Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Caryll Houselander and the Flowering of Christ

by Janet Golden


This appraisal of the literary work of the late Caryll Houselander, lay spiritual theologian, was written the year she died (1954) and is presented to encourage those unfamiliar with her writings to become acquainted.

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, October, 1954

Caryll Houselander and the Flowering of Christ

by Janet Golden

It is twelve years now since Caryll Houselander's first book, This War is the Passion, appeared, and five more titles have followed it. She is that rarity among Catholic writers, a woman who has produced a substantial body of serious work. Not that it is hard to find Catholic women who are distinguished writers; the names of more than a dozen spring easily to mind. One thinks of the work of Sigrid Undset, Kate O'Brien, Beatrix Beck and Gertrude von le Fort; of the essays of Dorothy Dohen and the autobiographical writings of Dorothy Day; of the fine work in criticism and editing of Sister Mariella Gable, Maisie Ward and Mary Perkins. There is the outstanding work which has been done in biography: Teresa of Avila, for instance, by Marcelle Auclair or Maisie Ward's Young Mr. Newman, or Desert Calling, Anne Fremantle's life of Charles de Foucauld.

The list could be extended, if not indefinitely, at least to a respectable length, and it should include such distinguished writers for children as Joan Windham and Marigold Hunt. But the difficulty is to find those women, with the exception of the novelists, who have written more than two or three books; for whom writing is a career rather than the by-product of a life which has centered itself somewhere else. They are teachers or editors, religious or housewives first, and from time to time, they manage to write something.

Here are any number of explanations for this state of affairs, and perhaps the simplest is that a woman's creativeness tends to disperse itself: in children, in making a home, in personal relationships. Not many women have the ambition or the single-minded tenacity that is needed to sustain a career of writing. They simply do not have enough of themselves left over to put down on paper, day after day, week after week, year after year.

The lack of production can be explained, but it is still a lack, even an abyss, if one assumes that men and women do not think alike, and that it takes both points of view to increase our understanding of the world. In a world in which masculine values are so dominant, there is a real need for women who will write as women—not blue-stockings, or female Ernest Hemingways, but women who delight in being what they are. Father Gerald Vann underlines this need in his latest book, The Water and the Fire:

"Of all the trends we have been considering as characteristic of the world today—the increasing loss of wisdom and vision, of stillness, of Nature, of the stability of home and family life, of symbol—it seems true to say that they represent something particularly alien to the nature of woman.... Our troubles spring from the overemphasis on the masculine in our world," and he adds, "precisely because the nature of the psychological crisis through which we are passing is what it is, woman has an unique opportunity to redeem the situation."

It would be hard to find a writer who is more true to her own nature and to these values than Miss Houselander. One might think at first that she is too feminine in the dispersal of her energies. From the biographical note on the dustjacket, one learns that she is an artist as well as a writer; and includes among her other activities: woodcarving, the teaching of drawing and toy-making to displaced European children, and work with the insane and the very poor.

A casual glance at her work reinforces this impression of multiplicity. She has written a novel, The Dry Wood; a book of poetry or "rhythms," The Flowering Tree; and The Reed of God, a study of Our Lady in both prose and poetry. Then there is The Comforting of Christ, the revision of her first book of meditative essays, which examined the relationship of life in time of war to the passion of Christ; and Guilt, her most recent work, a study of the psychological suffering of our age. It would be easy to assume that Miss Houselander has spread herself too thin.

The truth is that her work is highly unified, but by a theme rather than by the discipline of a single form. Put another way, Miss Houselander is not trying to perfect a technique, to be a first-rate novelist or poet. She is trying to talk about one thing to as many different people as possible—to reach them in a way that will appeal to each; and this may include essays and woodcarving, poetry and work with the very poor.

I do not mean by this that Miss Houselander has not taken the trouble to write well—she has. There is clarity and control and beauty of expression in everything that she does. But I certainly do mean that she is no craftsman as a novelist, and that from the point of view of technique, she is not a poet either— nor does she claim to be. The Dry Wood, for instance, is an unusual and often beautiful meditation on the suffering of the innocent, and the sort of sanctity needed in our day. But it is simply exasperating if you try to read it as a novel. The action is smothered in poetry, meditation, observation—all in themselves excellent, but most of them out of place. The story is simply a peg on which to hang the theme, and the characters are examples rather than people.

