Caryll Houselander: An Appreciation

In the midst of all the shouting it can be extremely difficult to hear the voices of spiritually powerful women who have come to terms with the Holy Mother Church. Such women have found in the Church, in their own femininity as well as in hers, a deep and satisfying sacramentality.  One such voice is that of the lay spiritual theologian Caryll Houselander.

Both her substantial corpus of writing and the particulars of her personal history provide a rich source of hope and encouragement for all who struggle with flawed family relationships, unfulfilled dreams, and personal disappointment — for these were her legacy. She became perhaps the most popular spiritual writer of her day, sought out for her guidance, and dearly loved by her intimates. Out of a mostly miserable childhood came a vision of redemption that continues to stun us into fresh awareness of possibility with its startling beauty, its hope and its humanity.

Frances Caryll Houselander was born October 29, 1901. She died of breast cancer October 12, 1954. By today’s standards she had a short, personally unfulfilling life and a tragically unnecessary death. From the very beginning things looked unpromising. She entered this world in such a physically precarious condition she was not expected to live and, indeed, she struggled with poor health throughout her life.

Born to a pair of attractive, extroverted and athletic parents ill-equipped to deal with a homely, introverted and artistically-sensitive child, throughout her childhood and adolescence Caryll endured protracted sieges of psychological and physical suffering. Caryll’s relationship with her mother was a particularly difficult one. Always impulsive and erratic, yet capable of great generosity on her own terms, Gertrude Houselander was the classic type of Englishwoman who could treat animals and assorted misfits with great tenderness and her own children with massive insensitivity. Ultimately, both Caryll’s parents were too eccentric and self-absorbed to live together successfully. They separated permanently when she was nine.

In consequence of this inauspicious set of circumstances, young Caryll Houselander entered adolescence more isolated than ever and painfully aware of her “oddness.” Had she been a less gifted person — she was, in fact, a mystic, a poet, and a woodcarver — she might well have ended up living the kind of lonely and impoverished existence that is the lot of so many eccentric souls.

Her spiritual teaching is a testament to the capacity of the human soul to wrest beauty and wisdom out of personal suffering, a witness to the power of grace to supply what is lacking in nature’s provision. Because she was an artist, Houselander’s teaching is infused with an intuition so strongly visual that it manifests itself as a kind of iconography. This extraordinary visual intuitiveness permitted her to write such vividly descriptive prose that it is impossible not to visualize what one reads in Houselander. More, perhaps, than any other spiritual writer of our time, she achieves the effect she desires by illustrating (rather than by telling us) what we need to know.

Like Julian of Norwich, whose teaching was also based on a singularly vivid series of visions, Caryll Houselander’s work has the same force of revelation. It is absolutely convincing because we can see what she is talking about. Her books and poems, like Julian’s visions, are showings. And what she saw everywhere, in every possible guise, in every conceivable condition of beauty or degradation, was Christ hidden within and imprinting himself upon matter: human matter.

Artists of every description have sensed this reality and based their vision on it. Far fewer have recognized that the human personality — even the human body — is also an “inscape” of Christ’s indwelling of the soul. Caryll Houselander was given the gift of seeing the invisible. It was given, first, in three remarkable and formative visions of Christ’s indwelling in man which she experienced in her youth and describes in her autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic. And it was given again, in the form of an unmistakable directive from Christ. In an undated letter to a friend she wrote “Last September Our Lord told me that He wished that I would look at Him much more in people, that He would like to be loved and reverenced more in people and ‘discovered’ … even in very unlikely people. He would like people to be told and shown “their glory” — which of course is Himself.”

