Be gentle, especially when sharing the Faith

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Friedrich von Hügel
Friedrich von Hügel. Public Domain

Some Catholics seem always to feel they know exactly what you and everyone else ought to do. They may be right, or mostly right, but they act like drill sergeants when we need coaches and guides, as judges when we need friends.

I have been that person, as have a good many of the people I know. Over time, I learned better, partly from life teaching me how little I knew about other people.

I also learned from people who taught and corrected gently, careful not to push too hard, who let people learn at their own pace, and to invite people in rather than shove them through the door or drag them inside. They had a destination for you but no deadline, and were happy to walk with you but weren’t going to force you to come along with them.

The early 20th century scholar Friedrich von Hügel is a supreme example of this. Almost everything he wrote expressed his desire to encourage people and a sensitivity to the ways they can be discouraged. His way of guiding people can be seen clearly in his wonderful book of intellectual and spiritual direction, “Letters to a Niece,” and in some of the letters in his “Selected Letters” (others are more scholarly).

Here are a few examples from the first book. I could give dozens more.

Grow slowly

Hügel urged people to grow slowly, and not to feel they had to get everything as quickly as possible. In the spiritual life, he told Gwendolyn, “our ideal must be, in and for the long run — a genial, gentle, leisurely expansion.”

He told her to let his own instructions “simmer in your heart and to get them to bloom into action or habit. … Such things ought always to feel, at first, as just a size or two too big for us — as what stimulates us to a further growth and expansion.”

This applied to spiritual reading. Read “to feed the heart, to fortify the will — to put these into contact with God,” he told her. Avoid all criticism, not by forcing herself to agree, but “by a gentle passing by, by an instinctive ignoring of what does not suit one’s soul. … During such reading, we are out simply and solely to feed our own poor soul, such as it is here and now.”

We don’t know what we’ll need later. “What repels or confuses us now, may be the food of angels; it may even still become the light to our own poor soul’s dimness. We must exclude none of such possibilities. ‘The infant crying for the light’ has nothing to do with more than just humbly finding, and then using the little light that it requires.”

Don’t pile on austerities

Writing her just before Ash Wednesday, he warns her against taking up too many austerities, but to grow through the trials she has. “You have so many trials sent you by God, Dearie — your headaches, housework (when considerable), money anxieties and bigger trials still, that I suspect the trying to meet and utilise all this extra well during the forty days will be all, and quite enough, for you.”

He had the same gentleness in his advice about confession: “Give yourself not more than fifteen minutes at most of quiet, leisurely, circumspect, warm and loving preparation — gently recalling the situations in which you have been since last confession: all this after, of course, asking Our Lord to give you light and love for seeing.”

He continued: “If anything then pricks you — keep that for your confession, always confessing first whatever may be most difficult to confess, then make a gentle, quiet, firm, but not straining, act of contrition. And after all this no deliberate recurrence to the subject.”

Never brood

Even when he’s indirectly criticizing, Hügel does it kindly. “I hope you will never become scrupulous,” he warned his niece. “It is a bad thing all round, a morbid conscientiousness and brooding. Never brood, brooding is a waste of growth.” He could be firm with her, though still kind, as when he corrected her snobbery.

He had found this way of teaching from deep pain. He had pushed his daughter Gertrude too hard and “put out my True’s spiritual eyes,” had “bereft her for years of all faith — or at least of all peace, of all conscious faith.”

She returned to the Faith before she died, but he had learned to be gentle. He told Gwendolyn: “My chief prayer has been that I might never strain, never complicate, never perplex you, and that in a Fénelon-like self-oblivion I might just simply help and feed and carry you, if and when and where you required it — to let God lead.” 

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.