Caryll Houselander: An Appreciation
(In the midst of all the shouting it can be extremely difficult to
hear the voices of spiritually in the midst of all the shouting it
can be extremely difficult to hear the voices of powerful women
who have come to terms with 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 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
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 . 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 ) 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 . And what she saw everywhere, in
every possible guise, in every conceivable condition of beauty or
degradation, was hidden within and imprinting himself
upon matter: 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
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
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: . 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 ", 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
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
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 , "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
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
In the , 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 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 , 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 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 postabortion suffering, so often described not merely as
sadness and remorse but as a kind of
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
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 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, 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 a 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. the Word
has become flesh, bread and wine can become the enfleshed Word,
and the binding of Christ in the Eucharist makes every one, 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 teaches spirituality and catechetics at the John Paul
II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and at Wesley
Theological Seminary, both in Washington, DC.
Books by Caryll Houselander
"The Reed of God"
"This War is the Passion"
"The Stations of the Cross"
"The Passion of the Infant Christ"
"A Rockinghorse Catholic"
"The Mother of God"
"A Rockinghorse Catholic"
ABOUT CARYLL HOUSELANDER
"Caryll Houselander: That Divine Eccentric" by Masie Ward
This article was taken from the October 1995 issue of "Crisis"
magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN
46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year.
Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W.,
Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: