Personal Fiction

Children blossoming

This novel, which I have moved through slowly, has amazed throughout its entirety. I have seriously moved away from reading fiction, yet Ms. Houselander captivates. Her use of children embodying the innocence of Christ took a personal twist yesterday as I was given a grandson for the evening, a shopping excursion and dinner together entreating. One on one time with a child is a precious thing. Recently becoming a big brother to a sister, a second time, Tyler, a five year old, astounded with conversation. I asked him if he had ever experienced a drive through carwash. We did not go through the carwash as rain appeared inevitable, yet his response delighted. He told me he had never been in a carwash, yet he thinks he was in one when he was in his mommy’s belly, although he did not have his eyes open then so he could not see. He rambled on about eyes and being in a mother’s belly, moving his words to school and how he saw on television a man try to jump over a school however he fell and broke his neck. It was quite scary. A loud noise sounded outside the car, startling him and he apologized, explaining he did not know why loud noises scared him.

Within the ending of a story

Inside, it seemed to Timothy as if he were taking part in a pathetic pageant of the Stations of the Cross.

One by one the men stood before the officer, who looked them up and down, asked a few questions, condemned them to probable death. One by one they were stripped for the medical examination, and stood, pitifully childlike in their nakedness, immolated men. And then they were given soldiers’ clothes, and even on the big men, they seemed to sag and to be a mockery. Perhaps in a few months they would fill them, perhaps then the clothes would have wed themselves to the men and the men would be soldiers. At present they looked incongruous and ludicrous.

His own turn came, and the misery of self-consciousness of an over-sensitive school boy came back to him. He felt that his shrinking mind was exposed in his thin body, that it would glare out of his ribs that he preferred poetry to football. He hated the soldier’s coat, but it covered his nakedness.

He walked back when it was over to take his place among the other recruits, and the sound of his heavy army boots on the wooden floor sickened him with its association with school. He sat down in the row waiting for orders, and began to watch others, to try to see below the masks of their faces, to know them from their hands, the delicate scholars’ hands, the broad efficient hands of the craftsmen—”all held out for the nail” he thought, and he thought too, “how strange it is, that it is our flesh and blood, these bodies, that Christ uses for His purpose of love, as He used common bread for the Sacrament of His body. Poor bodies of men, broken, twisted, drained, ugly, and Christ present where they are. The Incarnation is everywhere.”

He felt peaceful and ready now to wait for orders. He knew that he had only been able to volunteer as a soldier because he recognized no man living as his enemy, because his offering for his friend was equally and inevitably an offering for the whole world, Germans and Englishmen alike. He had laid bare his heart.

……………….

Power, might, the Pride of Life, those things never stood alone, never dared to stand alone, and dared not stand against the guilt and misgiving even in themselves. They needed the reassurance of countless others like them, dressing like them, speaking like them, acting like them, convincing them that wrong is right because the great “All and everyone” does wrong. evil, like the devil, is named “legion”.

And those who stand for humility, thought the Archbishop, are alone, on this earth lonely. Those who hold through the ages to old conventions of holiness that Mother Church teaches in her nursery—humility, poverty, the mortification of the senses, lowliness—they are alone, he thought, even among whom they love, and again, men of goodwell learn only by striving with sanctity, are healed of their own infirmities only by dashing themselves against the rock of holiness.

He thought how the saints have always been alone and lonely on earth, because they held on with aching fingers to the holiness of Christ. Because they saw the Changeless Vision through ushered tears, and heard the voice of love through the world’s din, be it the clash of swords, the humbling of machines, or thunder of guns.

“I looked for one who would sorrow together with me and I have found no one.” Wherever they had been in the world, wherever in time or place or circumstance, they had been alone.

………………

Power, Strength, Force, the armed pride of life (evil). What force could oppose it? Could any legion of flesh and blood destroy pride? Even if it could defeat the pitiful army of robot children on the field of battle, could it destroy pride, or would that only have changed hands, to march on and on, gathering its recruits from the whole world, on and on and on to the destruction of humanity?

