A Mystic for Moderns

Caryll Houselander and the art of suffering well
Caryll Houselander (Courtesy of Ave Maria Press)

Humiliation is a kind of wound, and that’s what I felt when it struck me. Browsing in a religious bookstore, I had stooped to inspect a lower shelf when the book fell on my head. A baby-blue volume, prettier and more delicate than you’d expect given its targeted leap from above. I put it back and was walking out of the store before I got perspective on my shame, and realized it was a sign, such as shouldn’t be ignored.

Only a month earlier, Easter 2004, I had been received into the Catholic Church, and I had never heard of Caryll Houselander. Apparently my guardian angel—or hers?—did not want to wait for a more natural occasion, like that described in an obituary fifty years earlier: “People foraging in the libraries of religious houses for a book that can be read without mortification in time of retreat will come across The Reed of God, browse in it, get lost in it, and search catalogues for years afterwards in search of a second-hand copy.” That was Ronald Knox, writing in the Tablet, singling out Houselander’s most recognizable work, a reflection on Marian spirituality. It’s been in print ever since, but Knox seemed to intuit that Houselander would remain, undeservedly, more obscure than some other mid-century British Catholic authors.

Houselander has been called a “divine eccentric,” an “apostle of loneliness,” and a “prophet of Vatican II.” Not a trained theologian but a natural spiritual writer, she drew on her artistic sense, mystical gifts, and a keen observation of suffering to develop a spirituality of Christocentric compassion. Soon after Vatican II, John De Loss wrote in the Catholic Herald Citizen:

Long before personalist theology became fashionable she was saying that she could somehow see Christ in the inmates of an insane asylum. Years before the open windows, she was writing that the big thing wrong with the Church was its faulty elevation of practice above witness. The Kingdom of God certainly needs its Rahners, Kungs, de Lubacs, etc. But somehow even more, it would seem, the Church needs a hundredfold the likes of Caryll Houselander.

Born in 1901, Houselander was Catholic not quite from the cradle but from age six—hence the title of her autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic (published in 1955, the year after she died of cancer). Young Caryll drifted away from the faith and did not return to the Church until 1925. Before then, her parents separated and she was sent to a convent school; in her teens she helped her mother (with whom she had a difficult relationship) run a boarding-house. After that was art school, with appropriately bohemian extracurriculars (most notably, an affair with Sidney Reilly, a celebrity spy more than twice her age). Houselander’s combination of creativity and worldly wisdom—the spark of poetic genius that helped her negotiate personal suffering—gave shape to her fervent love of Christ.

Houselander’s combination of creativity and worldly wisdom gave shape to her fervent love of Christ.

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.’”

“By suffering badly I add to the common burden,” Houselander wrote. “By suffering well I lighten it.”

The theme of guilt was not new. In This War Is the Passion she had written, “The only complexity about guilt is the fact that it is not the guilty but the innocent who are most humiliated by the sense of it. God knows, there is tragedy enough through the wrong sense of guilt, but there is surely a vocation also to feel guilty, to feel guilty for all those who are guilty and don’t feel it.” In that book too she had written about how gloomy, bitter people can reduce others’ happiness: “The way one suffers must make the world either sadder or happier, one or the other it must do. By suffering badly I add to the common burden, by suffering well I lighten it, and that only on the natural plane.”

The central argument of Guilt is to distinguish the ego-neurotic from the saint. Both experience suffering, but the one resists and fears it, while the other submits willingly. Willingness to suffer is “the key to natural happiness,” and a gateway to holiness: “Not the explanation of sanctity, but...the explanation of the sanity of the saints.” The ego-neurotic, by contrast, is confused about suffering and sanctity. Rather than integrating personality, opening to experience, and strengthening love, suffering gives the ego-neurotic an unbalanced personality, impoverished experience, and a weakened capacity to love. The tragic result of misreading suffering’s signal is to be “haunted by a deep inward humiliation...a profound doubt of [one’s] own potency as a human being.”

Clearly Houselander had met, and helped to heal, some profoundly wounded people, and she herself had experienced some of the crippling effects of “ego-neurosis.” As a spiritual poet, she even struck on a disarming but powerful image for the suffering soul: “At the heart of every fallen man there dwells a homing toad.” The homing toad is “a most moving animal, as beautiful as he is grotesque, and...a symbol of mankind.” No matter how far he is taken from home, he will struggle his way back, as the soul is always looking to be reunited with God.

Now man, however evil he becomes, however twisted and grotesque—however far away guilt takes him from God, from his home, the environment in which he can regain the true shape of his manhood—always reveals the struggle, innate in him, to get back. He really wants to be in the Light of God, in his proper home, and even in the twists and contortions that he goes through in his abnormalities, even in his insanities, it is obvious that he is striving, without his knowledge, even without his will, to get back.

With the image of the homing toad, Houselander seeks to tune the signal of suffering, invoking both admiration and pity, noble reverence and merciful compassion.

