Each Olympic Games, we see one flame light anoth­er as the Olympic torch tra­vers­es the globe. This flame image was utilised by the Catholic philoso­pher, Baron Friedrich von Hügel (18521925), who argued that in our spir­i­tu­al lives, one torch lights anoth­er.”1 In say­ing these words, he was refer­ring to his spir­i­tu­al direc­tor, the renowned Parisian, Abbé Huvelin, along with sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry spir­i­tu­al writ­ers such as de Sales, Grou and Fénelon. But the Baron him­self was also a torch that pro­found­ly impact­ed sev­er­al writ­ers in Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Eugene Peter­son (19322018) described von Hügel as the wis­est of mas­ters,” a sig­nif­i­cant voice” guid­ing him into a per­se­ver­ing, life­long obe­di­ence in fol­low­ing Jesus.”2 Sim­i­lar­ly, Eve­lyn Under­hill (18751941) wrote of the Baron, I owe him my whole spir­i­tu­al life.”3 So how did von Hügel impact Peter­son and Under­hill and what can we learn?

Peter­son tells us that von Hügel sup­plied him with metaphors” that pro­vid­ed a shap­ing influ­ence” on his life.4 One such image is prayer with­out ado­ra­tion as like a tri­an­gle with one side left out.”5 The rem­e­dy for this, accord­ing to von Hügel, is the spon­ta­neous habit of small excla­ma­tions of ador­ing words to God.6

Anoth­er vivid image from von Hügel is the for­ma­tion of meta­mor­phic rock as an illus­tra­tion for union with Christ recre­at­ing the entire per­son. As an ama­teur geol­o­gist, the Baron knew how heat and pres­sure can slow­ly trans­form rock. He described how God sim­i­lar­ly per­me­ates” and changes the very sub­stance of our human­i­ty” through a divine infil­tra­tion.”7 Christ’s indwelling pro­duces a slow, trans­for­ma­tive effect on our heart, will, head, emo­tions, body. Our entire per­son is changed. It’s not sim­ply intel­lec­tu­al knowl­edge lodged like a sed­i­men­ta­ry lay­er on the surface.

The Baron also pro­vid­ed metaphors con­cern­ing spir­i­tu­al prac­tices. Fif­teen min­utes of dai­ly spir­i­tu­al read­ing was like let­ting a very slow­ly dis­solv­ing lozenge melt imper­cep­ti­bly in your mouth.”8 This slow, med­i­ta­tive read­ing of the Psalms and Gospels, plus spir­i­tu­al clas­sics like Augustine’s Con­fes­sions and à Kem­p­is’ Imi­ta­tion of Christ was one of the Baron’s repeat­ed recommendations.

Anoth­er foun­da­tion­al image is von Hügel’s con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the three Ele­ments of Reli­gion: the Intel­lec­tu­al Ele­ment” (the­o­log­i­cal, ratio­nal), the Mys­ti­cal Ele­ment” (expe­ri­en­tial, devo­tion­al) and the Insti­tu­tion­al Ele­ment” (church involve­ment, sacra­ments, com­mu­ni­ty and tra­di­tion). Accord­ing to the Baron, all three Ele­ments are essen­tial for a bal­anced, rich spir­i­tu­al life; to omit one Ele­ment dimin­ish­es our response to God.

When Under­hill came to the Baron, she was an intel­lec­tu­al who had already pub­lished sev­er­al books and had mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences. Von Hügel imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized her weak­ness in the Insti­tu­tion­al Ele­ment,” so he encour­aged Under­hill into reg­u­lar church involve­ment, the Eucharist, vis­it­ing the poor and Chris­to­cen­tric devo­tion. Before Under­hill came under his spir­i­tu­al direc­tion, she’d had no per­son­al encounter with Christ. But she reflects, some­how by his prayers or some­thing, he com­pelled” me to expe­ri­ence Christ. It took about four months – it was like watch­ing the sun rise very slow­ly – and then sud­den­ly one knew what it was.”9 After­wards Holy Com­mu­nion became more and more won­der­ful. The Baron had empha­sized to Under­hill the impor­tance of the stim­u­la­tion of our sens­es for our spir­i­tu­al growth. Par­tak­ing of the Eucharist would awak­en her soul for it’s the basis of all real sanc­ti­ty.”10

