Both my parents were fond of reading. Without a doubt, my mother’s favorite 20th century author was the British mystic, Caryll Houselander. She would tell me various interesting stories about Ms. Houselander, but I never bothered with her writings then; it simply seemed like “Mom’s stuff.” However, some fifteen years ago, I decided to read Caryll’s autobiography, A Rocking Horse Catholic, and discovered quite an intriguing person; here was a mystic who lived, not in a 12th century monastic cell, but in a 20th century London apartment.
Caryll was born on September 29, 1901, in Bath, England. Her parents were avid sportsmen, with her mother once winning on the center court of Wimbledon. Caryll herself, however, was not at all inclined to sports, due most likely to her weak constitution. Religion seems not to have featured much in the household. Nevertheless, Mrs. Houselander had her two daughters baptized Catholic when Caryll was six years old. Curiously, Mrs. Houselander herself did not become Catholic until much later in life. The joy of family life sadly ended with the divorce Caryll’s parents. She was nine years old at the time and it left her with lasting emotional wounds.
Two especially influential persons for young Caryll were an elderly friend of the family, George Spencer Bower, affectionately known as “Smokey,” and a governess, nicknamed “Dewey.” Smokey was a very literate lawyer who took Caryll to the theatre, read Shakespeare to her, and gave her much needed emotional support. He spoke to her as an equal. In describing Dewey, she wrote in one of her poems, known as rhythms, “There was also the young governess, in whose presence the wrists became weak with love; who told stories of Hans Anderson in a voice soft as the summer waves that gleamed with a lustre of dark pearl.” After the parents divorce, Caryll’s mother sent her and Ruth to a boarding school run by nuns. This seemed like a double knife to her young soul.
Caryll had a profound experience while boarding at the convent school. Though the community of nuns was mostly French, one sister was English and another was Bavarian. The Bavarian nun, Sr. Mary Benedicta, was a highly cultured woman; oddly, she chose to be a “lay sister,” rather than a “choir nun,” which obliged her to perform the lowest and dirtiest tasks. Circumstances likewise caused her to be an outsider: she hardly spoke English, her manner was somewhat awkward and most oppressive of all, World War I was raging. The local police even interrogated her.
Caryll was one day passing the children’s boot-room, where she saw Sr. Mary Benedicta polishing boots by herself. It was only when she drew near, that she noticed the nun silently weeping. “We were both quite silent, I staring down at her beautiful hands, afraid to look up, not knowing what to say; she weeping soundlessly. At last, with an effort, I raised my head and then- I saw- the nun was crowned with the crown of thorns. I shall not attempt to explain this. I am simply telling the thing as I saw it. That bowed head was weighed under the crown of thorns.” Astonished, Caryll at last found her tongue, “I would not cry if I was wearing the crown of thorns like you are.” The nun, as though startled, asked, “What do you mean?” In her perplexity, Caryll could only profess ignorance. This was the first of several visions that shaped Caryll’s theological understanding and served as a leitmotif throughout her writings- that Christ dwells mysteriously in each person.
Caryll’s mother opened a boarding house in London during the First World War. As she needed much help with errands, she removed Caryll from school to assist in the work. Two events in Caryll’s life at this time precipitated her departure from the Church. Mrs. Houselander often took pathetic cases into her boarding home out of compassion. One such case was a former priest who was in very poor health. Before long, suspicious persons conceived that Mrs. Houselander was having an affair. Despite the suspicions being groundless, letters of abuse came to the home and deeply affected Caryll.
The second event came about when she woke up late one Sunday morning. Out of necessity, she had to go to a “fashionable” church on the other side of London, where one still had to pay for a seat. Since no free seats were available, she slipped into the seats requiring sixpence, hoping the verger wouldn’t see. Alas, he saw her, and asked for the required sixpence. She felt such embarrassment, that she decided never to attend Mass again. Nonetheless, her hunger for God remained, and she investigated a variety of other denominations and other religions, such as Judaism and Buddhism.
One evening, Mrs. Houselander sent Caryll to go buy potatoes at the market. Walking along the dreary street to the marketplace, Caryll suddenly stopped as if fixated by what she saw. A gigantic and living Russian icon of Christ crucified stretched across the entire sky. At the time, she had never seen a Russian icon.