We see the same directive reflected in a discussion of sanctity in Houselander’s major work: Guilt. Here she ruthlessly uncovers our resistance to seeing Christ in these “unlikely souls” and our embarrassment at the profligate diversity that exists in Christ’s chosen ones. “The average Englishman,” she writes,” requires a special grace to love Teresa Martin as she is; mercifully, he usually gets it.” The real scandal, she observes, is not that given by Teresa but “by Christ, for choosing to become Teresa Martin, because Teresa Martin had a suburban mind, and was true in every detail to what she was, a very sentimental little French bourgeoisie.” What shocks us is not “that Teresa wills to become Christ, but that Christ wills to become Teresa.

It is one thing to worship Christ as the perfection of human nature in the Incarnation. It is quite another to recognize and welcome him “in every kind of imperfect, unlikely, and — assessed by our own vanity — unsuitable human creature.” But, she insists, there is “no kind of person through whom Christ will not love the world.” In particular, he chooses to dwell within those from whom the “mediocre shrink … people in whom suffering is stripped naked in all its ugliness, and whose suffering cannot be cured by our charity…. Like the disciples in the garden we prefer to shut our eyes rather than to enter into this suffering without being able to hide or alleviate it.”

The cost of Houselander’s success as a spiritual writer was the end of her solitude. Needy people came seeking her time and attention, to the point where she was sometimes driven to escape out her back window. For a natural introvert, such a ministry was difficult; she found some of her admirers — especially the self-absorbed who sought endless amounts of sympathetic attention without wanting to make the necessary effort to change — a real trial.

There were others she was only too happy to help, particularly, emotionally wounded children. During World War II, Dr. Eric Strauss, a prominent psychologist and neurologist who later served as President of the Psychiatry Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, began sending her some of his young patients. Here is her description of the first such child sent to her: “Pedro has a mind like a beautiful valley almost hidden by a dark and shadowy twilight. In that twilight one hears the sound of tears and yet finds rare and isolated flowers growing, and these flowers have a positively sparkling brilliance.”

We can see here not only the sensitive vision of an artist — a poet — seeing beauty where others would simply see a problem, but also a creative and therefore a redemptive use of Caryll’s own sad history and childhood suffering. Maisie Ward, Caryll Houselander’s biographer, observes that although Caryll’s remarkable intuitiveness — her “sixth sense” — along with her long hours of prayer made this kind of spiritual insight and service a real possibility, these two elements alone were insufficient for her to be successful in the vocation for which Christ had prepared her; rather, she had to study, “to read psychology and grow in understanding of the human mind (especially the human mind off-balance), to read theology and grow in understanding of Christ’s revelation, to read above all the Gospels and meet Him in them.”

Like all true spiritual vocations, then, Caryll Houselander’s unique mission required the mundane expenditure of human effort to acquire an understanding of the reality of God, the world, and the human person; and this effort bore fruit in a collection of writings that are as fresh and arresting today as they were when they were first written. Taken together, they comprise a coherent, biblically and psychologically sound body of spiritual teaching. What is more, they are beautiful.

The spiritual teaching of Caryll Houselander provides a particularly vivid explication, first, of the doctrine of the Incarnation and, derivatively, of the unfolding of that primal doctrine in the mysterious interconnection of souls that we call the Mystical Body of Christ. Her spirituality is recognizably Pauline in essence and uniquely her own in its distinctive elaboration.

In the Passion of the Infant Christ, Houselander’s understanding of the bodily nature of our salvation flowers exquisitely. This work rests on an experience that came to this unmarried woman quite unexpectedly — sharing in the care of the infant granddaughter of her closest friend, Iris Wyndham. It was an experience she had not sought and had at first thought would be disastrous for her friend and a problem for herself as well.

The Eucharistic insight that Christ gives us “His life by means of His body” is elaborated here through Houselander’s own direct contact with the physical needs of this tiny child. Our absolute need to surrender to God, which is so agonizingly difficult for us as adults, is supplied by our encounter with infancy. This surrender, she claims, becomes not only possible but incredibly attractive, for “it was by the helplessness of His infant body that Christ first won human love, by His necessities that He bound his first lovers to Him.”

