Poets Who Make Us Better: Caryll Houselander, Christian Mystic
The road to mysticism is sometimes paved with ruins and wreckage as Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) colorfully illustrated in her life. She liked to drink. She liked to curse. And she fell in love with a Russian spy, who broke her heart by marrying someone else.
As the Blitz killed 40,000 people in and around London where she lived during World War II, Caryll drowned out the noise and her own explosive fears while writing her first book The War is Passion. These lines from the book give us an idea of the changes happening within her as bombs dropped and sirens blared, and she came to realize this calming thought:
“There are people who do not find it necessary to use words or ideas for meditation. We know we can hear a song, sung in a language of which we know not one word, but of the rhythm, the melody of it finds an answer in our heart, it echoes from our own soul. We can understand it without being able to translate a word of it into our own speech. For some, prayer is like that.”
In 1944, Caryll wrote The Reed of God, an inspired collection of devotionals about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She wrote poetry, too, but called the poems her “rhythms,” which I’d be more apt to call “perceptive.” Take, for example, her opening lines of this longer poem:
The Old Woman
The old woman, who nods by the Altar,
Is plain and ill shapen
and her clothes musty.
She thinks her life useless.
She has scrubbed many floors,
And always she did it, mostly
for God’s glory;
but never with the vision
that makes the work easy.
The empathy Caryll felt with other people grew so strong, it didn’t even matter if they were alive! She physically felt the pain of others, saw the face of Christ in everyone, and experienced a peculiar closeness with people who had died.
Eventually Caryll acquired the reputation of being a spiritual writer or modern-day mystic, and yet I knew none of this when I bought her slender volume, A Child in Winter – a post-humus collection of short devotionals from her various books. I just wanted something with a Christmas theme to read during Advent. So it’s not really Caryll’s poetry or “rhythms” that first spoke to me but rather her insights into spiritual matters that make us better people and give us cause to pause and consider such words as these:
“Christ has lived each of our lives” from her book, The Risen Christ.
“The Law of Growth is rest,” from The Passion of the Infant Christ.
“Truth would be a very small and petty thing if it would fit into our minds,” The Reed of God.
The little book I bought for Advent includes other lines and passages from The Reed of God, many of which seem significant not only to seekers of the spiritual but to poets, writers, and other artists. For example:
“Those who seek are more aware than any others. They observe every face; they look deep into every personality; they hear every modulation in the voice. They hear music and words and the sounds of machinery, laughter, and tears with new hearing, attentive ears. They hear and see and taste life in a new way, with a finer consciousness, more analytically, because they are searching, because truth and only truth can ease their thirst; and with incomparably more delight, because, in this seeking, searching, and finding are one thing; everywhere and in everyone they find what they seek.”
For most of us, this awareness of people and the world seems especially keen during the Christmas season as we focus more fully on one another and on the Christ Child, Who awaits our love. Caryll Houselander understood this vital relationship, which she expressed for us in The Reed of God:
“Most people know the sheer wonder that goes with falling in love, how not only does everything in heaven and earth become new, but the lover becomes new as well. It is…like the sap rising in the tree, putting forth new green shoots of life. The capacity for joy is doubled, the awareness of beauty sharpened, the power to do and enjoy creative work increased immeasurably. The heart is enlarged; there is more sympathy, more warmth in it than ever before.
“This being in love increases a person’s life, makes them potent with new life, a life-giver; from it comes all the poetry, music, and art in the world. Human beings, made in the image of God, must also make the image of God’s own love. We make songs and tunes and drawings and poems; children’s stories, fairy stories; jewels, dances, and all else that tells the story of our love long after our heart is dust.
“Christ on earth was a man in love. His love gave life to all loves. He was Love itself. He infused life with all the grace of its outward and inward joyfulness, with all its poetry and song, with all the gaiety and laughter….”
Mary Harwell Sayler‘s bio:
Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually she placed three dozen books in all genres including poetry and how-to books on poetry and writing. She also maintains the Poetry Editor blog and provides resources for poets and writers on her website. Recently she collected almost all of the prayers in the Bible from many English translations, paraphrased them into contemporary language, and published the Book of Bible Prayers. She then published the prayer book in the King James Version only, the Book of KJV Prayers.