A word from the Baron


One Christian ministry that is on the decline is the writing of ‘letters of direction’; the advent of the telephone and then digital media, as well as the trend for regular face-to-face meetings between director and directee have more or less killed this form of ministry. I struggle to envisage collections of someone’s ‘Spirituals E-mails’. Readers will be familiar with many renowned spiritual guides whose wisdom and practical advice reaches across the centuries from the printed page.

I still possess and read letters of direction sent to me; and occasionally I write one myself. This form of communication has the advantage of conveying considered and prayed-over advice – rather than the intuition of the moment. It can be very detailed, and may carry considerable weight of information and references. It has the distinct advantage of providing food for thought or prayer for as long as the recipient needs to refer to it. It has a different quality and rich possibilities.

I was reminded, reading a biography of Evelyn Underhill, that the first book on spirituality given to me at the age of fifteen was ‘Letters to a Niece’ by Friedrich von Hügel. Most of it sailed by me; but I remember the gentle tone, the compassion, and the down-to-earth advice. In 1921 Underhill asked von Hügel for direction. This consisted chiefly of her writing an ‘annual report’ and von Hügel replying in a long letter. At this point in her life, in her late forties, Underhill had a reputation as a teacher and guide in Christian spirituality; but she was pursued by doubts and confusions. Reading his guidance to her it felt as if he was writing to me – and that is the wonder of letters of this kind: the spiritual life throws up the same challenges and dynamics in all manner of people.

I would like to pass on two instructions he gave. The first was to instruct Underhill to give up two afternoons a week for work ‘with the poor’ – he added that she was to treat this as a priority. The second was to develop a ‘Catholic mind’. Although Underhill was a considerable authority of the western tradition of mysticism, and had edited some spiritual classic in the Catholic tradition, she still described herself as a ‘modernist’ and ‘not at all orthodox.’ The Baron advised her that she must carefully and prayerfully consider the historic claims of the Faith as set out in the Creeds. Underhill followed his advice.

The outcome for was that she moved from a Theocentric experience of God to a Christocentric one. Her approach to the New Testament and the Sacraments of the Church were deepened and vivified. Von Hügel had helped her ‘incarnate’ her spirituality, and to connect it to the saving work of God’s grace in history. Spirituality was given purpose within the mission of the Holy Spirit to fallen humanity. There is so much to be learned here for many now offering a ministry of spiritual guidance. Underhill was convinced that his prayers had brought her to know Christ in a dynamic way – and that is the greatest lesson of all.

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House