Along with the better-known St. Therese of Lisieux (The Little Flower), there were three extraordinary women mystics from the Roman Catholic tradition who expressed an intense, living relationship with Jesus Christ. Two were her contemporaries — Gemma Galgani and Elizabeth of the Trinity — while the third lived slightly later, Caryll Houslander. From a number of examples of passionate Catholic mystical fervor reported in the last century (such as Gabrielle Bossis, Therese Neumann, Bernadette of Lourdes, Maria Bolognesi, Alexandrina da Costa, Padre Pio, and Mariam Baouardy, just to name a few), Gemma, Elizabeth, and Caryll left behind a sufficient enough body of writings and quotes to warrant an inclusion in this series on the writings of the Western Mystics.
Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani (or Gemma Galgani as she became commonly known) (March 12, 1878 – April 11, 1903) was an Italian mystic, venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church since 1940. She has been called the “Daughter of Passion” because of her profound imitation of the Passion of Christ.
Gemma Galgani was born on March 12, 1878, in the hamlet of Borgo Nuovo in the provincial town of Capannori. Gemma was the fifth of eight children; her father, Enrico Galgani, was a prosperous pharmacist. Soon after Gemma’s birth, the family relocated north from Borgo Nuovo to a large new home in the Tuscan city of Lucca in a move which was undertaken to facilitate an improvement in the children’s education. Gemma’s mother, Aurelia Galgani, contracted tuberculosis. Because of this hardship, Gemma was placed in a private nursery school run by Elena and Ersilia Vallini when she was two-and-a-half years old, and was regarded as a highly intelligent child.
Several members of the Galgani family died during this period. Their firstborn child, Carlo, died at an early age. On September 17, 1885, Aurelia Galgani died from tuberculosis, which she had for five years. Gemma’s beloved brother Gino, while studying for the priesthood, died from tuberculosis and her little sister Giulia also died at a young age.
Gemma was sent to a Catholic half-boarding school in Lucca run by the Sisters of St. Zita. She excelled in French, arithmetic and music. Gemma was allowed at age nine to receive her first communion. Later she was not accepted by the Passionists to become a nun because of her poor health and her visions. At age 20, Gemma developed spinal meningitis, but was healed, attributing her extraordinary cure to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the intercession of Venerable Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (later canonized a saint), and Saint Marguerite Marie Alacoque. Gemma was orphaned shortly after she turned 18, making her responsible for the upbringing of her younger siblings, which she did with her aunt Carolina. She declined two marriage proposals and became a housekeeper with the Giannini family.
According to a biography written by her spiritual director, the Reverend Germanus Ruoppolo, CP (now a venerable), Gemma began to display signs of the stigmata on June 8, 1899, at the age of twenty-one. She stated that she had spoken with her guardian angel, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints—especially Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. According to her testimonies, she sometimes received special messages from them about current or future events. With her health in decline, Ruoppolo directed her to pray for the disappearance of her stigmata; she did so and the marks ceased. She said that she resisted the Devil’s attacks often.
Gemma was frequently found in a state of ecstasy. She has also been reputed to levitate. In one instance, in the dining room of her home was a large crucifix that was highly venerated by the whole family, particularly by Gemma. She claimed that at least once that she found herself raised from the floor with her arms around the crucifix while kissing the wound on the side of the crucified.
“Jesus possesses my heart, and being in possession of Jesus I find that I can smile, even in the midst of so many tears. I feel, yes, I feel that I am happy even in the midst of so many sufferings.”
Gemma tells what took place when she received the Holy Stigmata on June 8 in the year 1899, a Thursday, on the eve of the feast of the Sacred Heart. The Saint discloses:
“I felt an inward sorrow for my sins, but so intense that I have never felt the like again … My will made me detest them all, and promise willingly to suffer everything as expiation for them. Then the thoughts crowded thickly within me, and they were thoughts of sorrow, love, fear, hope and comfort.”
