Caryll Houselander (29 September 1901 – 12 October 1954) was a lay Roman Catholic ecclesiastical artist, mystic, popular religious writer and poet.
Several authors, including Maisie Ward in her 1962 biography Caryll Houselander: That Divine Eccentric, incorrectly state that Houselander was born on 29 October 1901 when, in fact, she was born on 29 September 1901 according to her birth certificate (cited in Andrew Cook, Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly, rev. ed., 2004, p. 319, n. 27) and her remark in A Rocking-Horse Catholic (cited below, p. 41) that she took the Confirmation name "of Michael after the Archangel on whose feast day I was born."
When Houselander was six, her mother converted to Roman Catholicism and she in turn was so baptised. Shortly after her ninth birthday, her parents separated and her mother opened a boarding house to support the family. Houselander was sent to a convent where she reported her first mystical experience. One day, she entered a room and saw a Bavarian nun sitting by herself, weeping and polishing shoes. At this time, there was much anti-German sentiment owing to the war. As she stared, she saw the nun's head being pressed down by a crown of thorns that she was to interpret as Christ's suffering in the woman.
In her teens, she returned home to help her mother in the running of the boarding house. Gertrude had allowed a priest to stay, and this became such a source of scandal that Houselander and her mother were ostracised by the community. This may have partly influenced her decision to leave the Catholic Church as a teenager, and may have contributed to a sense of isolation she would feel at times. This latter problem was reflected in panic attacks when entering rooms and meeting strangers, so much so that she was considered neurotic.
One night in July 1918, Houselander was sent by her mother on an errand. On her way to the street vendor, she looked up and saw what she later described as a huge Russian-style icon spread across the sky. The icon was of Christ crucified, lifted up and looking down, brooding over the world. Shortly after, she read in a newspaper an article about the assassination of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. She said the face she saw in the newspaper photograph was the face in her vision of the crucified Christ.
A third vision occurred when she was on a busy underground train. She suddenly saw Christ, living and rejoicing, suffering and dying, in each and everyone of the passengers. When she left the train, the mystical experience continued for several days, during which she became persuaded that the unity of life in Christ was the only solution to loneliness and the human condition.
Another experience involved one of her doctors, who had died but appeared and sat next to her on a bus, after which they conversed.
Later life and works
The three mystical experiences she claimed to have experienced convinced her that Christ is to be found in all people, even those whom the world shunned because they did not conform to certain standards of piety. She would write that if people looked for Christ in only the "saints," they would not find him. She herself smoked, drank, and had a sharp tongue.
Houselander returned to Catholic Church in 1925, but her spiritual reading was founded almost entirely on the Gospels, rather than the writings of the Church Fathers or official Church documents. She met and fell in love with Sidney Reilly, famous spy and the model for Ian Fleming's James Bond, but he left her broken-hearted when he married another woman. She would never marry.
Houselander was a prolific writer and contributed many pieces to religious magazines, such as the Messenger of the Sacred Heart and The Children's Messenger. Her first book, This War is the Passion, was published in 1941 and in it she placed the suffering of the individual and its meaning within the mystical Body of Christ. For a time, she became publisher Sheed & Ward's best selling writer, drawing praise from people such as Ronald Knox:
"she seemed to see everything for the first time, and the driest of doctrinal considerations shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it. And her writing was always natural; she seemed to find no difficulty in getting the right word; no, not merely the right word, the telling word, that left you gasping."
During the Second World War, doctors began sending patients to Houselander for counselling and therapy. Even though she lacked formal education in this area, she seemed to have a natural empathy for people in mental anguish and the talent for helping them to rebuild their world. A visitor once found her alone on the floor, apparently in great pain, which she attributed to her willingness to take on herself a great trial and temptation that was overwhelming another person. A psychiatrist, Eric Strauss, later President of the British Psychological Society, said of Houslander: "she loved them back to life... .she was a divine eccentric."
Houselander titled her autobiography A Rocking-Horse Catholic to differentiate herself from those termed "Cradle Catholics". She died of breast cancer in 1954, at the age of 53.
Love is most likely to spring from another's need for us, and the fact of spending ourselves for another always generates new life in us. To give life is the purpose of love, and we love those people most of all whose needs waken a response in us that floods us with creative energy, causing us to put out new green shoots of life.
Christ is among us His heart like a rose expanding within us . . .
God's will for you is to serve him, in his way, as he chooses now. It is only a want of humility to think of extreme vocations, like being a nun or a nurse, while you try to by-pass your present obvious vocation . . . Today you have to use what you have today, and do not look beyond it.
We go through life with dark forces within us and around us, haunted by the ghosts of repudiated terrors and embarrassments, assailed by devils, but we are also continually guided by invisible hands; our darkness is lit by many little flames, from night-lights to the stars. Those who are afraid to look into their own hearts know nothing of the light that shines in the darkness.
Prayer alone can teach us to concentrate again, can lead us to absolute trust in God, and make our minds ready for other essential things . . . for the contemplation (not mere observation) of beauty.
It seems a law of fallen nature that life must always come to its being through darkness, and this makes us even more aware of its beauty. Dawn is lovelier because it comes after night, spring because it follows winter.
To surrender all that we are, as we are, to the spirit of love in order that our lives may bear Christ into the world – that is what we shall be asked.
The beginning of human happiness, and even of human sanity, is to begin to know God . . . Goodness draws the human soul as a tide is drawn by light.
Lift up your eyes and see the star!
The one essential for sanctity is the capacity to love.
The one thing she [Mary] did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.
Sheed & Ward books:
- This War is the Passion (1941, republished by Ave Maria Press in 2008)
- The Reed of God (1944, republished by Ave Maria Press in 2008)
- The Splendor of the Rosary by Maisie Ward, prayers by Caryll Houselander (1945); Houselander's prayers reprinted in The Essential Rosary published by Sophia Institute Press (1996)
- The Flowering Tree (1945)
- The Dry Wood (1947)
- The Passion of the Infant Christ (1949)
- Guilt (1952)
- The Comforting of Christ (1954)
- A Rocking-Horse Catholic (1955)
- The Stations of the Cross (1955) illustrated with fourteen wood engravings by Houselander
- The Way of the Cross (1955); revised edition (inclusive language changes and use of a different Biblical translation for scriptural quotations) published by Liguori Publications (2002)
- Inside the Ark (1956)
- Terrible Farmer Timson and Other Stories (1957)
- The Risen Christ (1959); republished by Scepter Publications (2007)
- The Letters of Caryll Houselander: Her Spiritual Legacy (1965) Edited by Maisie Ward
- Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross: The Little Way of the Infant Jesus (October 1995, Sophia Institute Press)
Notes and references
Quotes are from the book "Eleven Modern Mystics" by Victor M. Parachin