Dr. Robert Hickson 7 March 2020
Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)
“I was especially pleased to see that the reason for the award [“the February 1982 Balzan Prize”], as I could now see for the first time, was precisely what had always been my greatest concern: namely, expressing myself in comprehensible, non-specialized language ‘which was capable of awakening for a world-wide public a philosophical awareness of the ultimate questions about human existence.’ And no matter how much it may seem like self-praise, I am not ashamed to say it.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020)—or A Story Like a Beam of Light (1988—in German), pages 155-156—my emphasis added)
“He [the senior modern German air force officer ]…said immediately: ‘In our training, you must remember, the theme “German Luftwaffe in World War II” was taboo.’ Here again, I thought, is confirmation of the words of my teacher Thomas Aquinas with their manifold implications: ‘Praise of bravery depends on justice.’ The most daring, most intelligent, most dangerous undertakings by soldiers—which are often associated with extreme willingness to make sacrifices—cannot simply be praised when they are performed in the service of a criminal power; but it would be no less false to condemn them summarily and without distinction as likewise criminal [as in the case of the gifted German paratrooper General Kurt Student]; and with regard to the decision to keep silent about these things: it is indeed understandable and possibly even deserving of respect; but it can also thwart the inner cleansing, the catharsis, through which this tragedy [of war], too, could perhaps make even these awful events fruitful.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega–or A Story Like a Beam of Light, page 166—my emphasis added)
“But in public I was also silent. Should I have shouted aloud [about certain “naked crimes” targeting the Jews]: there is terrible injustice happening here? Some people did that and paid for it with their lives. Inge Scholl wrote to me shortly after the war [in 1945] telling me that her brother had read my books. And not until the spring of 1986 did the sister of Willi Graf, who also belonged to the “Weiße Rose” group and had been executed, sent me the photo-copy of a piece of paper from her brother’s diary: ‘Read J.P. about the Christian conception of man.’ This affected me in two ways. I heard this news and was ashamed. Some write things and others do them.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 143—my emphasis added)
“My objections [about some translations of “the texts of the Ordo Missae”] concerned not so much inadequate linguistic formulations but primarily the destruction of meaning—which is almost always caused by misuse of language.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 37—my emphasis added)
“My conclusion was that perhaps under the reign of sophistry and pseudo-philosophy true philosophy as a distinguishable independent discipline would disappear, and the specifically philosophical object—the root of things and the ultimate meaning of existence—would only be considered by those with faith.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 68—my emphasis added)
The third volume of Josef Pieper’s autobiography, after some considerable delays, has finally been translated into English and just recently published in February of 2020 by St. Augustine’s Press in South Bend, Indiana. This 2020 text is now entitled A Journey to Point Omega—Autobiography from 1964.
The original German text was published in 1988, some fourteen years before Dr. Pieper’s own death on 6 November 1997 at 93 years of age. His original 1988 book in German—as well as his later Volume EB2 of his 2005 Eleven-Volume Opera Omnia–was carefully and more poetically entitled: Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl—i.e., A Story like a Beam of Light—and it was originally also modestly subtitled Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen seit 1964 (Autobiographical Notes since 1964-1986).
It is important for us to remember that when Josef Pieper first published the last portion of his autobiography in 1988, he was eighty-four years of age; and when his beloved wife earlier died in 1984 after their almost fifty years together in marriage, Josef Pieper was eighty years old.
A Journey to Point Omega essentially begins with the multiple effects of the sudden death of his son Thomas in Seattle, Washington on 25 July 1964, and ends with the poignant death of his wife Hildegard in Münster, Germany on 25 June 1984. These events shook Josef Pieper and took him to the roots of his faith, hence the permeating atmosphere of his memoir: not just the medley of “notes” and the variety of things to be considered in his final and abiding—and often elegiac—memoir, to include his forthrightness about the sad burden of some recent German history, as well as the loss of his son Thomas and his beloved wife Hildegard in 1964 and 1984, respectively.