Saint Gemma then experienced a rapture in which she saw her guardian angel in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Gemma tells what took place next:
“The Blessed Virgin Mary opened her mantle and covered me with it. At that very moment Jesus appeared with his wounds all open; blood was not flowing from them, but flames of fire which in one moment came and touched my hands, feet and heart. I felt I was dying, and should have fallen down but for my Mother (Blessed Virgin Mary) who supported me and kept me under her mantle. Thus I remained for several hours. Then my Mother kissed my forehead, the vision disappeared and I found myself on my knees; but I still had a keen pain in my hands, feet and heart. I got up to get into bed and saw that blood was coming from the places where I had the pain. I covered them as well as I could and then, helped by my guardian angel, got into bed.”
Gemma was often treated with disdain by some in the Church’s hierarchy; even her own confessor was at times skeptical of her mystical gifts. Her spiritual director, the Reverend Ruoppolo, was initially reserved, but after a thorough and prudent examination of the ongoing events surrounding her, he became completely convinced of the authenticity of her mystical life. After her death, he wrote a detailed biography of her life and was responsible for gathering all her writings, including her diary, autobiography, and letters.
In early 1903, Gemma was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and thus began a long and often painful death. There were numerous extraordinary mystical phenomena that occurred during her final illness. One of the religious nursing sisters who attended to her stated, “We have cared for a good many sick people, but we have never seen anything like this.” At the beginning of Holy Week 1903, her health quickly deteriorated, and by Good Friday she was suffering tremendously. Gemma died in a small room across from the Giannini house on April 11, 1903—Holy Saturday. After a thorough examination of her life by the Church, she was beatified on May 14, 1933 and canonized on May 2, 1940. Galgani’s relics are housed at the Passionist monastery in Lucca, Italy.
She was beatified within 30 years from the date of her death which included the mandatory five years waiting period before the process of canonization starts. Very few in the Catholic Church have had sainthood conferred on them this quickly. As one of the most popular saints of the Passionist Order, the devotion to Gemma Galgani is particularly strong both in Italy and Latin America. She is a patron saint of students (said to be the top of her class before having to leave school).
Some quotes from Gemma Galgani:
” Oh love, oh infinite love! See: Your love, oh Lord, Your love penetrates even to my body, with too much fury. When, when will I unite with You, oh Lord, Who with such force of love keeps me in union here on earth? … Do it, do it! … Let me die, and die of love! …..What a beautiful death, oh Lord, to die a victim of love ……a victim for You! Calm down, calm down oh Jesus; if not, Your love will end up burning me to ashes! … Oh love, oh infinite love! …..Oh love of my Jesus! ….Let Your love penetrate my all; from You I want nothing else. My God, my God, I love You! But, per¬haps I love You too little, oh Jesus?….Oh, if all were to know how beautiful Jesus is, how loving He is! They would all die of love. And yet, how is it that He is so little loved?”
“Oh Jesus, what would have become of me, if you had not drawn me to You?…..I am Yours, Oh Jesus!..Jesus I love Thee! Open Your heart to me; I wish to place all of my affections there. I open mine to You!”
“Oh Jesus . . . oh Jesus . . . What are these strong attrac¬tions which unite me so powerfully to you? Is it Your heart which beats so near mine? . . . What power there is in Your heart! Explain it to me, Jesus. How is it that this poor soul does not escape from its prison to go to heaven and rejoice in Your Divine Presence? It can resist no longer . . . every morning I hear Your be¬loved voice . . . I taste such ineffable sweetness . . .”
“Jesus, You ask only love from me; and I, in order to love You, ask much love also, for I have not enough. See, Jesus, when, in the morning, I feel Your presence in Communion, I am conscious of myself no longer. And, Jesus, who would have thought that your heart would join its beatings to those of mine? Oh! Grant me the summit of happiness, grant me the consolation that I ask of You; repeat the sweet words which You said to me Sun¬day. When, Jesus, will You become my Heavenly Spouse?”