The beauty of Christ’s face especially impressed her: “In the midst of this splendour the austere simplicity of that beautiful face stood with sharp grief. But the eyes and mouth smiled with an ineffable love which consumes sorrow and pain as rags are consumed in a burning fire.” Shortly after on this same street, Caryll read the front page of a newspaper announcing the assassination of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. To her astonishment, the face of the Czar matched exactly the face of Christ in her vision.
Because of her artistic ability, Caryll managed to win a full scholarship to St. John’s Wood Art School in London. She felt entirely at home among Bohemian artist types, whom she felt were her own folk- “My countrymen are simply the artists. They speak my language, I theirs, we breathe the same air…you never hear unkind talk or see unkind deeds among artists, and with them poverty is still honored, still beautiful.” Three art school friends pitched in with her to buy a prefab wooden structure that found its home at the end of her mother’s garden. They nicknamed it the “Spooky” and met there to work on art projects and discuss a variety of topics. While Caryll was not especially attractive physically, her zany sense of humor won her a large following of friends.
In her quest for a spiritual home, she was particularly attracted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Though Smokey dissuaded her from joining this church, she acquainted herself with the Russian community of London. In a rather curious episode of Caryll’s life, she met and fell in love with a Russian spy, whose pseudonym was Sidney Reilly. He is the so-called “Ace of Spies,” and basis of Ian Fleming’s character of James Bond. It is not clear how long this affair lasted, but apparently for just a few months. Reilly was an ambitious and high-flying individual and sadly left Caryll brokenhearted when he married another woman. He went back to Russia in an effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks and the NKVD caught him. In a moment of intense clairvoyance, Caryll literally suffered with him as the NKVD tortured him in prison and shot him dead in a forest.
The third and most significant of Caryll’s visions occurred around this time. She was traveling on a crowded subway train with every conceivable type of person aboard. “Quite suddenly,” she says, “I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all.” She walked out on the streets and the phenomenon continued- Christ was in each person. This experience continued for several days and would significantly shape her theological understanding of Christ dwelling in each person.
The end of her love affair and the experience of seeing Christ in every person marked a turning point in her Caryll’s life. She returned to Mass and met Iris Wyndham. Through a friend Vivian Richardson, she learned of Iris, a very beautiful “society girl” who was going through some difficult times in her marriage. Vivian suggested that she and Caryll could meet, hoping that Iris might find some help.
Since Caryll was much more at ease among Bohemian artist types, she was very much intimidated when Iris pulled up in a chauffeur-driven car. Nonetheless, she and Iris quickly became friends. Shortly thereafter, Iris divorced her husband and moved into her own home. Perhaps because of loneliness, she asked Caryll if would like to move in with her. Caryll and Iris remained such close friends that Mr. Houselander observed twenty-five years later, “You wouldn’t find two people anywhere in the world more devoted to each other than my daughter and Mrs. Wyndham.”
Despite Iris’s apparent wealth, Caryll was usually short of money. She worked as a wood carver for Grossé, a liturgical decorating firm, specializing in Stations of the Cross. She started keeping a journal at this time, and a frequent entry indicates her awareness of having a special vocation. She sensed that she was to help others beyond liturgical artwork, but it was still vague at this point. She also wrote poetry in her free time. Around 1925, her spiritual guide became Fr. Geoffrey Bliss, S.J., the editor of the Sacred Heart Messenger. After reading some of Caryll’s poems, which he coined as “rhythms,” he was convinced that her talent lay not in carving but in writing. She started writing and illustrating children’s stories for this magazine.
A notable aspect of Caryll’s personality is her highly developed “sixth sense.” She saw events happening from a distance and had a keen awareness of persons who had died. She could perceive personality traits and sometimes even past or future events by reading a person’s handwriting; sometimes, merely holding a folded letter in her hand gave her insight into persons or future events.
Her clairvoyance also went beyond the realm of those living on earth. Although not willed on her part, she sometimes found herself in contact with persons who had died years before. For instance, while waiting for a bus one time, she noticed a person that bore a remarkable resemblance to her childhood doctor. She dismissed the thought because he had died many years previously. To her great surprise, the man boarded the bus, sat down next to her, gave her a wink and a gentle nudge with his elbow. She said somewhat snootily, “Excuse me.” He heartily laughed and said, “Oh Caryll, don’t be such a goat.” To her astonishment, he went on to speak of her health in matters that only this doctor would know about. Caryll later used this intuitive gift to help others, particularly those suffering from mental problems.
