Thursday, October 20, 2011


Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) was a British mystic, poet and spiritual teacher who wore a pair of big round tortoiseshell glasses, and lived in London during the Blitz, and her whole life, till she died at 53 from breast cancer, apparently barely slept or ate. A friend observed: “She used to cover her face with some abominable chalky-white substance which gave it quite often a the tragic look one associates with clowns and great comedians.”

From the dustjacket of her 1951 book Guilt: “Caryll Houselander lives on the top floor of a high apartment building. Her rooms are color-washed, bare but for the essential furniture, many books, and two or three gleaming ikons: the windows look out on a view of the city. As well as writing, Miss Houselander’s interests include working with children, wood carving, drawing and painting, and the study of Jungian psychology, Hebrew, and Russian spirituality.”

How can you not want to meet this woman?

Guilt has several short (3-4 page) reflections, plus grainy black-and-white  pulsatingly weird head shots of, among others, Leopold and Loeb, Peter Kürten  (the Monster of Düsseldorf), Hans Christian Andersen, Rimbaud, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Rilke, who according to Caryll, did not fulfill his potential, neglected his wife and daughter, and turned into a mooch of rich dowager benefactresses to whom he could, eventually, no longer deign to speak, merits no photo at all. Kafka’s photo is heartbreaking. He’s probably 4, and has been dressed in a vaguely military velvet pantsuit. In his left hand he clutches a broad-brimmed hat many sizes too large for his head, in his right he carries a kind of plume-topped baton, and he has been made to stand before one of those dreadful aspidistra-draped Victorian backdrops. His little feet are smartly shod in pumps with grosgrain bows, one tiny elbow rests awkwardly on a plant stand,  his hair is neatly parted in the middle, exactly as it is in that photo on the front of Collected Letters where he looks uncannily like an insect, and the eyes—the eyes whose depths are already suffused with the pain of the ineffective mother and the father who all his life he would loathe, fear, resent and adore—plead mutely, desperately, without hope, for help.

Caryll swore, drank, had an affinity for wounded children (her own childhood was nightmarish), was a Catholic convert, and wrote many books on spirituality, among them The Reed of God, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, and The Risen Christ.

"[Christ] did not teach in terms of right and wrong, but of joy and sorrow. Blessed…joyful, are the poor in spirit; woe, sorrow, to you rich. The only answer to the mechanical masses [i.e. the attractive, healthy, energetic, let’s-get-things-done folks] 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.
Take St. Francis of Assisi, whom the whole world, not Catholics only, thinks of in connection with poverty. He lived in an age as worldly as ours; times change, but human nature never. St. Francis changed the outlook and the lives of countless people, not by scolding them, but by showing them, not by being a reformer, but by being a poor little man in love with all created loveliness. The reason is so simple: he reflected on Christ, on whom his eyes were fixed; and when he lifted up his arms in ecstasy to receive his Lord’s wounds in his own body, the shadow that he cast on the white roads of Italy was the cruciform shadow of Christ."

--Caryll Houselander, from the novel The Dry Wood:

"[The grain of wheat] must be buried in earth, that is, in us, who are made from the earth. The seed of Christ is not buried in angels, but in men. It is to flower and bear fruit through human experience: through our loves, our work, our sorrows, our joys, our temptations. It is to be literally our living and our dying.
We are the soil of the divine seed; there is no other. The flowering of Christ in us does not depend upon pious exercises, on good works outside our daily life, on an amateur practice of religion in our leisure time. It is in the marrow of our bones, in the experience of our daily life.
The seed is in darkness: the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of faith."
--Caryll Houselander, from I don't know where


From That Divine Eccentric, Maisie Ward's autobiography of Houselander:*

"The sure cure for bitterness, Caryll comments, is to pray and do penance for the person: love will grow in proportion. “It is not according to how much penance I do or how many prayers I say, but how much love I put into it.”

In a little country church she heard a priest preach on the Eucharist—and his teaching seemed somehow the more memorable because he was hideously ugly—resembling, said Caryll, “a florid pig.” He died a few weeks later. “Between the sermon and his death I was one day talking to him. I was running someone down, saying beastly things of him. Suddenly I noticed that his eyes were shut. “You are not listening,’ I said. He replied, ‘I cannot—not to that; you see we are both present at the Mass. Whilst you were trying to make me think ill of X, Christ our Lord was offering Himself up to God to redeem them’”

“But we are not at Mass,” I said…and he said, “When your thoughts are hard or bitter or sad, let the sanctuary bell silence them. It is always ringing.”

“When you have done something really healing,” she wrote to a friend, “it happens so often that the only way you know it at first is by your own feeling of emptiness. Even Our Lord experienced this; when the woman who touched the hem of His garment was healed, He knew it by the sense of something having gone out of Him, an emptying ‘[power] has gone out of Me.’

It is the same for His followers—we know the moment of healing, not yet evident, not by exaltation and triumph but by emptiness and a sense of failure! That demands huge faith, but you have it!”

By the “huge faith” required of us she meant the faith that we can throw ourselves totally on Christ. But even He needed to pray to His Father in a desert place apart; to commune with His special friends, His Apostles; to leave the crowd that thronged and pressed around Him for their healing—and from curiosity. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body we owe to our fellows what help we can give them, but we do not owe to them neglect of our work, or our prayer, of others who may need us more. We do not owe our time to those who want merely to waste it. If Caryll had attempted to help everybody who came, she would have ended by helping nobody."

* Apparently That Divine Eccentric  is out of print. I first checked it out of the L.A. Public Library, then last year the very kind Tom Sullivan of NYC gave me a paperback, red cover, published by Sheed and Ward (London) (Maisie Ward was married to Frank Sheed; together, they formed Sheed and Ward), copyright 1962.