“You are on fire Oh Lord, and I burn. Oh pain, oh infinitely happy love! Oh sweet fire! Oh sweet flames! And would You wish my heart to become a flame? Oh, I have found the flame that destroys and reduces to ashes! Cease, cease, I cannot withdraw my heart from so much fire. What am I saying? No; rather come Jesus! I will open my heart to You; put Thy Divine fire into it. You are a flame, and let my heart be turned into a flame!….Come then, Oh Jesus! Your heart is a flame and you wish mine to be turned into a flame as well….Jesus, I feel I must die when you are throbbing so in my heart.”
“Two sentiments were born in my heart the very first time that I felt and saw Jesus dripping in blood. The first one was to love Him , and to love Him to the point of sacrifice….the other thing that was borne in my heart after seeing Jesus was a great desire to suffer something for Him, seeing how much He had suffered for me!..”
“Is it possible that there are souls who do not understand what the Blessed Eucharist is? Who are insensible to the Divine Presence…..to the mysterious and fervent effusions of the Sacred Heart of my Jesus? O Heart of Jesus! Heart of love!” “Yesterday, in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament I felt myself burning so fiercely that I had to go away. I felt stunned that so many could stay so close to Jesus and not be reduced to ashes. I felt that I would be consumed. Jesus is such a sweet and irresistible Lover; how can one fail to love Him with one’s whole heart and soul? How can one not wish to be wholly united in Him, and consumed in the flames of His holy love?”
“Oh Jesus, do not let me do things that are above me. I am good for nothing. I do not know how to return all these great graces you have given me. Seek someone else who will know how to do better than I. Oh Jesus, if people knew me, they would not come and ask for my prayers. Gemma alone can do nothing. But together Gemma and Jesus can do all things!”
“I live on this earth, but I seem to dwell here like a soul who has lost it’s way, because never for a moment do I cease looking towards Jesus, apart from whom I despise all things. I greatly rejoice that time flies so quickly, because that means so much less time to spend in this world, where there is nothing to attract me. My heart goes incessantly in search of a Treasure, an immense Treasure that I do not find in creatures; a Treasure that will satisfy me and console me, and give me rest.”
“My spirit is will¬ing but my flesh is weak, weak because I am so lazy. What would I not do for Jesus! For anyone who had just one of His glances, it would suffice; what force, what vigor he would feel! I feel that I would do anything for Him to see Him content; the greatest torment would seem to me easy to bear supported by Him, every drop of my blood I would give willingly, and all to satisfy Him, to prevent poor sinners from offending Him. My God, what do I say? I should wish my voice to reach to the uttermost ends of the earth; I should wish to have all sinners under¬stand me. I should want to cry out to them: ‘Rather than insult Jesus, prefer to be insulted yourselves.’ If you knew, Father, how Jesus is afflicted in certain moments at certain times! Oh, it is not possible to bear the sight of Him longing and, yet, how few are those who suffer with Him? Very few, and Jesus finds Himself almost alone. It is so sad to see Jesus in the midst of sorrows! But how can one see Him in that state and not aid Him?”
“Jesus, as soon as he arrived on my tongue (the cause so often of so many sins), made Himself felt immediately. I was no longer in myself but Jesus was in me; He descended to my breast. (I say breast, because I no longer have a heart; I gave it to Jesus’ Mother.) What happy moments I spent with Jesus! How could I return His affections? With what words could I express His love, and for this poor creature? Yet He did deign to come. It’s truly impossible, yes, it is impossible not to love Jesus. How many times He asked me if I love Him and if I truly love Him. And do you still doubt it, my Jesus? So, He unites ever more closely with me, talks to me, says He wants me to be perfect, that He too loves me very much and I should reciprocate.”
Elizabeth of the Trinity
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, OCD (French: Élisabeth de la Trinité), (July 18, 1880 – November 9, 1906) was a French Discalced Carmelite nun, mystic, and spiritual writer. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church.
