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    Out of These Dark Days Christ Will Be Reborn

    Caryll Houselander’s faith in a time of war echoes today.

    By Mary Frances Coady

    December 18, 2021
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    • Katherine

      Wonderful article, thank you!

    In the late 1930s, the English writer and artist Caryll Houselander was as gripped with anxiety as everyone else in Britain. Nazis were marching in Germany and month by month the tension rose, as the question of “war” or “peace” hung in the balance. Gas masks were issued and plans made to build air raid shelters. In 1938, Caryll, who was thirty-seven and living in London with a friend, Iris Wyndham, and Iris’s teenage daughter Joan, signed up as a first-aid worker.

    Toward the end of August 1939, as England braced for a possible invasion, Caryll wrote to a friend “We may be spared still, and one understands so well now our dear Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane, His fear and His courage. … He is saying, ‘Fear not, it is I.’” Her letter went on, echoing Paul’s letter to the Galatians (“It is Christ who lives in me …”):

    I felt vaguely that somehow or other our becoming Christ – the consummation of our love for Him – has to take this form of knowing something of His Passion, so that even the feeling of fear, and the awful moments when one just wants to cry and cry like a child, need not shame us, because they are all part of Christ’s own experience in us.

    The British government declared war on Germany a week later, and then – nothing happened. The first-aid posts and air raid shelters stayed in place, and Caryll wrote to the editor of The Grail, a periodical she wrote for, that she had “a cushy job sitting by the phone.” This relative leisure gave her a chance to reflect further on the challenge before them:

    If we are ever to come back to the lovely morning of Christianity, we must not do it by waiting for the war to end; it has to be done now, through love. If each individual can put into her personal life an unstinted absolute love, then already out of these dark days Christ will be reborn.

    Caryll continued with words of advice to the editor of The Grail: “I feel strongly that so far as the ‘written word’ is concerned, you should issue merely the simple statements of facts, how this war is Christ’s passion – how Christ’s passion redeems how we are all ‘other Christs’ and so are now invited to enter His passion.” She reminded the editor of the seriousness of the journalistic undertaking at such a time: “Our individual sorrow is the common sorrow of all the world.”

    Months went by: it was the long period known as the “phoney war.” Fear of what might lie ahead alternated with boredom as Caryll, her red hair covered with a first-aid worker’s cap, practiced putting on bandages. She continued writing articles, often sorting out her thoughts in letters to friends. The occasional bit of humor found its way into her writing, especially when she took notice of the actions of her cat, Jones. In one article she noted that Jones was giving her a spiritual demonstration: he had appeared outside her window, seized with fear at the menacing approach of a giant tomcat. Once inside and calmly curled on her lap, he purred with contentment. “This is a lesson in prayer,” she wrote, noting that a useful prayer “is the prayer which Christ describes in one of his parables, which could be called ‘the prayer of importunity,’ a continual hammering and beating on the door of heaven until we get what we want. … But now, with great anxiety pressing upon us, the prayer in which we can relax is surely among the most creative.”

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    St Paul’s Cathedral during the great fire raid in London, December 29, 1940 (public domain)

    On September 7, 1940, the London Blitz began. Fear and anxiety were now realized. Casualties poured into the first-aid stations on a daily basis after nightly bombardment from German planes. A month later, Caryll’s own home was bombed. In the spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” Caryll, Iris, and Joan found a one-room flat in the Nell Gwynn House. They dragged their mattresses through the streets, then used their bicycles to bring along other necessities. And they carried on. Within a year of this remarkable tumult, Caryll’s articles highlighting her thoughts about Christ and the dark days of the war were collected and published in the book This War Is the Passion.

    Although Caryll continued to write after 1941 and published a book nearly every two years, she did not live long after the war’s end. She died of breast cancer in 1954. Over the decades since her death, she has been called a spiritual genius by those devoted to her writing. But Caryll didn’t see herself that way. Her parents separated when she was a child, and she remained insecure all her life, describing herself as a neurotic. With the help of her Jesuit spiritual advisor, she made ongoing efforts to deepen her relationship with God in prayer, finding the process a “one step forward, one step back” affair. She smoked heavily and tried, mostly in vain, to cut down, declaring in her spiritual journal, “Tobacco! What a thing to put before God.” Gin flowed when she was with friends, and after a few drinks her natural gift for repartee tended to disintegrate into unkind remarks, which led to sober remorse. “St. Peter, dear saint of impulses, pray for me that I may stop cutting off people’s ears,” she wrote in her journal. She often hit dead ends and fell short of her goal, wanting to live up to the lofty words that helped others through the war. She admitted ruefully that in conversation she sometimes cast the first stone just for the fun of it.

    Toward the end of This War Is the Passion she writes: “We have got to stretch Christ in us, to fit the size of this war. … The arms of Christ stretched on the cross are the widest reach there is, the only one that encircles the whole world.” Almost as an afterthought, she adds, “Christ must grow in each of us, to the size of his passion in us all.” She could have been thinking about herself, longing for the arms of Christ to stretch wide enough to surround her in her own flawed daily life. For each of us, too, in whatever troubles and conflicts beset us, may the arms of Christ stretch to include us as we struggle through our own dead ends and other daily challenges.

    Through our own dark days, may Christ be reborn in us.

    Contributed By

    Mary Frances Coady is a Canadian writer of fiction and biography living in Toronto. Her books include With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany, about the life and prison writings of Alfred Delp and her forthcoming novel, As the Morning Rising. Her research on the works of Caryll Houselander is supported by a grant from the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

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