Caryll Houselander – The Rocking Horse Catholic

Mystic, poet, artist and popular writer

Rocking Horse
James Bond was modelled by Ian Fleming, it is said, on the famous British spy, Sidney Reilly. He too was a debonair womaniser, who loved them and left them. One of Sidney’s ‘women’, who was desperately in love with him, but was abandoned for another woman, was Caryll Houselander. She never fully got over the rejection and never formed another lasting relationship. Caryll was not a Catholic until the age of 6; then she abandoned Catholicism at 18, and returned again when she was 24. She said, of herself, in her autobiography, that she was not a cradle Catholic but one that swung to and fro, like a rocking horse (hence the name of her book.). Maise Ward, the famous writer and publisher of the 1950s, described Caryll as ‘that Divine Eccentric'; and indeed she was.

Born in Bath, on 29th September 1901, Caryll was the second of the two daughters of Wilmot and Gertrude Provis Houselander. When she was six, due to the influence of a family friend, George Spencer Bower, who, surprisingly, was an agnostic, her mother became a Catholic; and Caryll was baptised. She was educated at the Convent school in Orton, Warwickshire and, for the last two years of schooling, at the Convent of the Holy Child school at St Leonard’s, Sussex. Her artistic skills, especially with pencil and chalk, were evident to all. She worked first, designing advertisements and lay-outs, for a local newspaper. When her illustrations for books (see the accompanying which was one of 12 full page, very detailed, line-drawings, for ‘A Retreat with St Ignatius’ by Fr Geoffrey Bliss S.J. published by Sheed and Ward in 1936); proclaimed her skills, she became a freelance illustrator and writer.

Shortly after her ninth birthday her parents separated and her mother opened a boarding house. Caryll was packed off to the Convent school at Orton. It was here that she had her first mystical experience. She tells in her autobiography how, one day, she entered a room and saw a Bavarian nun sitting by herself, weeping and polishing shoes. At that time there was much anti-German sentiment about. As she stared, she saw the nun’s head being pressed down by a crown of thorns, that she interpreted as Christ’s suffering in the woman.

She had been very pious as a little girl. In her book, ‘The Reed of God’ (1944) she recorded the impact of some religious advice that she received. ‘Someone, for whom I had a great respect, told me never to do anything that Our Lady would not do; for, she said, if I did, the angels in heaven would blush. For a short time this advice ‘took’ in me like an inoculation, causing a positive paralysis of piety. It was clear to me, that all those things, which spelt joy to me, were from hence forward taboo; blacking my face with burnt cork, turning somersaults between props against the garden wall, putting two bull’s -eyes into my mouth at the same time – all that was over! But even if I faced a blank future, shackled with respectability, it was still impossible to imagine Our Lady doing anything that I would do, for the simple reason that I simply could not imagine her doing anything at all!’ She said she had written ‘The Reed of God’ to help people to come to know Our Lady and, contemplating the role, learn to imitate her.

Living through the Second World War was a painful experience for Caryll. Her very first book, ‘This War is the Passion’, was published in 1941. In it she placed the suffering of the individual and its meaning within the Mystical Body of Christ. Although she had no formal training, during the War doctors began sending patients to Houselander for counselling and therapy. She seemed to have a natural empathy for people in mental anguish and a talent for helping them to rebuild their world. A visitor once came across her, alone, lying on the floor, apparently in great pain, which she attributed to her willingness to take on herself a great trial and temptation that was overwhelming another person. A psychiatrist, Eric Strauss, later President of the British Psychological Society, said of Caryll, “she loved them back to life….she really was a divine eccentric”.

One of her mystical experiences occurred when she was travelling on a busy underground train. She wrote of it in her autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic;

‘I was in an underground train, a crowded train in which all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging – workers of every description, going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw in my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that: not only was Christ in everyone of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them  – but because He was in them and because they were here, the whole world was here too, here in this underground train; not only the world as it was at this moment, not only all the people in all the countries of the world, but all the people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by – Christ.’

Another experience she recorded involved one of the doctors she had worked with. He died, but appeared to her while she was travelling on a bus. He sat next to her and they were able to talk. The three mystical experiences, that she claimed to have had, convinced her that Christ is to be found in all people, even those whom the world shunned, because they did not conform to certain criteria and standards of piety. She would write – quite often in her regular contributions to the Messenger of the Sacred Heart –  ‘if people look for Christ in only the “saints”, they won’t find him’.

Caryll was a prolific writer, being, for some years the Catholic Publisher, Sheed and Ward’s best selling writer. Father Ronald Knox, who translated the whole of the Bible into English, said of her, ‘she seemed to see everything for the first time and the driest of doctrinal teachings shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it’.

For the year of Faith one of Caryll’s many published poems might be revisited:

Christ looked at the people.
He saw them assailed by fear;
he saw the locked door;
he saw the knife in the hand;
he saw the buried coin;
he saw the unworn coat,
consumed by moth.

He saw the stagnant water
drawn and kept in the pitcher,
the musty bread in the bin –
the defended,
the unshared,
the ungiven.

He told them then
of the love
that casts out fear,
of the love that is four walls
and a roof over the head:
of the knife in the sheath,
of the coin in the open hand,
of the coin given
warm with the giver’s life,
of the water poured in the cup,
of the table spread –
the undefended,
the shared,
the given –
the kingdom of heaven.

Caryll Houselander died of breast cancer in 1954, at the age of 53


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