A series of vivid visions in young adulthood gave Houselander the experience of seeing Christ first in another person, then reigning over the world, and finally in everyone. Maisie Ward, who became a friend and published a biography of Houselander (1962) and a collection of her letters (1965), reported that she had other mystical experiences, and also describes matter-of-factly Houselander’s “curious powers,” or “extra-sensory perceptions”—including the ability to discern character from handwriting, to find lost objects, and to predict when friends needed help. Friends claimed to experience her presence at key times, and once she was brought Communion after a stubborn sacristan was persuasively petitioned by her brother; Houselander, who didn’t have a brother, attributed it to angelic intercession.
Individuals have prayed for her canonization, though there seems to be no official cause. Despite the value of Ward’s friendly account, Houselander’s life still lacks a properly authoritative study. The scholar Margot King, who died in 2018, left an unfinished manuscript biography and collected materials, drawing on years of research and multiple interviews with Houselander’s acquaintances. When made available by her estate, it will no doubt be invaluable to future researchers.
Certainly no proper biography would treat Houselander the way the dust jacket of her first book did in 1941: “This little English girl writes like some saint out of older ages.” Almost the opposite was true, but this bad piece of advertising copy does suggest how unready the world was for Houselander’s voice. Houselander was a girl during the Great War, but by the start of World War II she was in her late thirties, and the book takes on the distinctive scale and character of suffering in modern wartime.
Originally a series of essays for The Grail, and collected by Ward and Frank Sheed as This War is the Passion, her first book became a bestseller. Bernard Lonergan called it “calm eyed, deft, exact” and found in it “a flame as practical as an acetylene torch, as realistic as the soul of a young woman who meets the challenge of her life and day without blinkers.” Lonergan believed it would endure: “Its repeated flashes of spiritual insight transcend the movement from which it sprang and the circumstances under which it was written.” Indeed this war-time book still seems remarkably relevant today, when global interdependence has only intensified the spiritual challenges of loneliness and alienation Houselander attributed to the threat of air raids in 1939: “It is now forbidden to assemble big crowds of people together.” And here is Houselander on the “wound” of boredom: “At the present time boredom has assumed huge proportions.... Everything for years has contributed to it; the books on the market, the pictures, the cinema, the conversation, the penny press, and the whole vibrating atmosphere of hysteria which must arise from the sum total of it.” Hasn’t “the whole vibrating atmosphere of hysteria” of frenetic media only intensified over seven decades?
Houselander always considers suffering a signal, an occasion to hope: “Out of the chaos and confusion of modern life the contemplative eye will gradually discern wound after wound on the mystical Body of Christ, pleading with God.” Suffering reminds us who we are. “To try to avoid suffering is useless, for the seed of it is in the human heart.” Even short of imitating Christ, it seems normal on a natural level to embrace an art of suffering well as a central life skill: “If it is useless to avoid, or to try to avoid, suffering, if suffer we must, it seems at least as reasonable to do it well as it is to speak well or to walk or sleep well.”
Ward described some of the telling features of Houselander’s style: “Humor and profundity, humility and cheerful self-contempt, a touch of cynicism.” Sheed said “she wrote the plainest prose, deeply emotional, totally unsentimental.” This short passage from a letter conveys her voice well: “Holy people insist that Prudence is the ‘queen of the virtues.’ I doubt it, subject of course to correction, but if Prudence does hold that position, then I would prefer to discover a charwoman among the virtues and consort with her.” The turns and tone here capture so much of what readers admire in Houselander’s prose. On the one hand, there is theological literacy, but a willingness to resist convention for the sake of making a point. Then there is humility, mixed with boldness—the image of consorting with a charwoman is at once a gentle joke and a firm rebuke. Behind all that is the unmistakable voice of a plain-speaking, strong-willed woman who is comfortable with herself. Many readers encounter in Houselander’s sentences the experience she describes, in a letter from 1935, of encountering God’s mystery: “Like putting out your hand in the dark and finding someone else’s hand stretched out to you, and somehow knowing that this is the hand of one you love.”
Houselander believed her vocation would be as an artist, and she had great talent as an illustrator and woodcarver, mostly for churches, though she also found work painting lampshades. She may also be counted as an early practitioner of art therapy. Still, it would be through writing that she most fully digested her experience and taught others. Before 1941 she contributed art and stories to some children’s magazines, but most of her writing would appear in the fourteen years between the publication of her first book in 1941 and her death in 1954. She published spiritual reflections, a novel, a dense work of theological psychology, and even some poems or “rhythms” (several of which are included in The Reed of God). Even counting some material published posthumously, her writing career essentially starts with World War II and ends before Vatican II.
The last book published in her lifetime is also her most dense and ambitious. Guilt (1951) grew out of her correspondence with Ward and reflects on her work with psychiatric patients, in cooperation with the psychologist Eric Strauss. Drawing on Houselander’s prayerful clinical experience, processed through the theories of Carl Jung, the book is an odd hybrid of modern psychology and classical spiritual discipline. Guilt also draws on Houselander’s own deep suffering. She does not shy from referring to herself as bearing psychic wounds, as “neurotic” and “hysterical.” The terms are dated (and gendered), but Houselander was prone to anxiety, depression, insecurity, and panic attacks. At the same time, she was able to distinguish her own healthy and unhealthy responses to psychological pain.
Unsurprisingly, Guilt had trouble finding an audience. The Dominican Victor White gave it a condescending, ungenerous review in Blackfriars in 1952, accusing Houselander of “wrapping the bitter pill of religion in the sugar-coating of psychological jargon” and warning that it’s “highly emotive religious language” could “add untold misery to suffering souls.” The Jesuit Michael Sweetman gave Guilt fairer treatment in the Irish Monthly. Acknowledging that it was “not a book for the immature” and that “it may seem morbidly introspective,” he still thought it was “an optimistic and encouraging book” and praised “the wide sweep and penetration of her vision.”
The central idea of Guilt is one that Houselander had explored in almost all her previous writing: the spiritual significance of psychological suffering, especially that suffering made acute in modern life. Here the focus is on a particular “disease of the soul” she calls “ego-neurosis,” and the risk she took is that Christian spirituality can address problems that scientific psychology has helped to identify: “The whole object of this book is to show that it is man’s destiny to be ‘a Christ.’”