From her earliest years, Elizabeth’s personality was also marked by a determined, energetic disposition. The strong-willed, exuberant child’s energy, however, often became violent, resulting in fits of rage. She could not support being opposed, seeming “to think that all must give way before her.” Nevertheless, this child who was once described mischievously as “pure devil” simultaneously demonstrated and developed a great attraction to prayer.
The year 1887 marked a great change in seven-year-old Elizabeth’s life. The year began with the death of her maternal grandfather in January. In October of that same year, her father, Joseph, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-five. Madame Catez and her two children (Elizabeth’s sister, Marguerite, who had been born in 1883) soon moved from their former house to an apartment in what could be called the suburbs of Dijon. From the window of her room in her new home, Elizabeth could see the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns.
After the death of her father, Elizabeth’s outbursts of anger increased both in number and in violence. During the course of the same year, though, the child experienced for the first time the sacrament of Penance, which brought about what she styled her “conversion’.” She henceforth began to struggle noticeably against her violent temper, promising her mother that she would strive to be the very model of a “sweet, patient, and obedient” daughter.
However, it was only four years later that the future Blessed would manage finally to conquer her difficult temperament. In the spring of 1891, when she was almost eleven years old, Elizabeth made her First Communion. Sensitive by nature, especially to things sacred, she was profoundly affected by her first reception of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Tears of joy were seen to run down the young girl’s face after her Communion. Upon leaving the church, she said to a close friend, “I’m no longer hungry. Jesus has fed me.”
On the afternoon of her First Communion, Elizabeth also encountered the prioress of the Carmel of Dijon for the first time. The prioress, upon learning the name of the child, explained to her that “Elizabeth-means “house of God.” A few days later, she would send this same message to Elizabeth, writing on the back of a holy card: “Your blessed name hides a mystery, accomplished on this great day. Child, your heart is the House of God on earth, of the God of love.”
Soon after, Elizabeth became interested in entering the Discalced Carmelite Order, although her mother strongly advised against it. Men had asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, but she declined, because her dream was to enter the Discalced Carmelite monastery that was located 200 meters from her home, receiving the name “Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity.” Elizabeth entered the Dijon Carmel on August 2, 1901.
She said, “I find Him everywhere while doing the wash as well as while praying.” Her awareness and experience of the Triune God dwelling within her continued to grow. Through her communion with Christ in the Eucharist and in the Scriptures, the young Carmelite’s spiritual life deepened even more. She drew nourishment from the teachings of the great saints of Carmel — St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, as well as from her contemporary, Therese of Lisieux. Above all, though, Elizabeth names as “the father of her soul” St. Paul, who preached to her “nothing but this mystery of the charity of Christ.” She came to the realization that God creates us in order to lead us to communion with Himself, the God who is Love itself.
In response to this loving plan of God, Elizabeth desired to live fully her Christian and Carmelite vocation. On November 21, 1904, the feast of the Presentation of Mary, Elizabeth composed her famous prayer to the Trinity. This prayer is an offering of herself to the God who is Love. It marks out the program of life which Elizabeth desired to follow. In it we see her desire to be united to Christ, conformed to him, in order to please the Father and to enter profoundly into the dynamic and infinite love of the Trinity. Elizabeth begs the Holy Spirit to “create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” She entreats the Father: “Bend lovingly over Your poor little creature; cover her with Your shadow” seeing in her only the “Beloved in whom You are well pleased.” She concludes by surrendering herself to the Trinity, begging God: “Bury yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness ”
It was only two years after composing this prayer that Elizabeth of the Trinity finally did depart this life in order to contemplate the abyss of God’s great love for all eternity. The young Carmelite died after many months of suffering from Addison’s Disease, a malady of the kidneys which at that time was incurable. As a result of this illness, Elizabeth suffered great fatigue, an inability to digest food, intense abdominal pains and great thirst. She wrote that she felt as though tiny beasts were devouring her insides, and said that one of the first things she would do in heaven was to have a drink of water. Her community noted the great patience, courage, and joy with which Elizabeth suffered.
