“You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness, be silent—in art, in music, in religion: silence.” (von Hügel, 16)
Most people of faith crave guidance. They have pastors, but their pastors are busy. They crave discipleship, but few seem qualified to perform the task. Those who are qualified are busy guiding others. With such a need, yet so few to meet it, believers are left to one of two options: they can throw their hands up in resignation or go find a good book. If you are looking for such a book—one that will challenge, encourage, and sharpen your faith, then Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s Letters to a Niece might be just what you need.
First published in 1928, this volume is a collection of letters from von Hügel to his niece, Gwendolen Greene, who edited these letters. One of the most brilliant and influential Christian thinkers of the early 20th century, von Hügel (1852-1925) was an Austrian born Roman Catholic. Although self-taught, he was widely studied (learning several languages), and became an authority on the mystics of the Church. But perhaps most pertinent here, von Hügel was also a Spiritual Director. In that role, he guided particular souls—employing all his vast learning—toward greater Christlikeness and devotion. When he could not meet a person face-to-face, he wrote a letter.
Letters, of course, are conversations in print. And in the pages of Letters to a Niece we have conversation after conversation of rich spiritual advice, guidance for souls that are both immature and maturing. These letters overflow with spiritual wisdom, and draw their unique energy from von Hügel’s deep insight into the nature of humanity, our desperate need for God, and his comprehensive awareness of how the Church, historically, has guided souls into maturity.
A hallmark of von Hügel’s spiritual direction is his passion to put spiritual matters in perspective. Toward this end, we must put ourselves in our own place; we must see our own limits and God’s good graces toward us. Von Hügel writes:
We have not got to invent God, nor to hold him. He holds us. We shall never be able to explain God, though we can apprehend him, more and more through the spiritual life. I want you to hold very clearly the otherness of God, and the littleness of men. If you don’t get that you can’t have adoration, and you cannot have religion without adoration. (24)
We must acknowledge God’s greatness, but at the very same time, though He is so categorically other, we must not forget that He is also extremely imminent. Von Hügel writes: “People put God so far away, in a sort of mist somewhere. I pull their coat-tails. God is near. He is no use unless he is near. God’s otherness and difference, and his nearness. You must get that.” (38) Ultimately, when it comes to our thinking about God, we must recognize that we are not ‘in control’, but rather that “We are like sponges, trying to mop up the ocean” (24). We don’t understand God, we soak in God.
Von Hügel’s Spiritual Direction, in addition to profound teachings on God’s nature and our relationship with Him, touches on numerous practicalities of everyday Christian faith. He speaks frequently of the role of the will in the Christian life, writing in one place that “After all, every soul, boy or girl, as they grow up, have to pass through that delicate difficult crisis, when they themselves have deliberately to will the right and God.” (181) Von Hügel knows, and wishes to prepare us for, those moments when we must choose God for God, when serving will not be a simple matter of feeling good, but of choosing against our feelings. Recognizing that suffering is therefore an integral part of the Christian walk, von Hügel says the following: “God never makes our lives comfortable. Even in heaven I believe there will be an equivalent of suffering—not as it stands here—but the equivalent, suffering beatified.” (29)
All this, of course, is to prepare us for a religion which is genuine and faith-filled, one which is undaunted by changing times and tastes, by our shifting moods, by our passions and false desires. Von Hügel writes:
What is a religion worth which costs you nothing? What is a sense of God worth which would be at your disposal, capable of being comfortably elicited when and where you please? It is far, far more God who must hold us, than we who must hold Him. And we get trained in these darknesses into that sense of our impotence without which the very presence of God becomes a snare. (148)
If you sincerely crave spiritual direction, you will be hard pressed to find a better volume of guidance than here in von Hügel’s letters. But do not come to these letters looking for soft comforts and feel-good meditations—you will find none of that here. Come instead craving maturity, depth, and spiritual richness, and you will be greatly satisfied. Let me leave you with this final quote from von Hügel:
You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best—the best to your own feeling, all the attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. (72)
Amen, von Hügel. Amen.