As war seemed imminent, Caryll joined the First Aid regiment in London. Her training was rigorous and the hours long, but the sense of mission and service pleased her. Some felt that England would not suffer much damage, as was the case during World War I. All the same, Caryll had no doubts that Armageddon soon would visit England.
The first German bombs came on September 14, 1940. Though Londoners responded with great courage, including Caryll, she nonetheless found the raids terrifying. Whenever the sirens went off, she performed a ludicrous dance whereby she imitated a stringed puppet whose bones are all loose in the sockets and made “ghastly ug” faces. It not only caused her friends to giggle and feel relaxed, but it likely helped release her own nervous energy.
She was present in London for every single raid and came to master her fears; “Oh yes, I was terrified,” she wrote years later, “I’ve often had to resort to sheer force to hide the fact that my teeth were chattering, and been unable to speak.” By trust in God, she gradually mastered her fears and volunteered for frightful tasks, such as fire watching on rooftops.
During the war years, Caryll’s writing for the Grail magazine came to the attention of Maisie Ward, who with her husband Frank Sheed, operated the Sheed & Ward publishing house in London. Frank approached Carryl and suggested putting together a book based on what she had already written, plus additional material. The fruit of this effort produced her first book, This War is the Passion. The book’s main point is that Christ still suffers the Passion in His Mystical Body, of which we are all members. The book was a huge success, and Caryll was not slow to share the wave of royalties.
Sheed and Ward published her second book, The Reed of God, after the War. It is a series of meditations on the Virgin Mary and remains her most popular book. The Flowering Tree, a collection of Caryll’s rhythms, quickly followed next. She wrote a gem of a book, called The Passion of the Infant Christ about the Nativity. Along with children’s stories, her book entitled Guilt, is also of lasting value for many people. Sheed and Ward published a number of her writings after her death, including her letters and autobiography, A Rocking Horse Catholic.
Because of her gift of intuitive insight and her own lifelong struggle with neurosis, Caryll became very adept at assisting psychologically imbalanced persons. As such, requests for her help multiplied. Dr. Eric Strauss, later president of the British Psychological Society learned of her abilities and asked if she would help two children with serious difficulties. Despite Caryll’s limited education, Dr. Strauss felt that Caryll had a genius for making persons feel loved. This proved very effective in the healing process. She felt a special affinity for these children, perhaps because of her own wounds from childhood and tendency towards neurosis.
Interestingly, she and Dr. Strauss developed a program of art therapy, where the children worked on various projects at a small school. Many years later, someone inquired of Dr. Strauss about Caryll’s success with these children, when all others failed. He responded, “She loved them back to life.” Caryll’s activities in this field also extended to adults in asylums, many of whom were able to return to normal life in society.
Around 1949, Caryll received a diagnosis of breast cancer, which an operation mostly removed. After her operation, she decided that life was too precious and she must live with less stress. She purchased some land in the countryside and built a studio cottage, calling it Woodpeckers. There, she wished to devote herself to woodcarving: “There is no work on earth, which in my mind is more soothing and healing than carving wood.”
Friends still visited her and she kept a worldwide correspondence. Unfortunately, her precarious health increasingly weakened. Her cancer returned and she slowly declined. She died in 1954 of breast cancer, aged 53. After her death, Caryll’s popularity waned, with the exception of The Reed of God. However, there appears to be a resurging interest in both her life and writings. With the republication of her works, it is only a matter of time before her she gains greater appreciation.
Caryll Houselander: That Divine Eccentric, by Maisie Ward; Sheed and Ward, 1962
Caryll Houselander: Essential Writings, edited by Wendy M. Wright, 2005
A Rocking Horse Catholic; Autobiography of C. Houselander
This video gives a good analysis of life in London during the Blitz.
Article on Sidney Reilly.
Use of the video courtesy of Dr. Kelley Spoerl, Professor, Theology Department, Saint Anselm College. Also, Dr. Spoerl’s article was helpful for additional biographical info.