The young Carmelite viewed her suffering as a way of being conformed to Jesus, as a way of sharing in the redemptive suffering of her divine Bridegroom for the good of the greater community. As such, Elizabeth even came to view this suffering as a gift. She explains to her mother in a letter written from her sickbed:
“Oh how your mother’s heart should leap for divine joy in thinking that the Master has deigned to choose your daughter, the fruit of your womb, to associate her with His great work of redemption, and that He suffers in her, as it were, an extension of His passion. The bride belongs to the Bridegroom, and mine has taken me. He wants me to be another humanity for Him in which He can still suffer for the glory of His Father, to help the needs of His Church: this thought has done me so much good.”
At the end of her life, she began to call herself “Laudem Gloriae”. Elizabeth wanted that to be her appellation in Heaven because it means “praise of glory”. She said, “I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them to go out of themselves in order to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within which will allow God to communicate Himself to them and to transform them into Himself.” Her spirituality is remarkably similar to that of her contemporary and compatriot Discalced Carmelite sister, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, who was cloistered at the Carmel in Lisieux, France. The two saints share a zeal for contemplation and the salvation of souls.
In a letter written just a few weeks before her death in the year 1906, Elizabeth declared to a friend: “My beloved Antoinette, I leave you my faith in the presence of God, of the God who is all Love dwelling in our souls. I confide to you: it is this intimacy with Him ‘within’ that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven: it is what sustains me today in my suffering.” This young nun, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, has since been given such titles as “the prophet of the presence of God,” “the saint of the divine indwelling,” or “the saint of one idea,” because of her strong experience of the indwelling of God in her soul.
Sr. Elizabeth died at the age of 26 from Addison’s disease, which in the early 20th century had no treatment. Even though her death was painful, Elizabeth gratefully accepted her suffering as a gift from God. Her last words were: “I am going to Light, to Love, to Life!” Elizabeth was beatified by Pope John Paul II on November 25, 1984. Her feast day is celebrated on November 8. Her most famous prayer is “Holy Trinity Whom I Adore”, which she wrote out of her love of the Most Blessed Trinity. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity is a patron against illness, of sick people, and of the loss of parents.
Quotes from Elizabeth:
“It seems to me that I have found my heaven on earth, because my heaven is you, my God, and you are in my soul. You in me, and I in you – may this be my motto. What a joyous mystery is your presence within me, in that intimate sanctuary of my soul where I can always find you, even when I do not feel your presence. Of what importance is feeling? Perhaps you are all the closer when I feel you less.”
“Make my soul…Your cherished dwelling place, Your home of rest. Let me never leave You there alone, but keep me there all absorbed in You, in living faith, adoring You.”
“May my life be a continual prayer, a long act of love. May nothing distract me from You, neither noise nor diversions. O my Master, I would so love to live with You in silence. But what I love above all is to do Your will, and since You want me still to remain in the world, I submit with all my heart for love of You. I offer you the cell of my heart; may it be Your little Bethany. Come rest there; I love you so….I would like to console You, and offer myself to You as a victim. O my Master, for You, with You.”
“A soul united to Jesus is a living smile that radiates Him and gives Him.”
“I can’t find words to express my happiness. Here there is no longer anything but God. He is All; He suffices and we live by Him alone.”
“I leave you my faith in the presence of God, of the God who is all Love dwelling in our souls. I confide to you: it is this intimacy with Him ‘within’ which has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated heaven.”
“O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it Your heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to Your creative Action.
O my beloved Christ, crucified by love, I wish to be a bride for Your Heart; I wish to cover You with glory; I wish to love You…even unto death! But I feel my weakness, and I ask You to “clothe me with Yourself,” to identify my soul with all the movements of Your Soul, to overwhelm me, to possess me, to substitute yourself for me that my life may be but a radiance of Your Life. Come into me as Adorer, as Restorer, as Savior.
