Written for Good News Magazine in January 2019 when Auxiliary Bishop in Westminster
I recently gave a day of recollection to a group of priests during which I admitted to being obsessed with a woman called Caryll Houselander. Looking slightly perplexed, I quickly reassured them that she is, in fact, no longer alive in this world. In my opinion, Caryll is one of the most inspiring spiritual writers of her generation. I do not think it is putting it too strongly to say she was remarkable, as both a Christian disciple and mystic.
Born in 1901, Caryll was baptised aged six when her mother was received into the Catholic Church. Because of this she described herself not as a ‘cradle Catholic,’ but a ‘rocking horse Catholic,’ joining the Church, as it were, out of the nursery.
Beginning in her teenage years, Caryll received a number of, what can only be called, spiritual visions. Aged just 17 she saw a huge image of Christ above the sky, in the style of a Russian icon. This had a powerful impact on her. She also had another significant vision while traveling on the London Underground. She saw Christ, living in and through the people around her. The division between earthly and heavenly realities was translucent for Caryll, although she was not immune from personal struggles.
Caryll lapsed from practising her faith during adolescence, returning in 1925. She was utterly disconsolate when her truelove, Sydney Reilly, he of ‘Reilly Ace of Spies’ fame, married another woman. Caryll never married.
Despite physical and psychological illness, Caryll gained a distinguished reputation as a therapist, blessed with an outstanding capacity for empathy. Thankfully she wrote extensively, leaving a rich literary legacy on themes of the Christian life and spirituality, including the Infancy of Christ, Our Lady and the Way of the Cross. She was a gifted artist, poet and spiritual director, in the words of an admirer, a ‘divine eccentric.’ Caryll was only 53 when she died of breast cancer in 1954.
This is all by way of introduction to Caryll and context for her life. The invitation to write this piece came after a brief discussion about intercession when I mentioned Caryll’s name. I appreciate there are all kinds of theological interpretation about what it means to offer prayers of petition. Some become unhelpfully fixated on whether we are trying to change God’s mind.
Caryll based all her spiritual insight on the Gospels. Therefore, the best thing to do is simply to trust the word of the Lord Jesus and to ask. What comes out so beautifully is her sense of the value of uniting our suffering to the cross for the sake of others. She proposes a straightforward and hidden intercession, offering little acts of prayer and sacrifice, to be transformed potently in union with Christ.
Caryll witnesses to the effect of such prayer – much of which we will never know or understand. She writes:
‘There are many people today in forced-labour camps hidden away from the world. There, unknown, nameless martyrs, most of them will die. The few who have escaped tell us that, of all their sufferings, none was so bitter as the sense of having been forgotten. But they are not forgotten: another unknown multitude, those who share willingly every day in Christ’s suffering on the cross, are always with them. When there seems no comfort left, suddenly, minute miracles happen: a gleam of sunlight, a bird’s song, a whispered word of encouragement, an unexpected hand-clasp; and they hope again. Some silly old lady somewhere, some little child in a distant schoolroom, is giving them the gentle solace of Christ’s tender love.’ (The Risen Christ, 1958, pp 23-24)
For those without faith, this will be sound pure nonsense. For Caryll, and those who believe, it is the power and wisdom of Christ at work for our salvation.
Rt Rev John Wilson is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Westminster