In the 1940s and 50s Caryll Houselander enjoyed enormous success in the English-speaking world. Her books of that period include The Reed of God, The Flowering Tree, The Passion of the Infant Christ, A Rocking Horse Catholic, The Risen Christ, and many others, all published by Sheed and Ward. Frank Sheed had discovered her in the early 1940s on one of his numerous trips to England and the publication in 1941 of This War is the Passion established her reputation as a Christian writer of great profundity and sensitivity.
On the face of it, Caryll Houselander would seem an unlikely candidate for worldly success. She was neither a scholar nor even particularly well-educated. Her chosen profession was that of an artist and she thought of herself, above all, as a wood-carver. Had it not been for the mysterious workings of providence in her early childhood, she would probably have blended imperceptibly with those who inhabit the fringes of the artistic world. She was certainly talented and loved the artists craft, but it was Yvonne Bosch van Drakestein, the Dutch founder of the Grail Society in England, who first recognized her unique gifts and who encouraged her to pursue her vocation in the field of writing after Caryll had appeared at her door and offered to help in any way she could to further their apostolate.
Caryll Houselanders literary output was phenomenal by any account. Apart from the fifteen books published by Sheed and Ward, her bibliography consists of upwards of 700 items: poems, short stories and articles for innumerable catholic periodicals in England and the United States while, at the same time, continuing to paint, draw and carve and teach art to disturbed children. Unpaid even after she had achieved success as a devotional writer, she continued each month to write and illustrate short stories and articles for The Childrens Messenger of the Sacred Heart and, in the late 1940s, frequently wrote entire issues when its editor, Father Geoffry Bliss, was to ill to do so. Clearly she was what today would be called a "workaholic," but neurotic as her compulsiveness was, through grace, it was transformed into total
According to her own account, Caryll had worked with the poor and the dispossessed of London in the East End and in Soho. After she achieved recognition through her books, she carried on a vast correspondence with hundreds of people throughout the world. In the letters edited by Maisie Ward after Carylls death we catch a glimpse of a person who, through her personal sufferings and identification with the suffering Christ, had become, as it were, another Christ in her healing compassion toward others.
Caryll Houselanders legacy therefore includes much more than a few devotional works, good as they are. Her impact, both literary and personal, was due above all, to the intensity of her vision of the suffering Christ, a vision she expressed with utter sincerity and immediacy and, on occasion, with breathtaking luminosity. Indeed, she can best be described not as a writer, nor even as an artist, but as a mystic and a visionary in the tradition of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, or Teresa of Avila. This part of her life has hitherto been little known, but it explains how she was able to speak so directly and movingly to her large reading public and accounts for her extraordinary success in counselling British and foreign children who had been traumatized by the war. Her vision, based as it was on mystical experience, gave an immediacy to her literary and artistic work, as much as it did with those who had been scarred by the war. It was as though her burning love of God overflowed for the refreshment of all who came in contact with her.
On the occasion of her death, Ronald Knox said of Caryll Houselander that she could have established a school of spirituality. In a letter to The Tablet on 23 October 1954, he he wrote:
she seemed to see everybody for the first time, and the driest of doctrinal considerations shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it. And her writing was always natural; she seemed to find no difficulty in getting the right word; no, not merely the right word, the telling word, that left you gasping.
Lurking impishly behind accolades of this sort, however, is the Caryll who is remembered by her close friends, a Caryll whose daily life might seem at odds with our preconceptions of what constitutes sanctity. Basically a recluse, she nevertheless overflowed with gaiety and a mad sense of fun; her wickedly funny tongue often provoked as much hilarity among her intimates as it caused her remorse. And - unheard of in the annals of sanctity - she was often heard to swear! A thorough-going ascete who fasted as if she had been a Desert Mother, she was also a chain-smoker who tried in vain to break the habit for twenty years. It was not until the Second World War that she finally achieved success, the result, I am convinced, of an heroic act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the millions who were suffering unspeakable acts of barbarity.
Caryll Houselander was certainly a difficult person, neurotic perhaps, undeniably complicated; but she was unquestionably a genuine mystic whose frailties were transformed into real strength and whose neuroses became the means whereby she was able to join her sufferings with Christ on the cross. There are, alas, too few saints with whom lay people can identify. They are virtually all members of religious orders; their lives might inspire admiration but never a shock of recognition, awe but never giggles. God, after all, can only work with the materials at hand. The wonder of Caryll Houselander is found in her humble willingness to suffer with Christ, to let him transform her flawed and sinful nature into a divine work of art.
*Margot King is currently working on a
biography of Caryll Houselander.