Similarly, if one expects sonnets and sestinas of poets, it is disconcerting to open what looks like a book of verse, and find in an author's note: "These rhythms are not intended to be poems in a new form but simply thoughts, falling naturally into the beat of the rhythm which is all round us and which becomes both audible and visible in the seasons of the year, the procession of day and night and the liturgical cycle."

If you are a purist about form, you had better leave The Dry Wood and The Flowering Tree alone, and turn to Miss Houselander's other books. There her theme is allowed to emerge naturally, with the spontaneity and directness of good conversation, or the lyric outbursts of heightened feeling. And for all its ramifications, for all the diversity in which it is clothed, it is a single theme which dominates her work:

". . . the Incarnation means that Christ gave Himself to human nature to be its supernatural life, as the seed gives its life to the dark hard earth. Christ, sown in the soil of Mary's humanity, was the seed given to human nature, to flower in countless lives, to be unnumbered springs, flowering, harvest, resurrections of the human heart."

The flowering of Christ in man" is the theme which she says recurs in her poetry but, in fact, it runs through every book that she has written. It would be pointless to treat each of Miss Houselander's books separately, to show a line of development: they all radiate from the same center. The Reed of God, for instance, is about Our Lady, but relates directly to the central theme, for Mary is used as our model in bringing Christ to birth in our own lives. Guilt, the most complex of these books, shows that the mental suffering so characteristic of our times can only be cured by the growth of the Christ life in man— "Sanctity in man's integrity."

One feels that Caryll Houselander has chosen each word of her theme very deliberately. There is nothing casual about the choice of "flowering." It is a characteristic word for her to use, though not because of any trees-in-bloom prettiness about her work. She does surely give us beauty of word and thought. One thinks of such lines as:

"soft as the blown thistledown's sowing,
the seed of the Word was sown."

or these:

"from the mould of man's sorrow
the sap would rise in him;
and the tree of his life,
thick with green leaves
and the singing of numberless birds,
would live in the majesty
of the word made flesh."

But directness and tough-minded realism are equally characteristic of her work. Anyone tempted to think that it is given over to beautiful thoughts and a roseate view of humanity should take a look at her cool appraisal of criminal mentality in Guilt, the studies, for instance, of Irma Grese, Leopold and Loeb, John George Haigh and Peter Kurten. Or, in a milder vein, there is the quiet irony of her lines on "Mediocracy":

"They want the Sunday smell—
beef in a dead street—
six days to be bored
and one to over-eat.

"Poor little birds in a cage,
sitting behind the bars!
It isn't life:
it's the living wage
and the night without the stars."

"Flowering, as an appropriate word in relation to Miss Houselander's work, can only be understood when one realizes that The Flowering Tree of her title is the Cross. But one does need some such word simply to convey her emphasis on the natural world, on all that is organic, living and growing. It may in part be her protest against the unreality of that urban, industrialized life which cuts so many people off from the very roots of their being, which makes man, not God, the creator of the world.

Her imagery of seed-time and harvest, the flight of birds and the passing of the seasons, snow and sun and stars evoke the natural world for those cut off from it in cities—and for those who see it without seeing it, the country-dwellers for whom nature is a backdrop to the bustle of activity that shuts out God. It is evoked, but only in a sense, so that we may see through it to the greater realities it mirrors.

It would be a mistake to go to Miss Houselander for a fresh viewing of the natural world. She is not another Marianne Moore with her meticulous observation of nature, sharpening our eyesight as well as our insight. But the images of Caryll Houselander are often smooth with time—and intentionally so.

Surely the resemblance with the imagery that Christ Himself uses is not coincidental. One thinks of the seed falling into the ground, the lilies of the field, and the wheat and the tares. And in work so Christ-centered as these books of Miss Houselander, such resemblances are natural. I say, Christ- centered, because all that she says leads back to Him. One has only to open a book by some other Catholic writer on a similar theme to realize how pervasive this emphasis is. And it is a special emphasis on Christ in His Mystical Body, Christ as He is in man. She does not wish to show Him walking the streets of Jerusalem, or sitting at the right hand of God, but here in us. Consider, for instance, this passage on Christ's suffering:

"It is never easy to meditate on the Passion.... Indeed it becomes impossible, because once we know inwardly, with our hearts, not only with our minds, how real Christ is— and what suffering is—we can no longer bear to have beautiful thoughts about the suffering Christ. The mind becomes bleak, we begin to suffer with Him—and that is what real meditation on the Passion always becomes, suffering with Him.