Indeed once in February 1964—shortly before he was additionally to face the sudden death of his son in America on 25 July 1964—Josef Pieper said the following after having just met in person General Kurt Student (b. 1890), the gifted and chivalrous German parachute officer of the Luftwaffe in World War II:
As for myself, I went home somewhat and sad. The burden of our destructive history, which was still with me under the surface, had revealed itself to me only too clearly. On that evening [in Münster] in February 1964 I had known very little. The more important things I found out only later….Above all, at this time [in 1964] I did not yet know other things that happened after the war. The planner and leader of the [May 1941] attack on Crete, which was daring and had an unusually high rate of casualties, did not only receive the chivalrous distinction [and an awarded medal!] from his [very courageous] New Zealand foes; it also happened that a British General [New Zealand Commanding Officer on Crete of the 4th NZ Brigade, Brigadier General Lindsay Inglis], acting as a judge in court, absolutely refused to confirm—and thereby prevented—the sentence of five-year imprisonment passed by the victors’ military tribunal against the enemy for alleged crimes. And in a well-documented publication of the Freiburg Military Research Institute in 1982 I read that General Student, condemned to death by a French military court, then first had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment and later passed some time [five years] in humiliating circumstances in a prison.
There was no mention of all that at table on that evening [in February of 1964]. And although perhaps no one had anything to hide, General Student [d. 1 July 1978] was probably not the only one who remained silent about what he had done and what had happened to him.—But for the younger officers, who had still been sitting there together quite at ease [in 1964], the deeds and experiences of the German Luftwaffe in World War II were, as I learned recently [“in this summer of 1987”], ‘quite taboo.’ (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020), pages 171-172—my emphasis added1)
Earlier in the memoir—at the very beginning of his important Chapter II (“Post-Conciliar Confusion”), Josef Pieper had quietly mentioned in passing the loss of his son and that “The requiem for our son Thomas [was] celebrated at the end of July 1964—about a year and a half after [before!] the end of the Council” [sic—a typographical correction is needed: i.e, “before” instead of “after”: “before the end of the Council” in October of 1965]. (32—my emphasis added)
Throughout his memoir, as he learned it from his mentor Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Pieper is attentive to the combination of “order and mystery”—Saint Thomas’ “ordo et mysterium.” As they understand it, reality is intelligible, accessible, and knowable—and yet unfathomable. And thus “Sapientis Ordinare”: namely, that it is characteristic of a wise man—or a seeker of wisdom—to give order to things.
Here is the way Josef Pieper recurrently alerts us and awakens us to the searching themes of his own writings and invited lectures: by modestly mentioning their substantive titles, such as: “the meaning of ‘God speaks’” (21 and 105); “what distinguishes a priest” (46); “a necessary attempt at clarification” (46); “theology as the attempt to interpret revelation” (29); “a communion chalice” is “full of what?” (52); “the Corpus Christi also as a warning” (52); “abuse of language, abuse of power” (67); “discipline and moderation”—“Zucht und Mass” (76); “courage and hope” (780; “sacred vestments” and “praeambula sacramenti” (101); “memorial Mass for Thomas” (110); “Body Memory”—Latin “Memoria Corporis” (120); “Death and Immortality” and “On Love” (121); “a consecrated priest” and “a non-priest” (132); “the dilemma of a non-Christian philosophy” (148); Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Thomas a Creatore” (G.K. Chesterton) (149); “the current relevance of scholasticism” (153); the moral of the local stories of Münster in Westphalia (152); “praise of bravery depends on justice” (152); “This memoir was too personal for my Westphalian taste” (137); and the gifted General Kurt Student’s own “chivalrous distinction” (171-172).
Now we may better consider Josef Pieper’s representative presentation of a form of mysterium and the veil that properly protects it against coarsening and trivializing language and also against the deeper germs and spreading virulence of de-sacralization.
In his highly differentiated and deeply discerning second chapter on “Post-Conciliar Confusion,” he says, for example:
The defenders of a desacralized way of speaking—i.e., a way which even in the Church and in the Mass, approximates as closely as possible to, and is even identical with the average way of speaking—have occasionally, in debate with me, appealed to an official “Instruction” [from 25 January 1969] which [allegedly] allows and even recommends such freedom with language….
With the word mysterium, which is always connected with the language of the liturgy, another aspect of sacred language has been named….I am referring to the element of the veil by which the mystery is protected from the very direct threat of language….