Another peculiar work which did not find great success was The Dry Wood (1947), Houselander’s one attempt at book-length fiction. It depicts a case of conspicuous holiness eliciting holiness in others, and not always in the most comfortable, expected, or respectable ways. In the novel, parishioners mourn a beloved priest and, hoping for his canonization, pray for his intercession to heal a young boy. This is less a plot than an excuse for a series of character vignettes. There are some fascinating figures and some delightful passages of dialogue, but overall the novel is didactic—a collection of spiritual reflections filtered through an imagined community. What holds it together is a thread of themes: loneliness and people’s longing for connection, and the surprisingly different manifestations of the “genius for love.” The character Donna Rosario might very well be speaking for Houselander (as do so many other characters): “The only answer to the mechanical masses is the saint, for the saint is the only true individual, and in him we see Christ, and see His values, not as something forced on us by school teachers, but as something to envy.”

This is a central Houselander motif: seeing Christ in others, which begins simply with seeing others as persons, suffering and struggling, as well as seeing our own sufferings as ways of sharing in the life of Christ. As one contemporary reviewer commented, Houselander “sees Christ in the saintly priest and in the guttersnipe.” And she had previously written in This War Is the Passion, “The great repression of our age is the repression of Christ in man.”

 

Houselander’s most successful book is in some ways more modest, simple, and unassuming than the others described here. The Reed of God includes the spiritual insights covered in her longer books, but its four parts are loosely organized around a Gospel or liturgical structure, reflecting Mary’s history with Christ. Each part consists of a few meditative chapters of varying length, and a poem or “rhythm,” a spiritual hymn.

The introduction lays out the rhetorical challenge Houselander perceives, that Mary seems hard for modern readers to approach: first, for her virginal purity, and second, because we know so few details of her life besides her relationship with Christ. How can normal people relate? Houselander seeks to portray Mary’s purity not as an impossible negation, but as a positive quality, a kind of fruitfulness and expression of love. And the lack of detail about Mary’s life makes her, for Houselander, more accessible, more universally relevant. “Each saint has his special work: one person’s work. But our Lady had to include in her vocation, in her life’s work, the essential thing that was to be hidden in every other vocation, in every life.” Mary “is not only human; she is humanity.” 

Houselander seeks to portray Mary’s purity not as an impossible negation, but as a positive quality, a kind of fruitfulness and expression of love.

Houselander thus takes the “unapproachable” objection and turns it on its head. Mary is the universally relatable saint, the answer to a problem Houselander would later describe in Guilt: “It need hardly be said that the diversity among the saints is without limit, for Christ wills to utter his love for men and to enter into communion with them through every possible kind of human creature. It follows that it would be very difficult to like all the saints.”

The title of the book comes from one of her three images of simple, receptive holiness: the chalice, worked into a container for precious drink; the bird’s nest, plain material lovingly gathered and shaped to nurture and shelter; and the reed pipe, whose hollowness is filled by the breath of music. So too, “wherever the Holy Spirit has desired to renew the face of the earth He has chosen to do so through communion with some humble little human creature.” And thus Christ can be born in us, as in Mary, drawing us into His symphony. “The history of the Incarnation is like a fugue, in which the love of God for the world is the ever-lasting motif.”

As in her first and last books, Houselander finds the most significant stumbling block to Christ to be fear, the remedy to which is trust in God. Such trust “will not set us free from suffering but will set us free from anxiety, hesitation, and above all from the fear of suffering.” Without such trust, suffering can make people irritable, bitter, even numb to others, “they even shrink from, and dread the very presence of, those who are compassionate and who care for them.”

The Reed of God is also attentive to the spiritual challenges of new social conditions. Unlike traditional craft, modern work is less commonly seen as a metaphor for the Christian life, as an occasion to conceive of Christ, an act of intimate creating. “The great tragedy that has resulted from modern methods of industry is that the creativeness of Advent has been left out of work.” So too, an emphasis on efficiency has deprived us from exercising another Advent virtue, patience: “We live in an age of impatience, an age which in everything, from learning the ABC to industry, tries to gut out and do away with the natural season of growth. That is why so much in our life is abortive.” The danger is that such habits make us misconceive God: “Obsession for the Presence of God” can be mixed with “real shrinking from the thought of Him.” She discusses sensitivity, self-pity, cruel criticism, anxiety, and self-imposed misery, all as growing from false idols. “Our conception of Christ makes us what we are.”

So how, we might ask, did Houselander conceive of Christ? As the model of willing suffering, and of compassion. Not coincidentally, also as one who taught with plain, well-conceived language: as an artist of speech. “Christ was a poet, and all through His life the Child remains perfect in Him. It was the poet, the unworldly poet, who was King of the invisible kingdom; the priests and rulers could not understand that. The poets understand it, and they, too are kings of the invisible kingdom, vassal kings of the Lord of Love, and their crowns are crowns of thorns indeed.”

Caryll Houselander became what she conceived Christ to be: a poet of great compassion. Should we also regard her as a saint? I’ll only say that, since my first Easter in the Church, I’ve been happy to read and reread her, to learn more about her, and to learn about Christ through her. And I have no trouble envisioning her as a queen in an invisible kingdom, powerful enough to push through the veil and tip some poetry off a shelf—the gentle force of Marian wisdom, for forming heart as much as head. 

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Joshua P. Hochschild is a professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University and co-author, with Christopher O. Blum, of A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia Institute Press).

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