Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2011
As I mentioned back in July when I wrote about Houselander’s book of quasi-poetry, The Flowering Tree, I intended to read this autobiographical work next. I don’t remember for sure now, but I believe that decision was made when I took it off the shelf in the library and read the opening paragraphs, in which she recounts the two attempts at baptizing her which followed immediately upon her birth (September 29, 1901). The poor baby was not expected to live, and the clergyman called to baptize her was disconcerted to find that her mother and uncle, the only other persons present, had no name for her, because they “had not thought it necessary to think of names for ‘something that would not live for twenty-four hours.’”
Moreover, “[my uncle] said that I was so small and so odd, and so like a tiny red fish, that it seemed that I should either be drowned in the baptismal waters or swim away in them.”
Well, how could one not want to read further after that? And so I did. And I would say this might be the best place to start with Houselander’s work. Might be: since I haven’t read anything other than these two books and a few passages here and there, I can’t be sure about that. But it certainly illuminates The Flowering Tree considerably.
It’s a brief and extremely readable book, only a hundred and fifty smallish pages. One could easily read it in a weekend and still get some other things done, and I rather wish I’d had the opportunity to do that. Circumstances mostly beyond my control make my reading pretty fragmented, and although I had no trouble keeping the thread of this story fresh in my mind when I went several days without reading it, its impact and my response were correspondingly fragmented.
To summarize the life very, very briefly: Caryll Houselander was born into a family without religion, except the nominal Christianity implied in the baptism story, in which an almost superstitious fear of hell requires that a baby be baptized though one has no intention of raising it in the faith. Her ill health at birth seems to have continued for most of her life relatively short life; she died of cancer at 53.
Her mother became Catholic when Caryll was five, and had her baptized (conditionally, I suppose); hence the title of the book: she was not a cradle Catholic but a rocking-horse Catholic. Her parents’ marriage dissolved when she was nine, and this came as a terrible blow to her. From then until she was sixteen she was sent to convent schools, the first of which she liked very much and which encouraged a devotional life which I think must have had some influence in preventing her from leaving the Church altogether when, not very many years later, she very much wanted to. At the second convent, which sounds like something out of the upper-class Catholic milieu of Brideshead Revisited, she learned to associate the Church with snobbery, and this began a process of disaffection which lasted until (I gather—it isn’t entirely clear) sometime in her twenties.
She was called home from the second convent to help her mother care for a wayward priest, “a very sick man in mind and body.” Some years later she left home and lived on her own in great poverty. Estranged from the Church, she worked hard to find a substitute for it, but did not succeed.
I referred to this as an autobiographical work, not an autobiography, because although it was written not long before the author’s death, it stops with the last of three mystical experiences, and the one which seems to have led to her return to the Church, although that isn’t entirely clear. And it is very short on details: it wasn’t clear, for instance, to me at any rate, why the presence of the sick priest was cause for ostracism. Was it simply that a priest was there at all, in the home of a divorced woman? Or was it something more, something in particular about him? One reads in the Wikipedia biography that Houselander was left heartbroken by a very improbably-sounding love affair with Sidney Reilly, a famous spy and rather bad man, but nothing of that sort is mentioned here, and nothing very specific about the half-starved years in which she lived among London bohemians.
But that’s all somewhat beside the point, which is the spiritual testament. The only thing that keeps me from saying that it ranks with the great ones is that I’ve read so few of those. Certainly it is a very fine and memorable one. It has the depth of insight that one would assume in a spiritual classic, but it has a somewhat cool, very modern and English tone, which I like very much. She describes coolly episodes of intense feeling, such as this period of severe mental and physical suffering that struck her at the age of (I think) about six:
Before I was able to go to my second Holy Communion I was again attacked by illness, this time an illness which made a deeper impression on my whole subsequent life than anything that has ever happened to me before or since. It occurred with astonishing suddenness. At one moment...I was a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience and usually naughty rather than good; but a moment later I was literally prostrated by what must surely have been an acute and violent neurosis, characterised by an unbearable sense of guilt.
