In my view, a study of one's childhood does tell more than anything else about one's whole life," said Caryll Houselander, commenting on her autobiography, "A Rocking-Horse Catholic."
"I mean that in the childhood lies the whole life, hidden like the life of a flower or a tree in the seed. Certainly we can't always read its secrets, but they are there."
Caryll Houselander, perhaps the most popular spiritual writer of her day, had an unusually difficult childhood, due both to lingering poor health and the strained relationship she had with her parents.
But it was precisely this time of trial that paved the way for her career, as a writer, artist, poet, mystic and amateur healer of neurotics. Houselander used the unique insight she had gained not only to peer into the lives of others, but into the life of Christ, and even into her own soul.
Today, many of her classic works, most notably "Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross" (formerly the "Passion of the Infant Jesus") are getting a new read. Composed with the mind of an artist and the sensitivity of one exposed, not just to the struggle of an unhappy childhood, but also to the horrors of war, Houselander's books speak movingly to people of any age of the virtues of faith, hope and charity.
Frances Caryll Houselander was born in England to Gertrude Provis and Willmott Houselander on Oct. 29, 1901, the second of two daughters, and was considerably unlike the outgoing, attractive and athletic parents who bore her.
She was not expected to survive for more than a day, and so was baptized in haste at the insistence of her uncle, a gynecologist who assisted with the birth.
She was named after this uncle, and the yacht, "Caryll," upon which her mother had spent the last several months of her pregnancy. She went on to survive her first day, and indeed many more after that, though her health continued to be poor throughout her life.
When Houselander was 6 years old, a family friend persuaded Gertrude to have the children baptized Catholic, though the practice of the faith did not begin until some years later.
It was from this late entrance into the Church that Houselander fashioned the name of her autobiography, as she was more accurately a "rocking-horse Catholic" than she was a "cradle Catholic."
No formal religious education followed her reception into the Church, though her mother did require a strict piety from the girls, forcing them to construct small altars and repeat endless prayers for the benefit of visiting clergy.
Amidst this forced digestion of beliefs, Caryll developed an intense love for the Lord, which ultimately led her to seek, on her own, the earliest possible reception of her first Communion. And so at the age of 7, on the feast of the Precious Blood, she made her first Confession and received her first Communion.
Houselander greatly desired to frequent the sacraments, but a sudden and serious, though mysterious, illness put her in bed for months. Though she begged to receive the Eucharist, it was not until she seemed to be approaching death that her mother brought in a priest to administer last rites to the child.
Immediately upon receiving the Blessed Sacrament, she sat up and recovered, leading those present, her mother and the priest included, to question the legitimacy of her illness. For Houselander, however, it was the beginning of a lifelong love for Christ and for His Church.When she was 9, her world was shattered when her parents announced their intention to divorce. Though they were never formally divorced, the separation which began at this time was to be a permanent one. For the next several years, she changed homes and schools, never fully settling in one place before she was moved to the next.
Her erratic health in various convent schools had led her doctors to advise that she avoid all class work, and, amazingly, the schools agreed. Thus, apart from the philosophical espousals of a family friend, whom the children lovingly referred to as "Smoky," by the time Houselander returned home in 1917, her formal education was virtually nonexistent.
She was a mystic, and the first of three visions came during her years in the convent schools while she was still a young girl. Though they varied greatly in imagery, the substance remained the same. Over and over again, she was being called to see Christ in all people. This principle would permeate all of her work, of writing, counseling, sculpting and volunteering.
Having survived London's Zeppelin raids in World War I, Houselander returned again to school, receiving a full scholarship for art school. It was during this period that she drifted from the Catholic Church for the only time in her life.
She soon found that no other religion could take the place of that which she had grown to love, and yearning again for the Eucharist, she returned to the Catholic Church at age 24.
Through her confessor, she quickly came into the friendship of Father Bliss, editor of The Messenger of the Sacred Heart and The Children's Messenger, who advised her to put away all other efforts and concentrate on her writing.
Houselander soon began to do articles and illustrations for his magazines, which ultimately led to her making the acquaintance of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. Sheed and Ward would become the largest publishers of Houselander's books.
Through her prolific articles and books, Houselander gained tremendous popularity and acclaim, a status she would have never sought for herself. Always one to open her home and her heart to those in need, she was frequently overwhelmed physically, emotionally and mentally by those who sought her for counsel and spiritual direction, yet she remained reluctant, despite illness or exhaustion, to turn people away.
She did on occasion seek refuge in the countryside, but she always found herself migrating back to London, invariably the place where she would be most beset by these callers. Msgr. Ronald Knox, a contemporary, and admirer of Houselander, recognized her tremendous gift of insight.
"She seemed," he said, "to see everything for the first time, and the driest of doctrinal considerations shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it."
Her popularity and success in healing the hurts and the hearts of many became a formal work when Dr. Strauss, later President of the British Psychological Society, began to send patients to her for healing. Her gift? "She loved them back to life," he said.
Houselander seemed to possess a well that never ran dry for anyone but herself. She gave of her food to feed the hungry, her time to counsel those in need, her energy to write countless letters, articles and books, and ultimately her health for the health and well-being of others.
She spent years attending to the rigorous demands of her ailing parents, and, having been plagued by ill health her entire life, had become accustomed to pain and slow to address her own physical ailments.
Her lack of self-concern, however, which extended to everything from her looks, to her diet, her sleep, her health, her living quarters, etc., became her doom when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that had just taken her mother.
During her last years, Houselander worked tirelessly to complete books, write letters, strengthen the works of charity she had begun, and minister to the many mentally ill children who were sent her way. She died on Oct. 12, 1954, after a prolonged period of suffering.