Saints are anything but boring, and I love that their ranks include all sorts of people, even those we do not expect. Unfortunately, sometimes we imagine holy ones as completely charismatic, near perfect, spiritually heroic people. Some may have been as such, but if we limit our idea as to the nature of holiness, we are apt to discontinue any effort to strive to be holy ourselves because it seems too difficult to attain. In reality, the clearest attribute of holiness is true desire to find Christ and to love and serve Him by living the life we were given, as it was given, without trying to be someone we are not called to be. The holy ones, then, are the people who are authentic in their love and in their acceptance of the path they were given, which means that they might not be obvious in their holiness until we give them a closer look. Such a one was Caryll Houselander who is often looked upon as a wonderful spiritual writer, quirky of personality, but ordinary enough in her day to day life. And what is a holy person, (sometimes recognized as a saint), but an ordinary person who possesses extraordinary faith, hope, and love? Although Caryll Houselander has not been canonized or beatified, she was a mystic and was one who saw Christ in everyone, even in the midst of her somewhat nondescript life. If we would simply be ourselves as we were made to be, we would be like Caryll: a reflection of the love of God.
Caryll Houselander was a bit of an eccentric. Born in 1901 in Bath, England, she had a tumultuous childhood, and never really got along with her parents who divorced when she was 6 years of age. Her mother was rather distant and severe with Caryll, and while not a religious person herself, did have Caryll baptized, and did provide a Catholic foundation for her. She continually sent Caryll away to boarding schools where she never quite fit in and was never really happy, although she found ways to cope with the loneliness that her ‘exile’ brought her. It was in a boarding school when she was only nine years old that she had the first of three life changing mystical experiences. Caryll had walked in on a young Bavarian nun who for the most part only spoke German and was ostracized by the other nuns as a result. The nun was crying bitterly while trying to polish some children’s shoes. When Caryll looked at her, in a kind of vision she saw the nun wearing a crown of thorns and commented to her about it, saying, “I would not cry if I was wearing the crown of thorns like you are.” The nun was startled and asked what she meant; Caryll said she did not know and simply sat down to help her polish the shoes. Through this mystical experience she identified with the burden the young nun was bearing, lonely and isolated, and in her own way, reached out as if to help her bear the burden.
Her second mystical experience took place when she was seventeen: she witnessed what appeared to be an icon of the suffering Jesus filling the sky.* However, it was the third one which defined her life the most. She was riding in a subway travelling with all sorts of people and yet she literally saw Christ in everyone on the train and around her on the streets after she exited; the episode continued for several days before fading away. This occurrence resulted in her lifelong belief that every person mysteriously carries Christ within them, and so she began to treat everyone as if she was in the presence of Christ. Caryll was also a gifted artist and writer, having been encouraged to write by her Jesuit spiritual director, Fr. Geoffrey Bliss. She wrote many poems and a few books, but was most known for a short book about Our Lady called The Reed of God which is now considered a classic in Catholic spiritual writing. She helped many to be healed of their spiritual and emotional illnesses, but her own life was relatively short, as she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 53 on October 12, 1954.*
If we could have met Caryll, I suspect that at first we might have been surprised at the thought of calling her holy because she appeared to be relatively ordinary, though decidedly eclectic, and she smoked, drank, and was subject to fragile health, both mentally and physically. She referred to herself as a ‘singular’ person, meaning that she never fit into any group, nor did she want to. But she was known as a gifted counselor, even though she never had any formal training; because of her own experience of receiving counseling she was able to help many others who also suffered from neurosis. Additionally, she had spiritual gifts which enabled her to have insights into people and to help them to find alleviation for their suffering. In all of this, unless one came into close contact with her, Caryll might not have been someone who would stand out as a holy person. Once again, we must realize that holiness does not ‘look’ a particular way, but rather it is about living the love of God we profess.
It is in her poetry and writing that one can most truly see into the depth of Caryll’s soul. She wrote: “I feel convinced that… the laughter, the dancing, everything you do with everyone, is a real fling of the heart to God every time, and the truest prayer.”** In this she seems to understand that it is in the simplest things – and especially that which includes another person whether in the simplicity of friendship or in the efforts we put into ministry – that we offer the truest prayer if we intend it as such. Everything is done for and in God; even enjoying a simple glass of wine and a night of laughter and love with friends can be an experience of God. Building on this, her goal was to become “Christed’” that is, to become another Christ; she believed that God intends us to be as other Christs to one another. While it may be difficult to think of treating everyone as another Christ, upon reflection it seems that the key to it is respect which is related to the spiritual gift of reverence. Caryll believed that when Christ comes to each person He comes differently and uniquely in the way best for us, which means that Jesus treats us with a certain respect and reverence, too. She wrote: “… He will always come in the way that the particular soul can most easily realize and most easily respond to…. The ordinary way – and how amazing that it is the ordinary way – is in the Blessed Sacrament….” ** Jesus reverences and respects us so much that He comes to us in the way we can best recognize and welcome Him! We do not have to search high and low: He comes both in the Eucharist and in the midst of our ordinary, day to day lives.