"It is more than that, it is actually Christ suffering in us. We are united to Him, we are one, and it is when His Passion becomes real to us, through experience and love, that we grow aware of His presence in us."

It is this awareness that she wishes to foster: that Christ is truly in us, and just as truly in others. "We need to bring to other people faith like that which we bring to the Blessed Sacrament."

Certainly there is nothing novel in this insistence on the indwelling presence of Christ. It is as old as Christ's teaching of the Vine and the Branches. But it is both so overwhelming and so mysterious that it often escapes us. It is easier for us to pray to God in heaven or in the Blessed Sacrament than it is to see Christ as close to us as the members of our family or ourselves. As Miss Houselander says, "It is really difficult to realize that if He is formed in our life we are not beside Him but in Him; and what He asks of us is to realize that it is actually in what we do that He wants to act and suffer."

Because it is so difficult, we need that sharpening of spiritual vision which Caryll Houselander brings about in us. It takes a special perception to see how the incidents of Christ's life are relived today; how, for example, Christ is stripped of His garments in a woman who has been stripped of her youth and beauty by a disfiguring illness, in those who have lost their homes and all their possessions in a bombing attack, in a late convert who must divest himself of the habits of indulgence of a lifetime.

She illumines for us the "Host life," lived in prisons, internment camps, hospitals and workhouses, lived by the blind and by mental patients and by "people who have to be wheeled about, washed, dressed and undressed by others; who are literally obliged to offer themselves to God in the hands of other people, like the Host in the priest's hands at the Mass."

What impresses me even more than her sensitivity of perception is Caryll Houselander's objectivity. She insists that Christ is in everyone—as He has told us—and in the particular way that He chooses; in our child or in a disagreeable neighbor as well as in a saint, and she knows well how we balk at this: "It is very easy to believe in the indwelling presence of Christ in the souls of imaginary people; to believe in it in people whom we do not know; but it is very difficult to believe in it in the case of our own relations and our intimate friends."

Miss Houselander has the endearing quality of never getting too far away from the ground. What she says is firmly related to human nature as we know it, and she makes short work of any sort of pretense about ourselves, or the even worse sort of pretense about God. How many of us can recognize this description of the scrupulous: "The mental atmosphere in which they live is like that of a forgotten schoolroom at four o'clock on a dark and foggy winter's day, lit by a low, hissing gas jet, where they sit alone with this tremendous offended God, in an atmosphere permeated by a damp fog of tears."

It is an objectivity that has not allowed a sensitivity to suffering to blunt her capacity for joy or her ability to communicate it. She shows us that "although human beings smear everything they touch they leave touches of beauty wherever they go too; evidence that the senses receive their unique gifts of grace, wonder, joy, and gratitude because of the beauty that is their environment."

Miss Houselander is not given to that facile twentieth-century gloom that makes everything ugly. And yet what she writes belongs to life as it is lived in modern London— not, surely, a philosopher's paradise. The cruelties of war, the bleakness and often the abject misery of life in a large city, the mental suffering typical of our age are present in her work, though they are not produced with a sort of melancholy relish, that maddening, I-told-you-so air of so many prophets of doom. They are the conditions with which one has to work if the Christ life is to be fostered in us, the hard soil out of which He has to grow.

It is a process of growth, she reminds us. We may know instantly by faith the presence of Christ in others, but to find Christ in ourselves is not so easy. Miss Houselander speaks beautifully of the Advent period in Our Lady's life and of the virginal emptiness that preceded it. Something like that, she says, must occur in the life of each of us, if we are to bear Christ into the world; a stillness, an emptying out of the trivialities which distract us, the surrender of ourselves that was Mary's Fiat, and then the patience and trust demanded by the slow, invisible period of growth within us.

Even when He has been born into our lives, we shall lose Him again, as Our Lady did, and our finding of Him may be on the Cross. The price we pay for the birth of Christ is the death of self.

And beyond that death—"When the saint wakens from that dark night of love in which self has died, he too comes forth, he too knows the wonder of the Trinity in himself. Christ has risen in him, Christ is formed in him, the Holy Spirit descends upon him and his life is the breath of the Spirit of Love."

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