I don’t know how often I have attended the Easter blessing of the baptismal water celebrated by the bishop in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Münster. I remember, above all, Clemens August von Galen, who, with his somewhat dull, tortured sounding voice as he let the Easter candle down into the water, sang on three different notes the words: Descendat in hanc plenitudinem fontis virtus Spiritus Sancti. Hundreds of people listened with deep, silent attention and observed the symbolic action; and I am convinced that here, despite the Latin language, what was mysteriously happening here was brought home to the simplest of Christians present in an incomparably moving way—much more than it could be by the completely clear new new German text, which is sad, impoverished, and cold: “Let the power of the Holy Spirit descend into this water!” [“Es steige hinab in dieses Wasser die Kraft des Heiliges Geistes!”]…
The Bishop of Münster said to me, upset and in shock after the first time he performed the new rite, “If I only had at least been able to sing it!” The Missale Romanum speaks continually of the plenitudo fontis. To say instead “this water” is obviously a wretched abbreviation. But if it is too “poetic” to speak of “this overflowing spring,” why not in this particular case—and it might not be the only one—keep the Latin text and, of course, not speak it but sing it? In any case, here as elsewhere, translating into German giving the true meaning is the real problem, which often enough remains unsolved. (34-36—my emphasis added)
Dr. Pieper later was to show his rootedness and special gratitude to the self-sacrificing previous generation that so nourished his own childhood and the childhood of many others:
In 1979, on a November afternoon when it was already becoming dark, I was to receive in the town hall in Münster, as a somewhat late birthday present, the St. Paul Badge of this city which early in my life had become my home town….
During all this, the thought occurred to me that, on receiving the St. Paul Badge, I should relate all these things which I had witnessed at first hand during my childhood years. I intended in this way to honor and to express my gratitude to the preceding generation….Everyone immediately understood that these [grateful words] were intended as stories with a “moral.” The idea was to show what these simple folk, our fathers and mothers, who had never had such a thing as a holiday in Mallorca and whose almost daily midday meal was stew, paid in order that their children could do more than just make money. They paid with their unquestioning frugality, their uncomplaining, untiring self-sacrifice and the neglect of their own needs. I wanted, above all, to make clear, that it is precisely from these types of people that a nation really lives, and to whom the fine words of the German Jew, Walter Benjamin [d. 1940, in Spain], apply: “Honor without fame/ Greatness without glitter/ Dignity without pay.” Benjamin used these words in introducing his memorial  book about the “German People” (Deutsche Menschen]. (150-152—my emphasis added)
The last section (181-189) of Josef Pieper’s final volume of autobiography is intimately and evocatively entitled “In manus tuas…” and it poignantly depicts his wife’s longstanding sufferings and her final sacraments and moments in this life in the attentive presence of her husband and of their two living children, Monika and Michael. From the very beginning of this final portion ending with her death on 25 June 1984, we may again glimpse and savor Dr. Pieper’s modesty and characteristic tacitness about certain piercing personal matters of moment in his life, to include “Sister Rotrudis, the Icelandic-Westphalian nun” (111) whom he met in Iceland in 1923. Later now, we also learn more about those so close to him:
On Easter Sunday [23 April] 1985 we could have celebrated our golden [50th] wedding anniversary. Our parish priest was willing to celebrate Mass on that occasion in our house [at Malmedyweg 10] at the table at which we had had our family meals until a few years ago—under the Rembrandt painting with the Emmaus disciples, which has been hanging there since our wedding day [on 23 April 1935]. In reality nobody really thought that we should reach that day. For about a year my wife could not have understood what we were talking about when the children and I spoke of this possibility. She died [on 25 June 1984] ten months before the anticipated date. (181)
His beloved wife even learned during her sustained illness to memorize the seven stanzas of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn, “Adoro Te devote…,” though she later came to lose some of her recollection of some of its beautiful words, as well as some of her own Latin grammar as in their prayer “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (where she would say “spiritus,” instead).
Josef Pieper uses those last words to say goodbye to his beloved wife and to express a moving gesture, too; and he now introduces us to their final moments, with his two children attentively present:
Near midnight [on 25 June 1984] her breathing became noticeably shallow and, though calm, shorter and shorter—until the last breath came. I stood up, placed my hand around her neck and said with my face very close to her: “Mother, now we can say: ‘In manus tuas…’,” and I repeated her own last prayer including the grammatical error.—I am certain that in this mysterious, timeless moment of passing over from earthly life she did not just hear it but also prayed it with me. (189—my bold emphases added)
In July 1974, shortly after his 70th birthday on 4 May, Josef Pieper gave a set of lectures in Spain to a group of Catholic Americans at “the University of Maria Cristina” (85) very close to King Philip II’s inspired building of the Escorial in the Guadarrama Mountains northwest of Madrid in the village of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and near General Franco’s well-meant mountain memorial of reconciliation, “Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos” (86), known also as the Valley of the Fallen.