O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.
O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, “come upon me,” and create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery. And You, O Father, bend lovingly over Your poor little creature; “cover her with Your shadow,” seeing in her only the “Beloved in whom You are well pleased.”
O my Three, my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to You as Your prey. Bury Yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness.”
Caryll Houselander (29 September 1901 – 12 October 1954) was a British lay Roman Catholic ecclesiastical artist, mystic, poet and spiritual teacher who lived in London during the Blitz, and throughout her whole life, till she died at 53 from breast cancer, apparently barely slept or ate.
Born in Bath, England, England, Houselander was the second of two daughters of Wilmott and Gertrude Provis Houselander. When Houselander was six, her mother converted to Catholicism and she in turn was so baptised. Shortly after her ninth birthday, her parents separated and her mother opened a boarding house to support the family. Houselander was sent to a convent where she reported her first mystical experience. One day, she entered a room and saw a Bavarian nun sitting by herself, weeping and polishing shoes. At this time, there was much anti-German sentiment owing to the war. As she stared, she saw the nun’s head being pressed down by a crown of thorns that she was to interpret as Christ’s suffering in the woman.
In her teens, she returned home to help her mother in the running of the boarding house. Gertrude allowed a priest to stay and this became such a source of scandal that Houselander and her mother suffered ostracism in the community. This may have been partly influential in her decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church as a teenager, not returning until in her twenties. It may also have contributed to a sense of isolation she would feel at times, reflected in panic attacks when entering rooms and meeting strangers, so much so that she was considered neurotic.
One night, in July 1918, Houselander was sent by her mother on an errand. On her way to the street vendor, she looked up and saw what she later described as a huge Russian icon spread across the sky. The icon she saw was Christ crucified lifted up and looking down, brooding over the world. Shortly after, she read in a newspaper an article about the assassination of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. She said the face she saw in the newspaper photograph was the face she saw spread out over the sky as the crucified Christ.
A third vision occurred when she was travelling on a busy underground train when she suddenly saw Christ, living and rejoicing, suffering and dying, in each and everyone of the passengers. When she left the train, the mystical experience continued for several days, during which she became persuaded that the unity of life in Christ was the only solution to loneliness and the human condition.
Another experience involved one of her doctors, who had died but appeared and sat next to her on a bus. They were able to talk and converse.
The three mystical experiences she claimed to have experienced convinced her that Christ is to be found in all people, even those whom the world shunned because they did not conform to certain standards of piety. She would write that if people looked for Christ in only the “saints,” they would not find him. She herself smoked and drank and had a sharp tongue. She returned to the Catholic Church in 1925, but her spiritual reading was founded almost entirely on the Gospels, rather than the Fathers of the Church or official Church documents. She met and fell in love with Sidney Reilly, famous spy and the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, but he left her broken-hearted when he married another woman. She would never marry.
Houselander was a prolific writer and contributed many pieces to religious magazines, such as the Messenger of the Sacred Heart and The Children’s Messenger. Her first book, This War is the Passion, was published in 1941 and in it she placed the suffering of the individual and its meaning within the mystical body of Christ. For a time, she became publishers Sheed & Ward’s best-selling writer, drawing praise from people such as Ronald Knox:
“She seemed 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. And her writing was always natural; she seemed to find no difficulty in getting the right word; no, not merely the right word, the telling word, that left you gasping.”
During the Second World War, doctors began sending patients to Houselander for counselling and therapy. Even though she lacked formal education in this area, she seemed to have a natural empathy for people in mental anguish and the talent for helping them to rebuild their world. A visitor once found her alone 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 Houslander: “she loved them back to life…she was a divine eccentric.”