………………

Lovely children, with slender bodies, with rose-petal cheeks, with small pink mouths, with white bleached hair, silver, gold. The light playing on their helmets, the light flashing on their marching feet. Children swinging along in perfect time, in terrible unison, coming up to the young Christ on the cross. A cry went out from the Archbishop’s soul to the crucified Christ, “Eternal Innocence! Child of the Father, did You see the children advancing when You hung on the cross? Did the steel tramp of their feet ring in Your ears? Was the drumming in Your ears in the hours of death, turned to the shout of Kriege, Kriege, Kriege, hammering on Your bloodless brain, drowned only in the dark storm of the waters of death, the torrent inside the little skull, trying in vain to burst through the crown of thorns as You bowed Your head and died?

And as if it was in answer to his prayer, another procession of children came into his dream, walking slowly with infinite dignity, one by one, each one alone, each alone walking in the pure majesty of childhood, the holy children of our times. Gentle, devoted peasants and grave, sweet patricians, children stepping softly on blameless, naked feet. Almond-eyed children, brown from caressing suns, Melenie and Maximin of La Salette, Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia of Portugal, Bernadette Soubirous, and behind them Anne de Guigne with her wistful face and her deep lace collar, and Guy de Fontgalland in his sailor suit, with his thick, golden fringe and his cry in the teeth of war: “Je veux faire connaitre le petit Jesus dans le monde entier!

With that cry in his ears the Archbishop awoke—and the wonder of the children who loved God remained in his consciousness like a light shinning in his breast.

He whispered, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, dona nobis pacem!”

And then, indulging his habit of talking out loud to himself, he said, “Lord, who knows, perhaps while your old men and your theologians and bishops and politicians and scholars wrestle in vain with the angel, your battles are fought and won in the nurseries.”

And suddenly, with the same surprise that we experience when we first see an open daisy in the field—the expected, the known, the ever with us, become sudden, unexpected, new—the Archbishop remembered Willie Jewel.

The whole wearisome problem of Riverside returned not now in all its adult intricacy, but in the sharp, simple vision of a child dying and a childlike old man watching from heaven.

The Archbishop got up slowly, and knelt down. After all, he was going to take Father Perivale’s advice, he was going to risk St. Peter’s view of it and ask Father Malone to hold his hand, not to work his miracle.

He knelt there, an ascetic, beautiful old man of silver, clothed in purple, with a ring like a drop of blood on his finger, the shadow of his thick white hair on his forehead like the shadow of a crown of thorns. “Father Malone,” he said softly. “Do you hear your bishop speaking to you, Father Malone?” And he felt quite sure that he did hear, that the old man was close, leaning out of heaven. He visualized him, not kneeling at the door of heaven and removing his battered hat when he heard his bishop’s voice, his umbrella filled up with stars hanging over one arm, the other arm lifted cupping his ear with his hand as he leaned forward to hear his bishop’s request.

“Father Malone, it is Archbishop Crecy speaking. You have caused a lot trouble here, Father, with your holiness; we can’t know God’s purposes as well as you know them now, Father, but we can’t help seeing and thinking and wanting from our own poor simple angle. And it seems to me, Father, that the little child’s death is in the world’s redemption, and a miracle from you—just now, Father Malone, if you will forgive me for saying so—tending towards imprudence.”

This the Archbishop made his act of faith in the sanctity of Father Malone. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, on the last day of the novena, the precise day and hour at which Willie Jewel died.

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’

Caryll Houselander as a child.

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Contemplation of a child

“I know Monsignor,” he said, “that you think the whole thing likely to give scandal—”

“A view which I have always understood you to share with me, Father.”

The young priest swallowed, the sharp Adam’s apple in his throat jerked up and down in a way that looked as if it must be painful, and caused everyone who observed it to feel as if his own throat was sore.

“I did share it,” he said, “but the fact is, since I’ve been there, and stayed in Father Malone’s presbytery, and seen Willie Jewel—and the people—well, I suppose it’s a kind of little conversion—I just see for myself that it is all part of the mystery of love, and goes much deeper than hysteria, or anything like that. I don’t think it could give scandal to anyone who really saw it. I don’t think it could give scandal to anyone who really saw it. And the novena, it’s well, it’s just something very beautiful. It is drawing all sorts of very different people, even people of different Faith, and people who don’t get on in the ordinary way, round the child, in a closer and closer circle of love. It really is quite extraordinary, how praying for the tiny boy has made all those poor people one with one another.”

