A review of "The Reed of God"

by Father Michael Hickin

“The Reed of God” by Caryll Houselander, 2006.

Caryll Houselander (1901-54) is one of those 20th century figures who breathed the spirit of Vatican II long before the Council was conceived, and since Vatican II, survives as an author praised across the spectrum of Catholic experience.

She calls herself a “rocking horse Catholic,” meaning not a “cradle Catholic” but one who joined the faith as a child. She was six. At the urging of the family doctor and his lawyer friend, nicknamed Smokey, Gertrude Houselander had Caryll and her older sister received into the Catholic Church. Strangely enough, Smokey was no believer. Friendly with the Oxford movement, Caryll notes in her autobiography that he was of the opinion, “If Jesus Christ was really God, and if he founded a Church, it was absolutely certain that this Church was none other than the Roman Catholic Church.” This explains a lot.

In her book, The Reed of God, Houselander offers a vivid portrait of Jesus Christ viewed from the lens of his mother. Mary is “the reed” and Caryll is the muse who hears and interprets the music. It seems that what we have here are the notes from a few months of Caryll’s lectio divina, that sacred reading of the Scriptures in which you patiently immerse your heart in the pulse of the Word and allow it to sprout what the Spirit deems necessary for your diet at that time. This book is a record of what she reaped from those Gospel passages that refer to the mother of Jesus as Caryll lived through the dire years of a besieged London during WWII.

The Reed of God reads like a song. It is light, musical, economic in words yet expansive in meaning. The paragraphs are staccato for the most part; many, like a newspaper article, consist of one sentence. Through Mary, Caryll teaches us how the Gospel-Jesus is alive and active in the World today. I capitalize “World” because of Caryll’s repeated reverence for what is happening in it, even in the darkest of times. For this she thanks God’s grace at work through Smokey:

“I think the fact that I owe my own faith to an agnostic, and learned to love it very largely from him in early childhood, has given me a respect, even reverence for the spiritual experience of people outside of the Church, and I am always ready to be grateful for the grace of their good example.”

Caryll was not only an ardent believer, an author, and a wartime nurse. She was also an illustrator, a sculptor, a student of modern psychology, and a cancer victim. She was a recluse who had her heart broken by a spy from Scotland Yard, who dumped her for another woman. It says a little about somebody to know who they fall for. This guy, Sidney Reilly, really made his fame in later generations by inspiring Ian Fleming’s fictional and wildly popular “007.” One blogger has mused whether we’d even have “Bond, James Bond” were it not for Caryll. That is just like Caryll, to lay like a pearl hidden in another. That’s precisely how she sees Jesus at work in the World.

“Our Lady lived the life of all humanity” (68) All that Mary did, she did in the name of her future children.

“She was not asked to lead a special kind of life….

“The one thing that God did ask of her was the gift of her humanity…. He asked for her ordinary life.”

It is God’s will “that Christ shall be born in every human being’s life and not, as a rule, through extraordinary things, but through the ordinary daily life and the human love that people give to one another.

“Our Lady said yes for us all” (11-12).

This goes, of course, for Jesus as well. They are of the same school of life. And this is our school as well:

“Christ lives in all Christians. The practical result of this is that now on earth the whole of Christ’s life is always being lived; the things that happened to Him on earth are happening to him now in His members. The things He did on earth He is doing now through us” (104).

Caryll offers page after page of examples about how this works itself out. Basically, Church life is the life of Jesus and Mary writ large and spread out over the centuries. Caryll breathes into her readers the living Gospel. In her strong sacramental awareness, she embodies the great law: Christ is in my neighbor, and Mary is bringing that presence to birth.

If, in Smokey, Caryll understood that the World glimpses a logic rooting Catholicism in Mother Earth, she glimpsed through Mary our humanity cradled in a loving, patient womb, transforming chaos into hope.

With a piece of music, if you like it, you want to play it over and over again. The Reed of God is a book many will love to replay.

Fr. Michael Hickin is the pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Bottineau and St. Andrew’s Church in Westhope.