning for the Redeemer, who by divine force will take the guilt
of sin and bridge the gulf that separates the human race from God.
Throughout the Old Testament that yearning resounds: “Convert us, O
God: and show us Thy face, and we shall be saved” (Psalm 79:4). We perceive
the desire for purification which enables us to appear before God, and
to endure the presence of the unspeakably Holy One: “Thou shalt sprinkle
me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall
be made whiter than snow” (Psalm 50:9).
God calls us to
The New Testament, however, reveals to us a call which far transcends
that yearning. Thus Christ speaks to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to thee,
unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Christ, the Messiah, is not merely the Redeemer who breaks apart the
bond and cleanses us from sin. He is also the Dispenser of a new divine
life which shall wholly transform us and turn us into new men: “Put off
the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed
in the spirit of your mind; and put on the new man, who according to God
is created in justice and holiness of truth.” Though we receive this new
life in Baptism as a free gift of God, it may not flourish unless we cooperate.
“Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste,” says St. Paul.
A strong desire must fill us to become different beings, to mortify
our old selves and re-arise as new men in Christ. This desire, this readiness
to decrease so that “He may grow in us,” is the first elementary precondition
for the transformation in Christ, It is the primal gesture by which man
reacts to the light of Christ that has reached his eyes: the original gesture
directed to God. It is, in other words, the adequate consequence of our
consciousness of being in need of redemption on the one hand, and our comprehension
of being called by Christ on the other. Our surrender to Christ implies
a readiness to let Him fully transform us, without setting any limit to
the modification of our nature under His influence.
Readiness to change
versus natural optimism
In regard to their respective readiness to change, the difference between
the Christian and the natural idealist is obvious. The idealist is suffused
with optimism concerning human nature as such. He underestimates the depth
of our defects; he is unaware of the wound, incurable by human means, with
which our nature is afflicted. He overlooks our impotence to erase a moral
guilt or to bring about autonomously a moral regeneration of ourselves.
Moreover, his infatuation with activity prevents him from understanding
even the necessity of a basic renewal. He fails to sense the essential
inadequacy of all natural morality, as well as the incomparable superiority
of virtue supernaturally founded, let alone the full presence of such virtue
His readiness to change will differ, therefore, from that of the Christian,
above all in the following respects. First, he has in mind a relative change
only: an evolution immanent to nature. His endeavor is not, as is the Christian’s,
to let his nature as a whole be transformed from above, nor to let his
character be stamped with a new coinage, a new face, as it were, whose
features far transcend human nature and all its possibilities. His object
is not to be reborn: to become radically – from the root, that is – another
man; he merely wants to perfect himself within the framework of his natural
dispositions. He is intent on ensuring an unhampered evolution of these
dispositions and potentialities. Sometimes even an express approval of
his own nature is implicit therein, and a self-evident confidence in the
given tendencies of his nature as they are before being worked upon by
conscious self-criticism. Such was, for instance, Goethe’s case. Invariably
in the idealist, the readiness to change is limited to a concept of nature’s
immanent evolution or self-perfection: its scope remains exclusively human.
Whereas, with the Christian, it refers to a basic transformation and redemption
of things human by things divine: to a supernatural goal.
A second point of difference is closely connected with this. The idealist’s
readiness to change is aimed at certain details or aspects only, never
at his character as a whole. The aspiring man of natural morality is intent
on eradicating this defect, on acquiring that virtue; the Christian, however,
is intent on becoming another man in all things, in regard to both what
is bad and what is naturally good in him. He knows that what is naturally
good, too, is insufficient before God: that it, too, must submit to supernatural
transformation – to a re-creation, we might say, by the new principle of
supernatural life conveyed to him by Baptism.
Thirdly, the man of natural moral endeavor, willing as he may be to
change in one way or another, will always stick to the firm ground of Nature.
How could he be asked to relinquish that foothold, tumbling off into the
void? Yet it is precisely this firm ground which the Christian does leave.
His readiness to change impels him to break with his unredeemed nature
as a whole: he wills to lose the firm ground of unredeemed nature under
his feet and to tumble, so to speak, into the arms of Christ. Only he who
may say with St. Paul, “I know in whom I have believed” can risk the enormous
adventure of dying unto himself and of relinquishing the natural foundation.
Not all possess
the radical readiness to change
Now this radical readiness to change, the necessary condition for a
transformation in Christ, is not actually possessed by all Catholic believers.
It is, rather, a distinctive trait of those who have grasped the full import
of the Call, and without reserve have decided upon an imitation of Christ.
