Monday, April 22, 2013


As a young girl
As I mentioned in an earlier blog many of us in the monastery grew up on CARYLL HOUSELANDER. She was an English laywoman, who had a very definite sense of her vocation to awaken others to the presence of Christ in the world. This conviction was implanted from her childhood by a series of mystical experiences that continued throughout her life. I remember reading a story of a Bavarian nun that the young school children would tease. One day Caryll found her weeping in the back of the cloak closet cleaning mud from the children's shoes. Caryll saw  the nun’s head weighed down by a crown of thorns. From this vision, she came to understand that Christ was suffering in this nun.

Another time, while she stood on a crowded underground train in London, she looked at the people around her, “quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all…living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them.” When she left the train “it was the same here, on every side, in every passerby, everywhere - Christ.” This vision lasted intensely for several days and altered her life completely.

Caryll supported herself by woodcarving and decorating churches. Later she wrote poetry and children’s books. Her true mission, however, consisted in her relationships with others, not just friends, but strangers, neurotics, and friendless people whom others avoided.

As a teen, she suffered from various ”illnesses",and possibly had an eating disorder. She also had a  fear of people: “Even in my own home I could not bring myself to enter a room in which there were other people, even people I knew well, until I had first gone to the door two or three times and failed to force myself to walk in.” From her descriptions, it seems likely that she suffered from panic attacks. For these and other oddities she was pronounced, in the jargon of the day, “neurotic.

Simply through attention and friendship, she sought to awaken others to a sense of their own divine self.  During the Second World War she offered a message of consolation to those struggling with their faith, telling them that Christ was truly present in the sufferings of the world.

"The arms of Christ stretched on the cross are the widest reach there is, the only one that encircles the whole world.”  She saw these children (and adults) of war as the infant Christ, for whom the only acceptable response was the gift of self. The infant Christ depended on each person to be as a mother, carrying Him into the world, and this is what she worked hard to do. One eminent psychiatrist who referred troubled patients to her, Dr. Eric Strauss, said she “loved them back to life.” She was, he said, a “divine eccentric.”

As with so many mystics, Caryll 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.  She swore, told off-color jokes, liked gin, and chain-smoked. And by all accounts, she was a difficult person. She was not patient, kind or gentle. She did not suffer fools gladly or even tactfully. She did not expect “to find people good, but I expect to find Christ wounded in them, and of course that is what I do find.” And for human woundedness, she had an overwhelming, some would say pathological, empathy. Much of her spare time was devoted to occupational therapy for the benefit of child refugees from the Continent, whose nerves had been jarred, and shell-shocked soldiers, in the war.

"It’s always easier to see a finely carved Christ hanging on a gilded cross than it is to see him in our boss, our estranged sister or our enemy in war. But wounded and helpless people in war camps, prisons, workhouses and mental asylums were “obliged to offer themselves to God in the hands of other people, like the Host in the priest’s hands at the Mass.”

Her first book, This War is the Passion (1941), explored individual suffering in the body of Christ during war.  The Reed of God (1944), the one she is most known for, was followed by The Flowering Tree (1945), The Passion of the Infant Christ (1949), and the posthumously published autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic (1955). In spite of her solitude, she maintained a vast correspondence with people all over the world who sought her spiritual guidance.

She died of breast cancer in  1954 at the age of 52. Christ is a "needy Christ, one who needs the comfort and compassion of creatures, a Christ whose own divinity is insufficient without its reflection in humankind".

Her writings are very significant for our troubled world! Many would find consolation in her writings.

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