“This divine eccentric”: an eccentric British genius
Caryll Houselander: the divine eccentric
By Maisie Ward. Cluniac Editions. 2021
Shakespeare writes in his play Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often buried with their bones.” Sometimes excellent writers are also buried or buried after death; their books are no longer of public interest and are no longer read. Decades later, they are rediscovered and resurrected for a new readership.
This literary cycle could be applied to the life and writings of the English woodcarver and mystic, Caryll Houselander, who was widely read in the pre- and post-war period and then faded away. Cluny Publications, in an imaginative move, now brings her to the attention of modern readers in this recent reissue of her biography written by Maisie Ward, first published in 1962.
The “eccentric divine” description, given to him by a psychologist friend, is a concise summary of his unique personality. Houselander (1901-1954) was certainly touched by the divine, transcending the loneliness and misunderstandings of her youth (her parents divorced when she was a child) which, by her own admission, resulted in psychological wounds.
A gifted artist and a more gifted writer, she applied the spiritual insights she had learned from her own suffering to her books and to consoling her many friends, followers, and readers in their own confusions and struggles. Indeed, although often in poor health, she exhausted herself by being available for others; she couldn’t shut the door on anyone. In his company, they felt enveloped by his understanding and compassion. Despite constant fatigue and deadlines for her writing and sculpting commissions, Caryll was extremely generous with the time she gave to those who demanded it of her. Her rule: “Always choose the thing to do that she could put the most love into.”
His oft-repeated insight was that “we must learn to see the Christ in everyone.” Although not new to Christian teaching, it gave it renewed urgency in the context of the times in which she lived, amid the social and economic upheavals in English society, particularly during the war. She writes in her diary: “Some people cling to the past; some, fewer and more courageous, face the future; but to live harmoniously in the present is an almost superhuman task”. This was the task she had set herself.
This war is passionthe title of his first widely read book, published by Catholic publishers Sheed & Ward (Maisie Ward had married theologian Frank Sheed; together they formed a formidable partnership) was a collection of his articles written on the war.
Monsignor Ronald Knox, a convert like Caryll – she became a Catholic as a child when her mother converted and describes this aspect of her youth in her latest book, A catholic on a rocking horse – made the acute observation, “She seemed to see everything for the first time.” It is this immediacy and freshness of his witty writing that draw readers in, struck by the clarity and simplicity of his prose style and unaffected originality.
What also drew readers to Caryll was his honest admission of his own shortcomings. In her autobiography, she recounts “not her life, but what drove her out of the Church and how she came back to it”. She recounts with emotion her love story with the spy Sidney Reilly, who had lived in Russia before the Revolution and who ended up disappearing under the Terror, presumed to be shot. His quirkiness is also implicit in this story. Caryll was instinctively at odds with conventional piety, the kind often practiced by those in the pews. With her bright red hair, thick glasses, and mask-like face, over which she applied layers of white cream that made her look like a clown, most people would have found her disconcerting; “eccentric” barely does justice to Caryll’s lifestyle, in which she crammed little sleep, less food, lots of cheerfulness, fun and entertaining, strong language, her carving and writing, a life of intense devotion and a wide range of devoted friends.
Her unflinching honesty about herself is endearing. A diary entry for March 6, 1929 reads: “After all these Holy Communions, Masses, Confessions, Books, Rules, Resolutions – nothing is made. No, God forgive me, his grace acts in silence, in secret; in the hour of trial, I will know that it is so – I need confidence. But alas I know this: I’m as wicked as before, my tongue as violent, my mind as melancholy, my will Continued weak, my fervor has died out, my indulgence has grown as I could never have imagined, my spirit of prayer is fading…”
There’s a certain qualm here and as Ward comments, “’Self-indulgence’ always seems to mean smoking. Caryll decided to impose a penny fine on himself for each cigarette over the ten daily allowed. Ward’s son Wilfred, who knew Caryll as a young man, “carried away the dual impression of someone hugely and endlessly fun and someone continually aware of the divine”.
Beneath this portrait of “wit, a conversationalist… in the contagious sense of laughter, an utterly delicious companion”, hides a person of unwavering seriousness, who knows her vocation to be “to bring men the truth that Christ is in men; and that involved bringing to life in them the great truths about Him and about their own souls. The basic teaching of Christianity, which she wrote in a letter to a friend just before the Blitz in October 1940, is simple: “The real thing…doesn’t depend on what school of thought one grew up in , or the belief in which one believes. , but on his capacity for love and humility. Again: “The healing of humanity begins each time a man ceases to resist the love of God”.
As someone who spent much of his later life befriending patients in a mental asylum (the book’s cover photo is Van Gogh’s “Corridor in the Asylum, 1889”), Caryll has brought his own unconventional life experiences, as well as his gifts and insights. approach. She was a natural mystic, clairvoyant in her understanding of the supernatural reality beneath the surface of life, demonstrated by her account in her autobiography of three extraordinary inner “visions” she had as a young woman. The last of these happened on a crowded London Underground train when “she saw Christ” in all the people around her, “living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them and s ‘distressing in them’.
In a passage of moving spiritual insight, Caryll concludes this mystical “vision”: “I saw also the reverence which every one should have for a sinner; instead of excusing his sin, which is in reality his greatest pain, he must console Christ who suffers in him. And this respect must be paid even to sinners whose soul seems dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; these are his tombs, and the Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, none of us who have ourselves fallen into mortal sin should ever lose hope.
Ward cites some of the countless letters Caryll sent to friends and other correspondents. She had an instinctive understanding of human psychology and was generally correct in her diagnosis of her callers’ problems. His book Guilt (1951) explores the psychological suffering experienced by those who cannot cope with their sinfulness, including the criminal mind, and who hide behind fashionable therapies that “offer [man] an escape from the responsibility of being human, because the soulless man is not a human being.
She was firmly convinced that anyone can become a saint, including the neurotics among whom she counted herself: “The essential for holiness is the capacity to love.
Readers sometimes first encountered Caryll through his Notre Dame book, The reed of God (1944), which made them curious to read more about this unclassifiable author. Other titles include The flowering tree (1945), a collection of her prose poems, which she called her “rhythms”, in which her ideas are compressed in a mixture of prayer and imagery. Sometimes his imaginative response to a dilemma or challenge was far greater than his possible execution, as his more practical friends pointed out to him. She always gave herself wholeheartedly to who she was and whatever activity she was engaged in; despite his austerities, his energy was formidable.
After someone recommended her autobiography to me, I discovered that she was buried in a cemetery just a few miles from my home in Buckinghamshire. Her longtime friend, Iris Wyndham, had bought a cottage in the area, where Caryll used to work in a studio in the garden when she was well enough to do so; for this garden, she had sculpted a tender Virgin and Child, still in the branches of an apple tree where she had first been placed.
Ever since I found out about this connection, every once in a while I drive around and tend to his otherwise neglected grave. After all, someone has to. Such an indomitable spirit, touched by an offbeat and unique genius, must not be forgotten.