There are many religious Catholics whose readiness to change is merely
a conditional one. They exert themselves to keep the commandments and to
get rid of such qualities as they have recognized to be sinful. But they
lack the will and the readiness to become new men all in all, to break
with all purely natural standards, to view all things in a supernatural
light. They prefer to evade the act of metanoia: a true conversion of the
heart. Hence with undisturbed consciences they cling to all that appears
to them legitimate by natural standards.1
Their conscience permits them to remain entrenched in their self-assertion.
For example, they do not feel the obligation of loving their enemies; they
let their pride have its way within certain limits; they insist on the
right of giving play to their natural reactions in answer to any humiliation.
They maintain as self-evident their claim to the world’s respect, they
dread being looked upon as fools of Christ; they accord a certain role
to human respect, and are anxious to stand justified in the eyes of the
They are not ready for a total breach with the world and its standards;
they are swayed by certain conventional considerations; nor do they refrain
from letting themselves go within reasonable limits. There are various
types and degrees of this reserved form of the readiness to change; but
common to them all is the characteristic of a merely conditional obedience
to the Call and an ultimate abiding by one’s natural self. However great
the differences of degree may be, the decisive cleavage is that which separates
the unreserved, radical readiness to change from the somehow limited and
in Christ requires unqualified readiness to change
The full readiness to change – which might even better be termed readiness
to become another man – is present in him only who, having heard the call
“Follow me” from the mouth of the Lord, follows Him as did the Apostles,
“leaving everything behind.” To do so, he is not required literally to
relinquish everything in the sense of the evangelical counsels: this would
be in answer to another, more particular call. He is merely required to
relinquish his old self, the natural foundation, and all purely natural
standards, and open himself entirely to Christ’s action – comprehending
and answering the call addressed to all Christians: “Put on the new man,
who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”
Readiness to change, taken in this sense, is the first prerequisite
for the transformation in Christ. But, in addition thereto, more is needed:
a glowing desire to become a new man in Christ; a passionate will to give
oneself over to Christ, And this, again, presupposes a state of fluidity,
as it were: that we should be like soft wax, ready to receive the imprint
of the features of Christ. We must be determined not to entrench ourselves
in our nature, not to maintain or assert ourselves, and above all, not
to set up beforehand – however unconsciously – a framework of limiting
or qualifying factors for the pervasive and re-creative light of Christ.
Rather we must be filled with an unquenchable thirst for regeneration in
all things. We must fully experience the bliss of flying into Christ’s
arms, who will transform us by His light beyond any measure we might ourselves
intend. We must say as did St. Paul on the road to Damascus; “Lord, what
wilt Thou have me to do?”
|Brief biographical background
on Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1997), from Ignatius Press:
Hitler feared him and Pope
Pius XII called him a “twentieth century Doctor of the Catholic Church.”
For more than six decades, Dietrich von Hildebrand – philosopher,
spiritual writer, and anti-Nazi crusader – led
philosophical, religious, and political groups, lectured throughout Europe
and the Americas, and published more than 30 books and many more articles.
His influence was widespread and endures to this day...
Soon after the end of World
War I, Nazism began to threaten von Hildebrand’s beloved southern Germany.
With his characteristic clearsightedness, von Hildebrand immediately discerned
its intrinsic evil. From its earliest days, he vociferously denounced Nazism
in articles and speeches throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.
Declaring himself unwilling
to continue to live in a country ruled by a criminal, von Hildebrand regretfully
left his native Germany for Austria, where he continued teaching philosophy
(now at the University of Vienna) and fought the Nazis with even greater
vigor, founding and editing a prominent anti-Nazi newspaper, Christliche
This angered both Heinrich
Himmler and Adolf Hitler, who were determined to silence von Hildebrand
and to close his anti-Nazi newspaper. Orders were given to have von Hildebrand
killed in Austria. Although his friend and patron, Austrian Premier Engelbert
Dollfuss, was murdered by the Nazis, von Hildebrand evaded their hit-squads
and fled the country just as it fell to the Nazis.
It is characteristic of von
Hildebrand that even while he was engaged in this dangerous life-and-death
struggle against the Nazis, he maintained his deep spiritual life, and
managed to write during this period his greatest work, the sublime and
highly-acclaimed spiritual classic, Transformation in Christ (Cf.
Fleeing from Austria, von
Hildebrand was pursued through many countries, ultimately arriving on the
shores of America in 1940 by way of France, Switzerland, Portugal, and
[Excerpt from Transformation
in Christ, Chapter 1, © 1948, 1976 Dietrich von Hildebrand
© 1990 Alice von Hildebrand, 2001 edition published by Ignatius
Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.]