Francis Phillips reviews
Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings

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Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings. Ed.Wendy M. Wright, Alban Books. £9.99

This book, which is in a series of modern spiritual masters, draws attention to one of the oddest yet most readable of latter day mystics. Houselander, 1901-1954, has always had a small band of devoted readers; indeed, once discovered the experience is unforgettable. This is because she writes with an electrifying directness and simplicity.

Ronald Knox observed, “She seems to see everything for the first time”, and those who encounter her are drawn into this freshness and immediacy of vision. Everything she wrote was a variation on one overarching theme: the “Christing” of the world. She saw Christ in everyone; indeed, as she describes in A Rocking Horse Catholic, her autobiography which was published posthumously, she experienced three extraordinary “visions” of Christ in her youth which were to influence all she later wrote.

The first was the sight of a sad German lay-sister at her boarding school during the Great War, seemingly with a crown of thorns on her head; the second was a premonition of the assassination of the Tsar which showed the passion of Christ’s kingship; and the last, which inexplicably lasted for several days and which occurred in the London underground, showed her the suffering saviour in everyone she saw around her, good or bad. She wrote later, “Reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.”

For Houselander the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ was a palpable reality; she intuitively recognised the profound spiritual interconnectedness of people and saw that this oneness in Christ was the “only cure for human loneliness.” Like all true mystics, she possessed an inner joy that the often sad circumstances of her life could not dispel; Catholicism, she wrote, is something “infinitely more than a vast penitentiary; it is the source of all the wonder and poetry and beauty of life.”

A gifted wood-carver and artist – especially of the Stations of the Cross – as well as writer, Houselander was unconventional in her appearance and behaviour. In her lonely youth, having lapsed from her faith and having been rejected by the great love of her life, she cultivated a certain singularity though this was hardly necessary, for the title of Maisie Ward’s biography, That Divine Eccentric, neatly sums her up. She was tiny, with vivid red hair, cut short with a fringe; she chain-smoked, wore purple smocks and was fond of plastering her face with a heavy white powder; she also had a keen sense of humour, loved to dance and enjoyed a stiff drink. Maisie Ward once recalled a pious person admonishing Houselander not to “do anything Our Lady would not do”. “As she could not imagine Our Lady doing any of the things in which she delighted – such as…sucking two bull’s eyes at once or turning somersaults – she faced a blank future shackled with respectability.”

When she realised she was dying of cancer, Houselander wrote to Frank Sheed and Maisie, her friends and publishers, announcing that the prospect of death “does not lead me to wish to lead a better life…it only makes me determined to lead a happier one, while I can…”

During her life she had great influence in unexpected ways and with her keen insight helped many people who had spiritual or psychological problems. Such experiences caused her to remark, “We prefer a thousand times to think of ourselves as neurotics, even as psychotics, rather than as responsible human beings, carrying the burden of sin.” Today, when bookshelves are awash with volumes of ‘spirituality’ and when people, unaware that they are “indwelt by Christ”, flee from the thought of suffering and death, her voice is a tonic: wise, perceptive, original.

© 2006 Francis Phillips

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