………………..

Timothy broke in. “You mean,” he said, “that Willie Jewel is a crucifix for the simple and the poor?”

“Yes—but as much, possibly even more, for the sophisticated and rich. We all need to see, we have grown so blind. We need surely a new—or maybe, a very old—kind of contemplation, a looking at Christ in one another, a contemplation in which our part is the response of love. I can see a likeness, between the crucifix that the contemplative in his cell takes into his hands, and the child who awakens love in everyone who knows him, the crucifix whose feet we kiss.”

……………….

“To get back to myself,” said Timothy, “which is, I’m afraid, what I always do get back to, the worst thing of all is the feeling of discouragement, nearly despair, when one sees the pride of life set up and accepted as an example, and realizes that Christ’s humility and poverty are more despised in practice among religious people, or Communists. It is such a hard, black bruise to the spirit, and one becomes cynical, and feels that one has been a fool to struggle so hard for the ideal of the humiliated Christ.”

“Did you ever imagine…that you could willingly practice Christ’s humility, and not be humiliated?”

Timothy was silent for some minutes, and then he said: “No. You are right. But what should I do now? It has come to a crisis in my soul. Ought I go back to the loneliness of my life as a Catholic, as it was before I knew that set? Should I make a real break and be quite alone? Ought I to give Cosma up? Of course, she does not care for me and she never will.”

“I think…that it depends on whether you can be yourself with her, and in her environment. If you can’t, then you are in a hopeless position anyway, for how can you really love, or be loved, if you cease to be yourself? To love you must possess yourself; God, Who is love, possesses Himself wholly, and gives Himself to all that is. You possess yourself in so far as you are true to His plan for you, which is your own likeness to Christ. But I do not think any drastic decision will be left to you. I am afraid that the war will sweep us all apart.”

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’

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A turn of the century Jewish child’s experience

Just before the beginning of his troubles, Solly used to follow his Grandmother about like a little dog. He went around the house with her and to the market with her, and watching her face saw that her lips often moved.

“Who are you talking to Grandmother?” he asked one day.

“I am blessing God.”

And he learned that she blessed God many times a day. She blessed Him when she ate the fruit that grows on trees, when she smelt fragrant wood or flowers, when she smelt fruit or spice or oil. She blessed him when a storm broke, when she heard the roar of thunder and saw the flashing of lightening. She blessed him when the first white bud broke on the tree. She heard Him when a wise or learned man came to the house. She blessed Him when they saw beautiful animals, dogs, cats, and birds, and the gulls sweeping over the bows of the ships in the docks, on wings like the wings of angels. She blessed Him when she used anything new, when she put on new clothes or dressed Solly in new clothes, when she ate any kind of fruit for the first time in the season, and when the new moon rose over the chimneys.

Solly felt close to Grandmother, especially when she blessed her Lord God for beautiful dogs and cats, but he felt miles away from Grandfather, of whom, though he did not fear him, he stood in awe. Although Grandmother’s life was filled with her religious rites, they seemed homely, they brought her closer to Solly, they were domestic, sensuous and tenderly devout. But Grandfather was set apart by his prayers, his soul seemed to be soaring away, outside of their little house. Solly watched him, half in awe, half fascinated, he watched him wrapping himself in a shawl to pray, binding thongs of leather on his forehead and arm: heard his voice reading the Scripture in Hebrew as a voice from another world. He sensed both sorrow and emptiness in the old man. Sorrow that was oppressive, and emptiness that was frightening to a child as it would be to suddenly find himself alone in an empty house.

Moses Levi, in self-sought exile, did not find the promised land that he had dreamed of. Although his memories of it were dark, blood-red and black, and sodden with tears, he found that after all he could not tear out his roots from the Ghetto he had forsaken. There, the people, the Chosen People of God and his own people, were one in the solidarity of suffering. Their oneness set them apart and excluded the rest of the world. Their unity was not one that could be broken even by death. It was like hard rock made of multitudinous grains of sand, that has been washed in the salt of deep and bitter seas.

