If there is one theme that many of the saints return to again and again, it’s this: the absolute requirement that we have as Christians is to see Christ in everyone, to see God’s hand in everything. The Gospels tell us, Pope Francis tells us, Mother Teresa tells us…and, in the early part of the 20th century, an Englishwoman named Caryll Houselander told us, as well, in words that still resonate today:
There are many people in the world who cultivate a curious state which they call “the spiritual life.” They often complain that they have very little time to devote to the “spiritual life.” The only time that they do not regard as wasted is the time they can devote to pious exercises: praying, reading, meditations, and visiting the church.
All the time spent in earning a living, cleaning the home, caring for the children, making and mending clothes, cooking, and all the other manifold duties and responsibilities, is regarded as wasted.
Yet it is really through ordinary human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about.
Houselander didn’t live a life that was conventional in any way. Unlike many of the Church’s more well-known mystics, she never entered religious life, nor did she ever marry. She knew what it was like to need to earn a living. For many years she lived in a small room, took the subway, and struggled with her finances as well as her faith.
Someone who was a lot like the rest of us, in fact.
Houselander’s concerns about the hypocrisy of religious practices had driven her away from the Church; what brought her back was seeing and understanding the presence of Christ in the people around her.
Every night at about ten o’clock, when I was sitting huddled on my bed in the dark, I heard the tap, tap, tap of a blind man’s stick, passing below in the street. It had an extraordinary effect on me. Somehow, between me and this unknown blind man there was an affinity. Was I not spiritually blind? Was I not, too, tapping, here, there and everywhere, longing for light, but feeling my way in darkness, because the darkness was not in the night that was lit by the splendor of the stars, but in my own soul? I began to pray for this blind man—and I had almost lost the habit of prayer.
She got that habit back quickly enough, and in fact threw herself into making her faith into something concrete. She created the Loaves & Fishes, a society whose members engaged in secret acts of charity toward the poor. She wrote and illustrated books, and took up woodcarving. And, mostly, she brought joy to everyone she encountered. “Where are people to find God?” asks Sr. Lea Hill, writing about Caryll Houselander. “Where will they see Christ? Caryll says the answer must begin with us, within us.”
The only certain way of giving truth to others is by showing Christ to them in ourselves. People now are too tired and disintegrated to think, too unconcentrated to read serious books, too disillusioned to be moved by abstract theories, too unstable to listen to logical arguments, too much hurt to endure exhortation—they must see!
And Houselander’s short life did just that: she showed Christ to others, and in doing so helped people see Christ in everyone—even themselves. And a century after her death, she continues to point us toward those truths: that God is in us, that Christ is in our midst, that we must be, as Saint Francis of Assisi said, “the only Gospel our neighbor ever reads.”
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Christ in Our Midst is our collection of Caryll Houselander’s writings, curated as part of the Classic Wisdom Collection and offering her insights and wisdom to a new generation of believers.