I was walking upstairs, going (unwillingly) to wash my hand for tea, when without a moment’s warning I became too weak to take another step. I sat down on the steps feeling as if all my life was flowing out of my heels, and my wrists were too weak, too fluid, to lift my hands. There, after the tea bell had run repeatedly and vainly for me, I was found, and carried upstairs and put to bed, where I had to remain for the next three months.
I’ll stop there, because you really need to read the resolution of this incident for yourself.
One naturally is reminded of Flannery O’Connor: another sickly woman, Catholic, unmarried, possessed of sharp wit, acute and unsentimental spiritual insight, and a considerable literary gift. O’Connor is more significant, of course, from the literary point of view, but I begin to think that Houselander may be of equal importance as a spiritual writer. And her literary gifts are not inconsequential: this book is a work of artless-seeming art, a well-structured narrative written in graceful prose of great clarity and precision and frequent dry wit (“a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience”).
I had written all the above when it came time to go to 5:30 Mass. I planned to add only another paragraph noting that the vision upon which Caryll Houselander’s spirituality rested was of Christ in all men. It was literally a vision, one which came to her toward the end of that part of her life which is included in this book. Afterwards, “if the ‘vision’ had faded, the knowledge had not”—and the knowledge became the foundation of a sort of ministry to troubled people.
Christ in all men. Yes, certainly I believe that, and I want to see that way, too. And so I went on to Mass, intending to add that last paragraph later.
A woman sat down next to me in church. She was wearing running shorts and a sweatshirt. I’m at ease with the informal way most people (in this country, at least) dress for Mass, and in fact I like it, because it means I don’t have to wear a tie. But...shorts that have hardly any leg at all? That’s a little too much, or rather much too little. And on women it’s certainly distracting to men, though in this case the wearer was mistaken if she thought the shorts made her attractive. Well, at least she’s here, I thought, and it’s not my place to judge her. Then she began fidgeting restlessly and generally giving off an air of being unhappy to be there. And that was a bit distracting, too, and a bit annoying. Don’t let that bother you, I thought.
Then I realized that the thing which was really getting on my nerves, though I had not yet taken conscious note of it, was that she was chewing gum—chewing it vigorously, and very audibly, with frequent loud pops. At that point I went, mentally, over the edge, though I didn’t do or say anything. It happens to be a quirk of mine that any sort of smacking, slurping, or snuffling noise that continues for very long has an extremely irritating effect on me, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I really can’t control the reaction—I mean, I can control my behavior, and I usually am able to stifle my impulse to lash out at the perpetrator, but I go rigid with irritated tension. Of course the more I tried to ignore the sound the more I noticed it, and for a great deal of the Mass all I could hear was the popping and smacking.
Ok, Lord, I get your point.
I had a pretty tough time seeing Christ in the gum-smacking lady. No doubt God was at work there, and probably laughing at me. At the Exchange of the Peace, I did manage to look into her eyes and see, if not Christ, at least a fellow sinner for whom I could feel kindness, and concomitant shame for my anger.
I wondered how she was going to receive Communion while chewing gum. At the Consecration she pulled a song sheet out of the rack on the pew and wrapped her gum in it.
I have never been tempted to steal a library book before, but I'm tempted to steal this one. It doesn't appear to have been checked out for many years, and it's just a matter of time until they discard it. And A Rocking-Horse Catholic appears to be in print only in some sort of scanned paperback, and used copies of the old Sheed & Ward edition start at around $45. I'd really like to have one of those, with dust jacket intact: the illustration is based on a design by Houselander.
The one in the library is probably an original edition, but of course it doesn't have the dust jacket. It does have, pasted into the inside back cover, the front and back...what do you call them?...the pieces of the dust jacket that go inside the book, with a fine tribute from Ronald Knox and one of those nostalgic Sheed & Ward offers to send you a copy of Sheed & Ward's Own Trumpet, request to be addressed to J. Buck, Sheed & Ward, New York 3. Can you imagine a publisher today putting an individual's name on something like that?
Don't worry, I'm in no danger of actually stealing it--the thought just crossed my mind, that's all.