  1. Yes! I've been thinking of Caryll Houselander lately, so it's remarkably well-timed that you should be blogging about her! I mislaid my copy of The Reed of God about a hundred years ago, but fortunately it's still in print (I think).

    One of the things I remember about Reed: Houselander says that one should approach notorious sinners (especially but not exclusively baptized sinners) with the same reverence with which one would approach the Holy Sepulchre, because in a soul which has disgraced himself, the dead Christ sleeps, awaiting Resurrection! Marvellous!

    Also, I recently made an Amazon "Listmania" list of books by "Really Cool Catholic Women" -- and there were titles by (or about) Caryll Houselander, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Sister Thea Bowman, Jessica Powers (a Carmelite nun and poet known in religion as Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit), Dame Edith Sitwell, Sister Miriam Pollard, Wendy M. Wright, and the author of Shirt of Flame. (I omitted Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor, not because I doubt their truly vital importance, but because I am culpably unfamiliar with their books!)

    I think I will read Guilt on your recommendation -- I'm certain my library network has at least one copy. Thanks again for the reminder of the divinely induplicable singularity of the supremely gifted Miss Houselander!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post, Heather. I am currently reading "The Reed of God," and find it is not so much read as turned best into Lectio.

  3. I discovered Caryll Houselander a couple of years ago and read 'The Reed of God' for my Advent reading. I feel very proud that she's English!
    I will have to look out some of those other titles.
    Thanks for the reminder Heather!

  4. Interesting. I've read some of Houselander's work, but knew nothing of her life. More to add to my to-read pile. ;)

  5. A white powder all over her face, huh? That is so not surprising. I love what a weirdo Caryll was.

  6. Heather, thank you for this post!!!! I adore Caryll Houselander-she is absolutely my favorite! The Reed of God is brilliant, as well as The Passion of the Infant Christ. Your quotes in this post are all new to me. I think I'm going to have to carry the one about the sanctuary bells ringing in my heart forever-it's a gem!

  7. I love Caryll Houselander. I nominate her and you as "really cool Catholic women".

  8. Thanks, Heather, for writing about Caryll. Here is how I heard of her, just nine days ago:

    On Oct. 11, I was several chapters into reading your "Redeemed". I had just covered the chapter on your mammogram, cancer dx, and good outcome, but was acutely paying attention to all the things you said about your emotions as you were dealing with the call back for more tests.

    On Oct. 12, *I* was sitting at the breast health center so they could get "a little more information" after a routine mammogram just the week before. There I finished up your book while waiting for them to do the second round of images. Then, sitting in my white robe waiting to be called in for the radiologist's report, I turned to the October 12th in "Give Us This Day". Caryll was the focus of the "Blessed of God" reading for that day. The last sentence, "she died of breast cancer", hit me a little hard, to say the least. I wondered if this was going to be a foreshadowing for me.

    You can only imagine my sense of relief upon hearing, "Normal! go home! Come back in a year for your regular mammogram." I was thanking God all the way home- and many, many times since then.

    I really look foreward to becoming better acquainted with Caryll Houselander. Meeting her piggybacked onto "Redeemed" will forever link you two together for me.

    No small coincidence that here you are, presenting her to all of us today. God's perfect timing!

    God bless you.

    1. And that you were thinking of her and going through this trial on the day Caryll died!! A Divine coincidence? Bless you

    2. Why am I just seeing these two comments now?! Anyway, I'm so glad you're okay, Mary Beth (though I know you were writing a few years ago). And Caryll Houselander becomes an ever closer spiritual companion. In fact, I dedicated my most recent book to her. I can't wait till we meet!

  9. I have never heard of Caryll Houselander, thanks for writing about her. I'm a school psychologist so I liked reading the part about how when you've done something healing you know it by its emptiness. I guess its not easy to be a healer in this society that expects us to be entertained and happy 100% of the time, you might think that something has gone wrong in your life.

  10. Exactly, June, God forbid we are not "happy" and entertained every waking and sleeping moment. Call the shrink! Start scarfing psychotropic meds! Embark on an extreme sport!...

    Strange to say, just sitting still with our emptiness may be, as always, the most radical action of all...

    So glad to discover so many other ARDENT Caryll H. fans...I always find something fresh in her...Thanks, folks...

  11. Eccentricism takes guts! From a New Yorker piece quoting George Clooney on Daniel Day Lewis: He went on, “I’m jealous of Daniel. Let’s face it, we all are. I’m jealous of the ability to completely immerse yourself. Because it means you’re willing to not be liked for a period of time. Not just on film, perhaps.” (Clooney was referring to Day-Lewis’s intensity during filming, which has at times unnerved fellow actors.) “It’s part of the acting thing—is you sort of want to be liked.”

    1. Yes! I have struggled with this all my writing life, if not all my life period. The one big yes requires many smaller noes as they say. I get so crabby if I cave in to my desire to be liked and say yes to social engagements etc when I mean no to that people end up not liking me anyway. Our culture tells us we can have it all but as Kierkegaard said, the saint is the person who wills the one thing....

  12. Wow! I have a bunch of her books for children. My kids eat them up, but I had no idea she wrote for adults. I love the quote about the seed within us. I'm going to have to dwell on that for a while. Thanks so much Heather!

  13. Ah, last week I read about Rilke's "unfulfilled potential" in a preface to his "Book of Hours". It was a disappointment, after reading some tantalizing quotes and poems by him.

    Not that even great sinners, as such, can't be perceptive, but the potential of life that could have been struck . . .

    It's sort of terrifying to think of our responsibility, like the parable of the talents.

    Ah well, love bids us on, right?

  14. It IS sort of terrifying, Greg...I've been mulling this over all morning...


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