In one of his published writings, Baron von Hügel spoke of the many souls of every type with whom he had been brought into contact during his life; and since those words were printed it is certain that their number must greatly have increased. Perhaps only those whose privilege it has been to be among them are in a position to suspect the amount of personal and devoted work, and that often of the most exacting kind, which lies behind this apparently simple phrase. ‘One likes to help people' was usually the only answer vouchsafed to the inarticulate but unmeasured gratitude of those whom he rescued from outer darkness, delivered by his own unique method from intellectual entanglements, and set firmly on their feet: thenceforward to prosecute a life which he never represented as anything less than ‘costing’—one of his favourite words.
The great French religious renaissance of the seventeenth century—an epoch with which, as it seems to me, the Baron had certain temperamental links—was marked by the appearance of massive religious thinkers who were, at the same time, skilled directors of souls. This combination can also be detected in the Abbe Huvelin ; that ‘manifestaation of the spirit of sheer holiness’, whom Baron von Hügel regarded as his own supreme spiritual guide. It most certainly existed in the Baron himself; and it is this
power of holding, and practising together (in all their fulllness and variety), the pastoral and the philosophic sides of the spiritual life, which made him, I believe without exception, the most influential religious personality of our time.
As with all the full-grown Christian mystics, that profound awareness of ‘the august Object of religion’, of which he has written so impressively, issued in his own case in a spiritual creativeness; a capacity for reaching, penetrating, vivifying souls, which did not stop short with those who knew him in the flesh. ‘He was like a rock to me’, wrote one who had never known him personally, on receiving the news of his death. ‘He said the things I had listened for so long. With him, one was safe and certain.’ The full number of his spiritual children will never be known; nor the extent to which his generously given advice, teaching and support are ultimately destined to fertilize the most distant corners of the Christian field. His great sanctity—for no one could ever have heard him speak of God without being profoundly changed by that experience—his fearless intellectual outlook, the ease and suppleness with which he ranged from the loftiest peaks to the homeliest duties of religion, and a power of ‘discerning spirits’ which was often extremely disconcerting to its victims, produced in him just that ‘spiritual persuasiveness’ which he recognized and so deeply admired in St. Catherine of Genoa. Such persuasiveness— such a power of convincing other souls of the reality and loveliness of God—requires, he thought
A life sufficiently large and alive to take up and retain, within its own experimental range, at least some of the poignant question and conflict, as well as of the peace-bringing solution and calm; hence a life dramatic with a humble and homely heroism which in rightful contact with, and in rightful renunciation of, the Particular and Fleeting, ever seeks and
finds the Omnipresent and Eternal; and which again deepens and incarnates (for its own experience and apprehension: and for the stimulation of other souls) this Transcendence in its own thus gradually purified Particular: only such a life can be largely persuasive, at least for us Westerns and in our times.
And here the many who owe to him their peace of mind and such usefulness as they possess, may feel that he has drawn his own portrait.
In his practical dealings with souls, the Baron was accustomed to apply under modern condtions many of the salient ideas of the great French directors; especially Fenelon, whom he greatly admired. Their robust outlook, their hatred of self-occupation and scrupulosity, their insistence on moderation and balance, were all echoed by him. ‘Solid, simple, sober souls’ were the type he most approved, and sought to form. The mystical element of religion was never allowed to dominate the field, or become the one basis of faIth. Our poor little human experience of Reality, he taught, must always fluctuate; and have its uncertainties even at the best. But God and Christ and the need of our constant death to self, remain simply certain’. Hence self-abandonment was the crowning virtue; and ‘humbling and bracing’ were the twin qualities he looked for in spiritual reading and prayer. Any display of vehemence or feverish intensity was likely to be met by a humiliating request to ‘try a lIttle gardening’, or, in female patients, ‘some quiet needlework’; for secular interests and employments took a prominent place in his conception of the ordered spiritual life, as we may see in the passage devoted to this matter in the great final chapter of The Mystical Element. Moreover, such an ordered life invariably included some care for, and, if possible, direct intercourse with, the poor; since the Baron strongly believed—in a way not well understood by the modern social worker—in their humbling and
spiritualizing influence. ‘God, Christ and the Poor’ is a trilogy that occurs frequently in his private correspondence: as does the steady insistence on every form and degree of homely love:
I deeply love my little dog; and Abbe Huvelin was devoted to his cat. We can and will become all the dearer to God for this our love of our little relations, the smaller children of God.
‘How great if you could end by a certain real interest in those ‘nothings’, an interest springing from the purest love of those souls!’ he once wrote to one who had betrayed exasperation with the petty details of life: and this chance phrase seems to me to throw a flood of light on his conception of the line along which that ‘purification and expansion of the soul’ which he desired, could best be achieved, and man draw nearer to likeness with God.
The same breadth, charity, and common sense, the same dislike of strain and excess, entered into his treatment of the doctrinal problems which play so large a part in modern religious unrest. ‘Let it alone—feed your soul on the great positive truths you do see.’ As for the apparently indigestible morsels, the incipient controversialist was warned against all hurried denunciation, since ‘They may be food for other souls, and perhaps even for yours, in a later stage of its growth!’—a prophecy which was often enough fulfilled. Many have been saved from theological suicide by these wise counsels: the more impressive because coming from a great scholar, who had himself faced every scientific and critical difficulty, yet remained a devoted son of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the advice and training which he gave so generously to many outside his own communion, he showed the fullest willingness to use, discriminate, and take seriously the institutional practices of all branches of the Church. Anything and everything offering deliverance from that pan-
theistic and unitarian trend which he specially abhorred in modern religious thought, anything which would convert ‘abstractions floating in the air’ into the constituents of ‘a Reality felt and loved’ was seriously considered by him. Though there were extreme developments of Anglo-Catholic practice which he certainly regarded with mingled amusement and regret, he viewed with thankfulness ‘the most true and precious beliefs’ involved in the Anglican trend towards increased sacramentalism, advised and upheld frequent and regular communion, and also approved the custom of prayer before the Reserved Sacrament: since this devotion, though not primitive, ‘had formed saints, and great saints’.
Here shows that strongly practical bent which entered in a marked degree into the Baron’s view of institutional practices: and which appears in a classic form in the systems of the great spiritual directors, such as St. François de Sales. This is merely to say in other words that his supreme interest here lay in souls and their growth—in arousing the deepest reality of man to the overwhelming Reality, the richness and attraction of God—and that he recognized, and valued, many diverse means as serving this great end. It was because of his own deep, awed consciousness of that unchangeable End, ‘present, yet absent—near, yet far’, that he was able to persuade others to seek it: even along paths which the modern spirit is apt to despise. God—adoration—self- oblivion—surrender: these keywords of religion, and beyond these, even such purely technical terms as ontology or transcendence, became, when he uttered them, incandescent with a supernatural fire. A letter written by him in the last All Saints’ tide of his life, ended upon the words —’Full of the breadth, the depth, and the tenderness of the Saints.’ Those who owe him most, will see in this phrase his fitting epitaph.