As Christians, we are commended to see Christ in everyone, to see God’s hand in everything. The Gospels tell us to, Pope Francis tells us to, Saint Teresa tells us to… and, in the early part of the 20th century, an Englishwoman named Caryll Houselander told us, as well, in words that still resonate today.
Many of the Church’s mystics saw or heard Jesus. He appeared to them in visions and they listened to his words echoing in their hearts. Caryll Houselander was different: she saw Christ present in other people. During her last vision, she was on a London subway and suddenly saw him visible in every single passenger.
What a gift! What a reversal of the expected! And what a response to Jesus’ words in the Gospel!
Caryll Houselander never married or entered a religious order. She drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and had a sharp tongue. She wasn’t anybody’s idea of a role model.
But her writings fairly glow with the truths she discovered. She was convinced that Christ is to be found in all people, even those the world shuns because they don’t conform to certain standards of piety. She would write that if people looked for Christ in only the "saints," they would not find him.
Houselander left the Church briefly but returned (she later titles her autobiography “A Rocking-Horse Catholic” to distinguish herself from “cradle Catholics”) and her spiritual reading was founded almost entirely on the Gospels, rather than the writings of the Church Fathers or official Church documents. This simplicity of approach—going directly to the source rather than having its impact diluted through others’ observations—informed everything she did and wrote.
And she took Jesus at his word: she did exactly what the Gospels ask us to do. She formed a society called Loaves & Fishes, whose members engaged in secret acts of charity toward the poor. She counseled PTSD victims during World War II and, in the words of one of the attending psychologists, “loved them back to life.” Before her writing started bringing in an adequate income, she was extremely poor, but even then gave her food to feed the hungry, her time to counsel those in need, and her energy to write countless letters, articles, and books.
So why Caryll Houelander this Lent? We live in a time of uncertainty, just as she did, but few of us have taken her direct appropriation of Jesus’ commandments. Remember that she didn’t read the Church Fathers’ writing, but rather went right to the source. Wouldn’t it be exceptional if, this Lent, she helped us get back to that source?
One of the things that bothers a lot of people is that they choose a book for Lent and then find it has no practical application in their lives. Oh, the words are eloquent and the images are beautiful, but we’re left at the end of it feeling unfulfilled. How can I live Christ in my life, in the world?
Caryl Houselander tells us how:
A young man setting his pace to an old man’s footsteps is love; a swift thinker curbing his thoughts for a slow mind is love. The ascetic fasting that the world may be fed is love; the celibate offered to God that marriages be holy is love; the patience that cherishes the sick and the lonely is love; the sickness suffered sweetly for the world is love. The boy who is decent to the new boy at school is love; the toleration that makes home pleasant to the young is love; the charity that judges no sinner is love; the fortitude that compromises with no sin is love. It is the Christ giving between us all.
Christ in Our Midst is a small book filled with reflections that will flow naturally into action. If Lent is a time to restore our spiritual equilibrium, to press the reset button on our inner lives, then it’s important to ask the question: so what? So what if we read great words, but they don’t inspire us to do great things? Houselander draws her inspiration from Jesus himself, and she shows us how to always see him in everyone around us.
Which was the whole point, right? That God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son….
by Jeannette de Beauvoir