This week I read a collection of letters I had long heard about but had never read, Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s Letters to a Niece. These were letters written between 1918 and 1924 by the elderly scholar von Hugel to his niece (no surprise) Gwendolyn Greene, who was looking for spiritual guidance. In the letters, he gives his “Gwen-child” his advice on everything from what books to read (and how many times to read them!) to how she should manage prioritizing her daily activities: raising her children, playing her violin, prayer-time, reading, and so on.
The collection is quite a treasure to read through in its entirety. As an avid reader (and book-buyer) I appreciated and was amused by the Baron’s repeated practice during the season of lent: “I am again cutting myself off from buying any books for myself till after Easter.” But there are also particular letters on specific subjects that are enormously suggestive for how to look at our lifelong journey with Christ.
In a letter from April 1920, von Hugel responds to a question from his niece about “the stress of dryness and darkness, and what to do then.” He shares with her three images that he has carried with him through his Christian life which he has found helpful in handling the dry and dark times:
First, he compares the Christian life to the activity of a mountain climber. “I would be climbing a mountain where, off and on, I might be enveloped in mist for days on end, unable to see a foot before me.” He also reflects on the way expert mountain climbers scale these heights: “they have a quiet, regular, short step—on the level it looks petty; but then this step they keep up, on and on, as they ascend.” The implication for Christian living is clear: Christian life is more about a succession of small but steady steps in following the Lord rather than an unbroken string of big leaps. Mountain climbers who take impressive steps at the beginning of their journey never make it very far. The Bible echoes this advice, reminding us that we don’t get up the mountain by our own strength: “I lift my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD.” (Psalm 121:1-2)
Second, he says, we can think of ourselves as “taking a long journey on board ship, with great storms pretty sure ahead of me… I must now select, and fix in my little cabin, some few and entirely appropriate things—a small trunk fixed up at one end, a chair that would keep its position, tumbler and glass that would do ditto… So would my spirituality have to be chosen and cultivated especially in view of ‘dirty’ weather.” A life too weighed down with extraneous things is going to be ravaged by the storms that will inevitably come, but keeping those few things that are really worth holding onto (and able to be held onto) will serve us very well. We live in a time when everyone is trying to do everything at once. One thing at a time, and the right things, would be a good way to keep our life fixed to the Lord.
Finally, he considers life to be like a camel-back journey through a desert, often calm and free of sandstorms, but at times blown wildly by “hurricanes of wind…unforeseen, tremendous.” Here he counsels the importance of stopping and placing our lives completely at God’s mercy, waiting on him. I’ll quote this last part at length:
What to do then? It is very simple, but it takes much practice to do well at all. Dismount from the camel, fall prostrate face downwards on the sand, covering your head with your cloak. And lie thus, an hour, three hours, half a day: the sandstorm will go, and you will arise, and continue your journey as if nothing had happened. The old Uncle has had many, many such sandstorms. How immensely useful they are!
In all of these circumstances, von Hugel says, the key is not to react in desperation. Wait out the storms, be resigned to difficulty, be meek, and trust that God will hold us and that soon enough the storm will pass. We sometimes think it’s all about us holding on to God, when “it is far, far more God who must hold us.” As the apostle Paul heard the Lord say to him when his trials didn’t just disappear: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”