We see echoes of the Baron in Underhill’s moth­er­hood of souls” through spir­i­tu­al direc­tion and retreat lead­ing. Underhill’s own neglect of church made her pas­sion­ate­ly encour­age her directees to become part of a wor­ship­ping com­mu­ni­ty so their devo­tion­al lives could be stead­ied.”11 Under­hill described the Eucharist as the heart” of Chris­t­ian wor­ship” so it was held each morn­ing on her retreats.12 Leisure­ly” med­i­ta­tion on the Psalms as dai­ly food” was also encour­aged.13 The Baron recog­nised silence as fun­da­men­tal” in the spir­i­tu­al life and stressed Under­hill learn inte­ri­or silence.”14 Under­hill came to view silence as the very heart” of her retreats and essen­tial to cut dis­trac­tions, enable inner still­ness and help retreatants hear God’s whis­per,” and attend” to what they usu­al­ly miss.15

When the Baron spoke of one torch light­ing anoth­er, he added, It is best to learn from oth­ers; it gives a touch of crea­ture­li­ness.”16 Crea­ture­li­ness was the term von Hügel used for authen­tic humil­i­ty – ful­ly recog­nis­ing our true size as tiny crea­tures before a mighty Cre­ator. This crea­ture­li­ness also reminds us to be hum­ble enough to learn from those who have gone before us. Our work is sim­ply a tiny con­tri­bu­tion in a long con­ver­sa­tion. We’re all just lit­tle — fel­low pil­grims, wor­ship­ping the same tri­une God who is majes­tic and Oth­er” and so wor­thy of our adoration.

So who might be the torch­es” vivid­ly enlight­en­ing our own lives? Phras­es from Under­hill and von Hügel’s let­ters and retreat talks keep res­onat­ing in me. Hav­ing stud­ied under Eugene Peter­son and cor­re­spond­ed with him over years, I find myself quot­ing from his writ­ings and mem­o­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with him when lec­tur­ing and lead­ing retreats. One torch lights anoth­er!” We are tru­ly sur­round­ed by a great Cloud of Wit­ness­es” — vibrant exam­ples of the life of faith who help us endure and run the race.

  1. Gwen­dolen Greene, ed. Let­ters from Baron Friedrich von Hügel to a Niece (Lon­don: Dent, 1927), xv. ↩︎
  2. Eugene Peter­son, Fore­word,” in The Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion of Eve­lyn Under­hill, Robyn Wrigley-Carr (Lon­don: SPCK, 2020), xv. ↩︎
  3. Charles Williams, ed. The Let­ters of Eve­lyn Under­hill (Lon­don: Long­mans, Green, 1943), 196. ↩︎
  4. Peter­son, Fore­word” in Spir­i­tu­al, x. ↩︎
  5. Greene, ed. Let­ters, xx. ↩︎
  6. Greene, ed. Let­ters, 4. ↩︎
  7. Mau­rice Ndon­celle, Baron Friedrich von Hügel: A Study of his Life and Thought (New York: Long­mans, 1937), 92 – 3. ↩︎
  8. MS VII.143.196a‑b, St Andrews Uni­ver­si­ty Library Spe­cial Collections. ↩︎
  9. Mar­garet Crop­per, The Life of Eve­lyn Under­hill (Wood­stock: Sky­lights Paths Pub­lish­ing, 2003), 102. ↩︎
  10. Greene, ed. Let­ters, 187. ↩︎
  11. Williams, ed. Let­ters, 165. ↩︎
  12. Eve­lyn Under­hill, Light of Christ (Lon­don: Long­mans, Green, 1944), 88. ↩︎
  13. Williams, ed. Let­ters, 182. ↩︎
  14. Greene, ed. Let­ters, 46, xx. ↩︎
  15. Eve­lyn Under­hill, The Ways of the Spir­it, ed. Grace Adolph­sen Brame (New York: Cross­road, 1994), 50; Under­hill, Light, 25. ↩︎
  16. Greene, ed. Let­ters, xv. ↩︎

Text First Published November 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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