It might seem unseasonal to blog about Caryll Houselander’s The Way of the Cross after Easter (Gracewing/Angelico Press, £5.95); my justification is that some people make this devotion on Fridays throughout the year, in memory of Good Friday. First published in 1955, the year after her death, The Way of the Cross is one of those spiritual books that deserves to stay in print, partly because of its author’s intensely personal and original approach to the stations of the Via Dolorosa and partly because of the stark simplicity of her roundel black and white woodcut illustrations.
Houselander was a gifted artist and poet as well as a mystic. I have a particular fondness for her, not just because of her vividness of expression but because she lived and worked nearby and is buried in Ellesborough churchyard in the Chiltern Hills. Seen as odd, even eccentric during her life, her mystical approach to Christian teaching (she became a “rocking-horse Catholic” in her childhood, on her mother’s conversion) was direct, intuitive and imaginative; whether writing about Our Lady in The Reed of God, or in this book, she had a gift for reaching the heart of the matter.
She writes with true psychological insight in her introduction, the “Via Crucis”, that “Every human being alive is on the road to death. Everyone is capable of love for someone, even if it is only for himself, and the price of love, perhaps particularly of self-love, is suffering. But the power of love, and this does not apply to self-love, is to transform suffering, to heal its inevitable wounds.”
In contrast to Francois Mauriac whose book on Holy Thursday I blogged about before Easter, Houselander is less combative towards sinners, more compassionate towards their frailty. As she writes in the chapter “Jesus Receives His Cross”, “Taking [the Cross] to His heart, he takes all those who fear death to His heart: all those who face the knowledge of a painful illness which can have but one end; all those who wait, without hope of a reprieve, for a death sentence to be carried out on them by other men; all those old people haunted by the certainty that their days are numbered.”
Emphasising the mercy of God, rather than his justice, she gathers everyone into her field of vision – especially those broken in some way, for who she seems to have a special affinity. The childless, unmarried Houselander could still write so feelingly of Our Lady in “Jesus Meets His Blessed Mother”, that she is “every woman who must stand aside when her son goes to war. She is every woman who knows that her child is to die on the scaffold. She is every woman whose child is a failure, covered in shame and loved only by his mother…”
Reading this reminded me of a late friend once telling me that she had visited her own son in prison every week for a whole year and that only someone who had had a similar experience could understand her shame and sorrow.
One can always learn new things from Houselander’s insights, as for example, her reflection on the soldier who won Christ’s seamless garment in a game of dice and who therefore was “the first to “put on Christ”, to try to fit his own body to the shape of 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…”