The coming of any infant into our lives confronts us with the need to give. This need, which is profounder than we realize, usually presents itself in terms of the question: “What gift should I give this child?” What she learned from experience, apparently quickly, was that only one gift is acceptable to an infant: “When he is born, he rejects every gift that is not the gift of self; everything that is not disinterested love, objective love without conscious self-interest, is as near to perfection as anything human can be.”

Those of us who have, with our own children, resisted this total surrender as unfair and too costly know instantly the demand she is describing. It is implacable, and our efforts to fob something less costly off on our children are always bitterly resented. The insights of modern psychology affirm that our compromises in this respect do not ultimately succeed. Both we and our children pay for it in the end.

The experience of being “indwelt” — of providing physical hospitality for a life not one’s own — is precisely what the female body is designed for. The womb is the tabernacle in which the developing and sacred life of the unborn child is nurtured. The experience of pregnancy, which most women seek because they actually physically hunger for it — is almost always recognized by women as the mystery that it is, even when they choose abortion; but as a result of denial, their recognition of this mystery is necessarily suppressed and delayed. Yet it comes eventually in the form of post-abortion suffering, so often described not merely as sadness and remorse but as a kind of haunting.

Strangest of all, in light of this instinctive feminine knowledge of the mystery within, is the intentional embrace of barrenness — through contraception or sterilization — that a woman makes for the sake of her career. Scripture recognizes barrenness as a curse for woman, an unnatural state, a life-long sorrow. Today, one of the fruits of feminism in this country is a large number of professionally successful but sorrowing middle-aged women who learned, too late, that childbearing cannot be postponed indefinitely.

With Houselander we see that neither celibacy nor physical barrenness need be an obstacle to fruitful mothering. Therefore, all women — in whatever state of life — can take heart and hope in her spiritual teaching; for she saw, where the rest of us can only trust, that the other, the “little one” is within; that the growth of the infant grace in our own souls requires “mothering.” The same conditions required for a biological pregnancy obtain in relation to the implantation of sanctifying grace in each one of us: a receptivity that has the quality of virginal emptiness; the fertility that springs from desire; freely-given consent; the overshadowing from something, Someone beyond required for conception; a long and hidden gestation; and painful but efficacious labor pains.

What we bring forth, initially, is small and vulnerable; but if we supply its basic necessities it will grow into something that is destined to “mystify” us because it exceeds all expectation. Just as our own offspring eventually loom over us and leave our domain to create lives and families of their own, the spiritual mystery we give birth to will eventually surpass us, move out beyond us, and reach further than we could hope to reach ourselves. The divine life taking flesh within us has the potential to surprise both us and the world.

It is, in fact, God made man that sacramentalizes not only all matter but maternity itself. It is the incarnation of God that makes possible the priesthood as we know it. Because the Word has become flesh, bread and wine can become the enfleshed Word, and the binding of Christ in the Eucharist makes everyone, says Houselander, a “priest” because “everyone can offer the Body of Christ on the altar of his own life. But the offering must be the offering of a human being who is intensely alive, a potent humanness, great sorrow and great joy, a life lit up with the flame of Love, fierce fasts and thirsts and feasts of sheer joy.”

My own immersion in the intensely sacramental vision of Caryll Houselander, who is indeed a spiritual mother with a distinctive teaching worthy of being transmitted to future generations, has resulted in an intuition, still in the earliest stages of gestation, that the most satisfying solution for women who feel unfulfilled in the Church is not ordination to the priesthood but a much more public and cultic recognition of the innately sacramental act of conceiving and giving birth, in both the biological and spiritual senses. As with the sacraments, we can claim that the Lord has sanctified this act through his own participation in it. Since the waters with which we baptize have been made holy by virtue of Christ’s own immersion in the waters of the Jordan, so can we know that the waters of the womb have also been sanctified by his nine-month sojourn in them.


  • Robin Maas

    At the time this article was published, Robin Maas taught spirituality and catechetics at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and at Wesley Theological Seminary, both in Washington, D.C.

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