Caryll’s “divinely eccentric” life was principally a devotion to contemplating Christ in all and men and women and in all life circumstances. Maisie Ward, a friend of Caryll and author of her principal biography, Caryll Houselander; That Divine Eccentric, states, “Her message can be summed in a single sentence; we must learn to see Christ in everyone.”
Maisie Ward’s biography is a highly recommended introduction to the person of Caryll Houselander. In this work we meet Caryll as a woman of complexity. She has extraordinary faith, a visionary and healer, and is also a woman of great vivacity and humanity. Caryll provided friends with moments of dry wit (which she sometimes later regretted) and was an inveterate chain smoker. A concise sampling of Caryll Houselander’s writing is found in the book, Caryll Houselander; Essential Writings by Wendy M. Wright (Orbis, 2005).
One cannot underestimate the weight and influence of Caryll Houselander as a modern Catholic woman and religious writer. Her writings, at times penned while bombs dropped upon London, touched the very heart of the twentieth century. Caryll Houselander has been described as being a mystic in the tradition of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila. She is best known for her works such as A Rocking Horse Catholic, The Reed of God, The Way of the Cross, This War is the Passion, and her book of poetry The Flowering Tree.
Caryll died of breast cancer in 1954, at the age of 53. Her bibliography consists of more than seven hundred written works including poems, short stories and articles, articles for juvenile publications and children’s books (for some of these she did artwork for as well), articles for various Catholic publications, and, of course, her own books.
Some quotes from Caryll Houselander:
“Love is most likely to spring from another’s need for us, and the fact of spending ourselves for another always generates new life in us. To give life is the purpose of love, and we love those people most of all whose needs waken a response in us that floods us with creative energy, causing us to put out new green shoots of life.”
“Christ is among us His heart like a rose expanding within us . . .”
“God’s will for you is to serve him, in his way, as he chooses now. It is only a want of humility to think of extreme vocations, like being a nun or a nurse, while you try to by-pass your present obvious vocation . . . Today you have to use what you have today, and do not look beyond it.”
“We go through life with dark forces within us and around us, haunted by the ghosts of repudiated terrors and embarrassments, assailed by devils, but we are also continually guided by invisible hands; our darkness is lit by many little flames, from night-lights to the stars. Those who are afraid to look into their own hearts know nothing of the light that shines in the darkness.”
“Prayer alone can teach us to concentrate again, can lead us to absolute trust in God, and make our minds ready for other essential things . . . for the contemplation (not mere observation) of beauty.”
“It seems a law of fallen nature that life must always come to its being through darkness, and this makes us even more aware of its beauty. Dawn is lovelier because it comes after night, spring because it follows winter.”
“To surrender all that we are, as we are, to the spirit of love in order that our lives may bear Christ into the world – that is what we shall be asked.”
“The beginning of human happiness, and even of human sanity, is to begin to know God . . . Goodness draws the human soul as a tide is drawn by light.”
“Lift up your eyes and see the star!”
“The one essential for sanctity is the capacity to love.”
“The one thing she [Mary] did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.”
“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 himself becomes new. It is literally like the sap rising in the tree, putting forth new green shoots of life.”
“Christ asks for a home in your soul, where he can be at rest with you, where he can talk easily to you, where you and he, alone together, can laugh and be silent and be delighted with one another.”
“The sense of the joy in anything is the sense of Christ.”
“The way to begin healing the wounds of the world is to treasure the Infant Christ in us; to be not the castle but the cradle of Christ; and, in rocking that cradle to the rhythm of love, to swing the whole world back into the beat of the Music of Eternal Life.”
“I wanted to shut my mind, that my thoughts might close on my own peace, I wanted to close the peace of my love in my heart like dew in a dark rose.”
“Why must we be always seeking for the lost Child? Why must we be always feeling the pain of loss? If we did not, we should not realise that our idols are not God, are not Christ. Bad as they are, they match our limitations; and if they could content us, we should never know the real beauty of Christ: we should not become whole.”