If Caryll’s characterization that everything we do is as “a real fling of the heart to God” and “the truest prayer,” it seems to me that all of our efforts can be an offering to God if we approach them this way. If we were to respect and reverence people by seeing them as other Christs and if we were to approach every action as something we do for God, it can bring the joy we often find elusive. Instead of being burdened over the lack of virtues in the world, or focusing on what is wrong with something, it might be helpful to view our efforts positively, offered as a fling of our heart to God. It would help us to reverence ourselves in realizing that we are filled with Christ, and thus we are sacred, and so too are our efforts, small as they might be. It can transform our efforts into His work and help us to see that it is no longer ours alone. This means our focus is on God, not on self. Our work then becomes compassionate because like Caryll and the young nun, we enter into the sorrow or joy of the other, simply as we are. That is what holiness is about: it does not mean we will never sin again or that we become perfect, but it does mean we enter into our relationship with God more deeply.
Our daily prayer, simple and honest as it may be, can help us to become agents of healing for others, propelling us to offer the gifts we have been given so that we can become holy in our own ordinary way. Perhaps it is time for us to have our “fling of the heart to God,” to become our truest prayer as Caryll Houselander teaches us to do. Though we probably will not have visions, if we treat each one as if we are indeed seeing Jesus, we can reverence others in a way that may open their hearts and their minds to the love of God. Let us, then, approach others as we would Christ, never losing sight that we too are filled with His presence. It is in reverence and respect for self and for the other that we find our truest prayer and the source of all healing.
May we offer everything we do with everyone as a fling of the heart to God! May we realize that in our own unique, ordinary way, we can offer ourselves and what we do as our truest prayer! May we seek the grace of respect and reverence and then offer it to others, and especially to Christ who is present in them! May we learn to apply the gift of respect and reverence also to ourselves! And may we find joy in the love and mercy of Jesus in our relationships with others, and especially in the gift of Eucharist! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post: October 22
For the most part, I used two books for my information:
*Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings, Selected with Commentary by Wendy M. Wright.
**A Rocking Horse-Catholic, by Caryll Houselander. This is her autobiography.
Below are some articles from which I also drew some information, but I also highly recommend Caryll Houselander's books, such as The Reed of God. Her poetry is also exquisite. (There is a fair amount of it in the book by Wendy Wright.)
1. I took this photo a number of years ago at Crater Lake, Oregon. I used it to begin this entry because of the mirror image of the mountains and clouds which appeared on the water. It is almost difficult to see where the mountains end and the water begins. This photo made me think of how Caryll Houselander had a sense of being as Christ to others; in a holy person it might be 'difficult' to see where the person ends and Christ begins, so to speak.
2. This is the photo of Caryll Houselander which appears on the cover of the book by Wendy Wright, mentioned above: Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings.
3. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God After Fra Angelico. I am very fond of the work of Fra Angelico and I am very fond of Our Lady, as Caryll referred to the Mother of Jesus. Thus, using this icon of Mary in reference to Caryll's book The Reed of God made sense to me. You can find this icon, and purchase a copy if you so desire, at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-after-fra-angelico-168-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This painting is one of the more famous paintings of Vincent van Gogh, called Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles France. (1888) I chose it as a representation of people having a "real fling of the heart to God" as they conversed and possibly drank some wine together. Upon researching it, however, I saw an article in which the author proposed that this painting contains a somewhat hidden reference to the Last Supper. That connection reminded me of Caryll's sense of people becoming "Christed." I am not sure about the theory, compelling as it seems, but in case you are interested: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/06/van-gogh-last-supper_n_6753294.html
5. I took this photo while on a boat tour of Lake Lugano, near Lugano, Switzerland. I chose to use it here as an example of a community of people, perhaps a community of 'other Christs.'
6. I took this photo in Hermann Park which is in Houston, Texas. It depicts people gathering together in the Park taking in the beauty of the day, engaging in fun and conversation with one another. Perhaps they are entering into the truest prayer, enjoying a fling of their hearts to God.
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Heart Speaks to Heart