With my wife at the time, I was not only in attendance at Dr. Pieper’s 1974 summer lectures at Maria Cristina where we also met him for the first time in person; but he and I were later kneeling beside one another together at the High Mass sung up at the Valley of the Fallen, which was “under the protection of the Benedictine monks” (86).
Here was one set of Dr. Pieper’s surprising (though partly inaccurate) notes and comments about us (even about my red-headed wife) while also then imagining that I was still on Military Active Duty:
I have seldom found myself so suddenly put into a group of such colorful people. While swimming [after also often playing “pelota” or even a sort of tennis] we constantly encountered a particularly charming couple: a young Vietnam War veteran [a retired captain from U.S. Army Special Forces] with his beautiful red-haired wife Sharon. It was the first time I had heard this name, but he insisted that it came from the Old Testament [as in “the Rose of Sharon”]. The “veteran” seemed more like an active officer on leave from the front. We quickly became engaged in a lively conversation, and naturally I could not hear enough from this “leather-neck” [sic] with the “green beret.” In the newspapers at the time there was talk of a massacre committed in a village by American soldiers on women and children. “Did such things really happen?” My “veteran” answered [in part] by telling a story followed by a question which left me bewildered. “In a village in the middle of the jungle a young woman carrying a child approached my group [another group of three men, not mine own!] smiling and apparently about to ask for something. But suddenly she pulled a pistol [tossed an explosive] from under her child and shot [killed] one of the group [all three of the small group, one of them being my 1964 West Point classmate!]. What do you do when, a second time, a young woman approaches you smiling?” (87)
It should be known, moreover, that so much more could be discussed here, although the current English translation of the Pieper Memoir omits and thereby partly distorts Dr. Pieper’s own reflective words and subtle but gracious meaning.
For example, the following sentences or portions from the original German text are omitted and even somewhat slanted in part: “The ‘veteran’ seemed rather to be an active-duty officer on military leave. We quickly entered into a lively conversation and, of course, I could not tire of hearing stories from this ‘leatherneck’ with the famous ‘green beret’ who had many times [apparently] led his combat team into the jungle.” (“Der ‘Veteran’ wirkte eher wie ein aktiver Frontoffizier im Urlaub. Wir kamen rasch in ein lebhaftes Gespräch; und natürlich konnte ich von dem ‘Ledernacken’ mit dem berühmten ‘grünen Barett’, der viele Male seinen Kampftrupp in den Dschungel geführt hatte, gar nicht genug erzählt bekommen.” (106—the 1988 German text2)
There is one final image of Josef Pieper, at 70 years of age, at the sung High Mass at the Valley of the Fallen that I wish to share with the reader. For, we two were kneeling beside each other at that July 1974 sacrifice of the Mass, ten years after the death of his son Thomas in July of 1964.
At the first elevation of the Host at the Consecration, all of a sudden all the lights in the Benedictine crypt church went out—except for a beam of light that shone on the larger-than-life and manly Crucifix behind the Altar. All of the choir chants (children and monks) were silent and the torch lights on the wall of the large cavern were all at once shut off. Only the Crucifix of the Lord was in the beam of light.
At that sight and light Josef Pieper immediately emitted a wondrous “ah, ahhhhh!” of gratitude and of loyal love. After the Mass, when we were together outside, he kept repeating the fervent words: “that was truly an Actio Sacra of the Mass”—and this Sacred Action “was so fittingly supported by all of the sensory enhancements within the range of the human senses: sound, silence, incense, chants of children, and the sudden light.” (Which he also conveyed in his later-published 1987 words: “welches aber für uns ein, so lange wir leben, unergründliches Mysterium bleibt.”3 For us it remains—as long as we live–an Unfathomable Mystery.) Once again there is both the “Ordo” and the “Mysterium.”
Would that you could have seen his grateful eyes then, during and after Mass in July of 1974!
It was an unforgettable Actio Sacra along with an intimate “Memoria Corporis,” a memory of the fuller “Body of Things” as in the humility of the Incarnation and the Sacramental Sacred Tradition.
Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl: A Story like a Beam of Light
© 2020 Robert D. Hickson
1Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press), pages 171-172—my emphasis added). Henceforth, unless specifically noted as otherwise, all further references to this edition will be place above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.
2Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1988), page 106.
3See Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (1988), page 8.