Caryll Houselander is one of the most intriguing personalities among modern spiritual writers. Always eccentric, Caryll was an artist who experienced the Gospel truths on a mystical level. A Franciscan tertiary, she overcame a troubled childhood and a bohemian youth in order to be a
witness of spiritual motherhood and the consecrated life in the world. According to one biographical account:
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.Caryll was educated at Catholic boarding schools, run by nuns. She later wrote about the pain of being a child of divorce. She early on displayed a gift of heightened intuition and empathy for the sufferings of others, so that she is was regarded by many as being clairvoyant.
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.
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."As a teenager, Caryll had a crisis of faith and a period of disillusionment with the Church. She became interested in Russian Orthodoxy and spent time with the Russian ex-patriot community
in London.On the night of July 16, 1918, she was returning from an errand for her mother when she had a vision.
Caryll saw a "gigantic and living Russian icon"--she had never seen one before--in which she recognized Christ the King crucified, "lifted above the world in our drab street, lifted up and filling the sky ... with his head bowed down ... brooding over the world."Soon after, she learned of the assassination of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and saw from newspaper photos that it was Nicholas' face she had seen on the suffering Christ.
In 1925, she returned to the[Catholic] church .... She turned...to the Gospels, which alone were powerful enough to sustain her. She was acutely aware of her "oddness" and called herself "broken across psychologically." Her parents had emotionally neglected her. And, as a young woman, she fell in love with a Russian spy, a double agent, 26 years her senior. A year later, he married another woman, a loss from which Caryll never recovered. She understood with agonizing clarity the meaning of Jesus' words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"The Russian spy, of course, was none other than the notorious Sidney Reilly, the original James Bond. Caryll never got over him, although once she was briefly engaged to someone else. As is recorded in the biography by Maisie Ward, Caryll had a vision of Reilly suffering in a Soviet prison. All she could do was pray for him.
She eventually became an artist and writer, as one article describes:
A woodcarver and ecclesiastical artist by trade, she followed a literary path at the encouragement of friends and others who recognized her genius for seeming "to see everybody for the first time," and for describing human suffering by using not merely the right word but "the telling word, that left you gasping." One of these admirers was Maisie Ward, who with her husband, Frank Sheed, formed the Sheed & Ward publishing house in 1927. Ward wrote a colorful account of their professional and personal friendship, and her out-of-print biography is one of the few remaining sources of information concerning the unlikely mystic (Caryll Houselander, That Divine Eccentric, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962).
As with so many mystics, Houselander was paradox. She preached a social gospel, yet she was a virtual recluse. She felt overwhelming sympathy for the world, yet she had a razor-sharp tongue and biting sense of humor. (When she worked in a wartime first aid station, a nurse asked, "Houselander, are you sterile?" Houselander quipped, "Not as far as I know.") She... liked gin, and chain-smoked "with a dandelion-yellow upper lip." And by all accounts, she was a difficult person.Caryll devoted herself to helping others, especially the poor and living a life of evangelical simplicity. She bore witness to the fruitfulness of the lay, celibate lifestyle, as is told here:
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.Caryll died in 1954 after a long ordeal with cancer. Here are some words which sum up her philosophy of simplicity:
To accept oneself as one is; to accept life as it is:these are the two basic elements of childhood's simplicity and humility. But it is one thing to say this and another to do it. What is involved? First of all, it involves the abandoning of all unreality in ourselves. But even granted that we have the courage to face ourselves and to root out every trace of pretense, how shall we then tolerate the emptiness, the insignificance, that we built up our elaborate pretense to cover?Share
The answer is simple. If we are afraid to know ourselves for what we are, it is because we have not the least idea of what trial is. It is because we have not the least idea of the miracle of life-giving love that we are. There is no pretense that can approach the wonder of the truth about us, no unreality that comes anywhere near the reality.