A Bit of von Huegel

I was going through my collection of books yesterday, looking for titles that I could stand to live without – titles I could sell to a used book company I will buy from on occasion. I mostly chose books I picked up from 25 cent racks at libraries, and inherited books that I never read. One book that I had initially slated for selling was Letters from Baron Friedrich von Huegel to a Niece – but I quickly changed my mind after scanning the preface. My first encounter with von Huegel was in college. I took a directed reading course in which I was assigned Marvin O’Connell’s book on the Catholic Modernist Crisis, Critics on Trial. I had never read anything like it before. I remember being daunted at the small print (8 or 10 point font?) and the sheer thickness of the book – 375 pages! I have a vague memory that von Huegel’s overall character and ultimate faithfulness to the Church appealed to me.

Fast forward to yesterday. I ended up picking up this book of letters and spending a chunk of my evening reading the introduction, which was written by the niece to whom the letters were addressed. It is full of reminisces and quotes of the Baron, and paints a picture of an eccentric genius, a deeply spiritual heart, a faithful man of the Church – a delightful, humble old man.

"To sanctify is the biggest thing out."
"To sanctify is the biggest thing out." - Baron F. von Huegel

Here are a few memorable quotes:

“Be silent about great things; let them grow inside you. Never discuss them: discussion is so limited and distracting. It makes things grow smaller. You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness, be silent–in art, in music, in religion: silence.”

“Religion has never made me happy; its no use shutting your eyes to the fact that the deeper you go, the more alone you will find yourself… Religion has never made me comfy. I have been in the deserts ten years. All deepened life is deepened suffering, deepened dreariness, deepened joy. Suffering and joy. The final note of religion is joy.”

Christianity is a heroism. People seem sometimes to think it is a dear darling, not-to-be-grumpy, not-to-be-impatient, not-to-be-violent life; a sort of wishy-washy sentimental affair. Stuff and nonsense!”


Something particularly helpful for me is von Huegel’s attitude towards evangelizing others. He has a strong concern to meet people where they are at. He’s aware that our sincere efforts to convince a person can often confuse and hinder them. He tells his niece to “take only what you can, and what helps.” The key here, I think, is that evangelization must be carried out in the Spirit, not willy nilly. The wisdom that comes from the Spirit enables us to discern – to feel out – the proper method of preaching the gospel at any one time. It goes without saying that we must preach the gospel at all times – and so this is not a matter of letting timidity hinder us from speaking up for Christ. It is a matter of speaking the right language at the right time. Our actions sometimes speak louder than words – so do our silences. And a few well placed words can often do much more than a thousand well reasoned arguments.

“I want to make the most of whatever light people have got, however slight it may be, to strengthen and deepen whatever they already possess, if I can.”

We should avoid squashing the work that God has already done in a person by unthinkingly pushing on them what they could only accept by degrees: “God makes lovely little flowers grow everywhere, but someone always comes and sits on them.”

Although the man’s relationship to modernism yielded in him certain exegetical opinions on scripture that we may call (together with the author of the preface) “extravagant”, I can see him (at this first glance) as a precursor to many of the insights of the Second Vatican Council that I cherish. And as someone living in a time before all the mis-uses of the Council (he died in 1925) he is , in my opinion, in possession of something that many of us today could use more of – a truly Christian spirit.

Anyway, that’s my (second) first impression of him. I may say something else about him after I’ve taken a few more looks.


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