WE Christians are sometimes admonished to ‘be in the world but not of the world’. This is a hard balance to strike, especially in our country today where the Christian faith, the foundation of our once estimable civilisation, is often held in contempt when it is not ignored. Still, at the great feast of Easter it is good to remember where our true priorities lie: not in being cast down by the follies of the Caesars who dominate our worldly lives, but in following the way of the cross – especially in Lent – in order to share with Christ in the glory of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
With this in mind I have been reading a newly republished series of meditations by the late mystic, wood-carver, illustrator and writer Caryll Houselander (1901-1954). First published in 1955, they reflect on the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the ancient Catholic tradition of following the footsteps of Christ on his via dolorosa. Some of these Stations are scriptural, such his condemnation by Pilate, the help given to him by Simon of Cyrene, his meeting with the women of Jerusalem and the brutal practicalities of his crucifixion. Others, such as his meeting with his mother, his falling three times under the weight of the cross and his encounter with Veronica, a holy woman who wiped his face, come simply from Catholic piety. They are all stark reminders of the cost of our salvation.
Houselander’s approach has nothing of conventional piety about it. She is vivid, passionate, direct: ‘Every human being alive is on the road to death,’ she begins, before reminding readers that the Stations are ‘a showing not simply of the way of sorrows which we are all destined to walk . . . but of the way of love which heals sorrow’ – if we would follow in Christ’s footsteps and imitate him.
Each Station/chapter starts with one of the author’s black and white illustrations: a tondo concentrating on the salient aspect of the particular Station, surrounded by a square with the cross in the background. They are simple and dramatic: for the first Station, ‘Jesus is condemned to death’, one hand is shown holding up a bowl of water into which the fingers of another hand are dipped – a compelling image of the ultimate act of cowardice on the part of Pilate, the Roman governor, whose name in history is a byword for moral weakness. Houselander directs the reader’s attention to ‘the martyrs of our own times’ who suffer today under ‘the intrigues and the fears of politicians, the hatred of fanatics, mass hysteria, the unstable crowds swayed by paid agitators, the popular craving for sensation – and those many Pilates of our day who wash their hands of the responsibility of knowing “what is truth?”’ We can all name them.
What is so powerful in these meditations is the way Houselander constantly makes the reader’s own life, in all its pain and problems, integral to the most haunting and significant drama in the history of the world. At the fifth Station, in which Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross with Christ, she reflects that although it may have seemed to Simon ‘mere chance that he met that tragic procession . . . Really there is no chance in the incident. It is something planned by God from eternity . . . It means that no one is meant to suffer alone.’ Indeed compassion, which means to help other people carry their own personal crosses, is ‘the way to transform the self-pity that is the danger in all suffering into the love of other people’.
For those who have not heard of the author of these poignant and perceptive insights, the best introduction to Houselander’s writings is the biography by her friend and publisher, Maisie Ward, newly republished by Cluny Publications. Titled Caryll Houselander: Divine Eccentric, it brings together the two pronounced features of her personality: her understanding that Christ lives in all men, though he is often obscured, disfigured and entombed within them; and her natural eccentricity, which endeared her to her friends and which was a source of baffled amusement to those who met her. She had bright red hair, cut in a child-like style, and her face was masked by a thick layer of white cream to disguise her complexion, which she disliked. This gave her the odd appearance of a clown. She could use strong language, had a weakness for cigarettes, talked with verve and fluency and had an enormous capacity for fun. She was unlucky in love: she had a brief affair with the British spy Sidney Reilly, who disappeared in the Gulag. Her subsequent life, after she returned to the Catholic faith from which she had become estranged in her early adult life, was spent in writing, wood-carving and unravelling the neuroses and psychological wounds of those who asked her for help. Her health was often fragile; what energy she had was given to others. She believed that ‘the healing of mankind begins whenever any man ceases to resist the love of God’.
This brings us back to the book reviewed here. At the tenth Station, when Jesus is stripped of his garments, Houselander ponders Scripture’s recording of the soldiers’ dicing for his seamless robe. The soldier who won this coveted prize would obviously have worn it: ‘He was the first to “put on Christ” – the forerunner of us all who must put on Christ, who must try to grow to His stature, to the shape of His labours, His purity, His majesty, His humanity: who must try – and this is the most profound and difficult thing of all – to grow towards the shape and pattern of His love, His love for men that accepted even their shame as if it were His own.’ I recommend it.