Five Insights on Death and Dying From Friedrich von Hugel

Friedrich von Hugel was one of the great but now mostly unknown Catholic writers of the early twentieth century, and also one of the last barons of the Holy Roman Empire. A man of wide friendships and intellectual sympathies, and widely influential, he was notably concerned with religious experience and the relation of experience to the Church and her dogma. Born in Florence, he moved to England in 1876 and became an English citizen in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I. He died in 1925. His most influential book was a careful two-volume study The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends. Yeats even mentioned him in his poem “Vacillation.”

The insights are taken from his Letters to a Niece, a book of intellectual and spiritual guidance in letters to his niece Gwendolyn Greene. Just before his own death, she writes in the introduction, her uncle said, “I wait for the breath of God, for God’s breath. Perhaps he will call me to-day, to-night. Don’t let us be niggardly towards God. He is never a niggard towards us. Let us try to be generous and accept. My illness is so little! I have no pain. My brain is clear. Why should I not accept this generously? I would like to finish my book but if not, I shall live it out in the Beyond.”


Be faithful, and He will sweeten to you, in the long run, all things, even bitter death itself.

I too am overwhelmed with work. And your and my work is just the same, if we learn to do it simply for God, simply as, here and now, the one means of growing in love for Him. To-day it is cooking, scrubbing; to-morrow it may be utterly different: death itself will come in due time, but, before it, still many a joy and many a training. We will gently practice a genial concentration upon just the one thing picked out for us by God. How this helps! How greatly we add to our crosses by being cross with them! More than half our life goes in weeping for things other than those sent us. Yet it is these things, as sent, and when willed and at last loved as sent, that train us for Home, that can form a spiritual Home for us even here and now.

Religion has never made me happy. Religion has never made me comfy. All deepened life is deepened suffering, deepened dreariness, deepened joy. Suffering and joy. The final note of religion is joy. Suffering teaches; life teaches. Don’t weaken love; never violate it. Love and joy are your way. Be very humble, it’s the only thing. Be always faithful. You will find you would rather lose life itself than this [spiritual] life. Apres tout, the last act in life is devotion — devotion in death. I like that.

Die without a breath of grievance. Religion makes this possible, men have less the spirit of grievance.

Drop things; always keep on dropping and dropping. My religion, my illness, suffering, and life have taught me that. Always drop things. Don’t chatter to yourself — you can’t hear God if you do. I would like you to learn from St. Catherine of Genoa the point of always attending to but one thing at a time. This one action or suffering, joy or renunciation, being at that moment the one will of God and the one means of pleasing Him and of attaining true growth in oneself. It is the trait d’union with God. Goethe’s mother, when she was dying, sent down a message to a caller that she could not see her as she was occupied in dying. “I am busy with death.” That’s right. So I hope too to turn to death, busy with that, one thing at a time.


The quotes have been slightly trimmed and simplified, since von Hugel wrote English in a somewhat German way. You can find the text of Letters to a Niece here

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