“Light’s glory is to dispel darkness. Christ has illumined you with wisdom and the fire of his presence. It has been sparked and kindled in you. Let it blaze.”
“The love for material things grows like a fungus in the soul and destroys the loveliness of the human heart utterly.”
“There are people who do not find it necessary to use words or ideas for meditation. We know that 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. The muted music of the human, suffering Christ touches a responsive chord in their own being. They do not require words and images, and indeed cannot use them. They cannot explain. They have no words, even for Christ. Perhaps they do not understand the music themselves. Perhaps if they uttered it aloud it would only confuse the world. It would not sound in their voice as it sounds in their souls.”
“God speaks silently, he speaks in your heart; if your heart is noisy, chattering, you will not hear.”
“During the war I was simply terrified by air raids, and it was my lot to be in every one that happened in London–sometimes on the roofs of these flats, sometimes in the hospital. . . I tried to build up my courage by reason and prayer, etc. Then one day I realized quite suddenly: As long as I try not to be afraid I shall be worse, and
I shall show it one day and break; what God is asking of me, to do for suffering humanity, is to be afraid, to accept it and put up with it, as one has to put up with pain (if it’s not druggable) or anything else. I am not going to get out of any of the suffering. From the time the siren goes until the All Clear, I am going to be simply frightened stiff, and that’s what I’ve got to do for the world–offer that to God, because it is that and nothing else which he asks of me.”
“It struck me last night that many people are increasing their fear by thinking in crowds, i.e. they think of hundreds and thousands suffering etc., whilst the fact is, God is thinking of each one of us separately, and when–say–a hundred or a million are suffering, it is God who has each one separately in His own hands and is Himself measuring what each one can take, and to each one He is giving His illimitable love. This thought, though obvious, consoles me a lot . . .”
“Our Lord told me that He wished that I would look at Him much more in people, that He would like to be loved and reverenced more in people and “discovered” and recognized even in very unlikely people. He would like people to be told and shown “their glory”–which of course is Himself.”
“We must carry Jesus in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them. None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp…”
“[Christ] did not teach in terms of right and wrong, but of joy and sorrow. Blessed…joyful, are the poor in spirit; woe, sorrow, to you rich. The only answer to the mechanical masses [i.e. the attractive, healthy, energetic, let’s-get-things-done folks] is the saint, for the saint is the only true individual, and in him we see Christ, and see His values, not as something forced on us by school teachers, but as something to envy.
Take St. Francis of Assisi, whom the whole world, not Catholics only, thinks of in connection with poverty. He lived in an age as worldly as ours; times change, but human nature never. St. Francis changed the outlook and the lives of countless people, not by scolding them, but by showing them, not by being a reformer, but by being a poor little man in love with all created loveliness. The reason is so simple: he reflected on Christ, on whom his eyes were fixed; and when he lifted up his arms in ecstasy to receive his Lord’s wounds in his own body, the shadow that he cast on the white roads of Italy was the cruciform shadow of Christ.”
“[The grain of wheat] must be buried in earth, that is, in us, who are made from the earth. The seed of Christ is not buried in angels, but in men. It is to flower and bear fruit through human experience: through our loves, our work, our sorrows, our joys, our temptations. It is to be literally our living and our dying.
We are the soil of the divine seed; there is no other. The flowering of Christ in us does not depend upon pious exercises, on good works outside our daily life, on an amateur practice of religion in our leisure time. It is in the marrow of our bones, in the experience of our daily life.
The seed is in darkness: the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of faith.”
“Christ was born not because there was joy in the world, but because there was suffering in it. He was born not to riches, but to poverty; not to satiety, but to hunger and thirst; not to security, but to danger, exile, homelessness, destitution, and crucifixion. His Incarnation now, in us, is in the suffering world as it is. It is not reserved for a utopia that will never be; it does not differ from his first coming in Bethlehem, his birth in squalor, in dire poverty, in a strange city. It is the same birth here and now. There is Incarnation always, everywhere.”