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’

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An Author writes

If you know the secret of happiness, Reverend, for God’s sake cough it up, for we all need it enough.”

“It is being in love,” said the priest.

Solly stared at Father O’Grady with round, incredulous eyes. He had always supposed that churchmen frowned on love.

“Yes, being in love. Whatever your circumstances are, that is what is needed to turn them to joy. Unless you are in love, both riches and poverty become burdens. But when a rich man falls in love, his treasure is no longer a cause of worry and anxiety, because it is no longer something to be hoarded and hugged to himself. Instead, it is something to give away, to give to the beloved. And who would not choose a lifetime of hardship if that were, as it often is, the condition for being with the beloved?”

“There is one point though, Reverence, which you have left out. I’ll grant that being in love is the secret of happiness, but only when it is reciprocated; and, even then, provided that the other party stays faithful.”

He felt tempted to tell Father O’Grady about Ella. But Father O’Grady went on: “Precisely. That was the point I was coming to. The secret of perfect happiness is being in love with God, for God always reciprocates. Indeed, it is He who is always the suppliant. Heaven, Mr. Lee (Levin), is being in love with God. It is not something around the corner, as you put it, but something which starts here and now, and makes everything in this life joyful, even its suffering.”

“Well, Reverend, I suppose I’m a bad man, but I tell you straight, God doesn’t seem real enough to me to be in love with. And as to the other side of the penny, His loving me well that just seems quite impossible to me, and anyhow I don’t see what any of this has got to do with Father Malone’s pictures.”

“If you will be patient with me for a few minutes longer, I will tell you, Mr. Lee. You want to make people happy, so do I, and so does the Church. And she knows that the true happiness that lasts, and is not even broken temporarily by death, can only be achieved through loving God. But many people like yourself cannot grasp that as a reality. If they believe in God at all, it is only as infinitely remote Spirit whom they cannot approach, or as a hard judge whom they dare not upset. It was just to make men understand how wrong it is to think of God like that, that Christ was born of a woman and became man.

Caryll Hoselander ‘Dry Wood’

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Pray for us: Exercising the Divine

a portion of a novel by Caryll Houselander

Now they sang again, and the singing rocked and swayed with the movement of the sea, and it gathered in love and in sadness; but it was a sadness full of relief, for they were singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, and it gave a voice and words to the sorrow, and hope, and love, that was their daily bread and the salt of their lives.

It rocked and rocked their hearts with the movement of the sea. To the people of Riverside the sea was always present. Present in the hope, the fear, the waiting, the patience, of the mothers and sweethearts of the men who were out in ships. Present as they swept, and washed, and cooked. Present in their dreams in the night, and the Mother of Christ was both Mother of Men and Star of the Sea. She shone above the tall masts of the storm-driven ships, and the waves of the sea rocked in her light, and at home the cradles of the seamen’s children swung to and fro to the rhythm of the waves, rocked in the hands of the merciful Mother of Christ.

She was their pride and joy. The drabness and smeariness, and mediocrity of life, slipped away in the thought of her. She stood before the throne of God, their own and one of themselves.

Tower of Ivory!
Gate of Heaven!
Morning Star!

And in the city street and the narrow dark house, she was the white flower in the woods to them, the poetry and loveliness of their lives:

Mater purissima,
Mater castissima,
Mater inviolate,
Mater internerata,
Ora pro nobis!

The cadence of their love rocked to and fro, and flowed like waves round the foot of the monstrance.

The girls who had skimpy, washed-out clothes, tawdry finery and Woolworth’s rings, rejoiced because she, their Mother, was a Queen, Queen of Heaven, robed in its blue, crowned with its stars.

The mothers, the old women, and the men, put their cares into her hands and the rhythm of their singing rocked them into rest.

Salus infirmorum,
Refugium peccatorum,
Onsolatrix afflictorum,
Auxilium Christanorum,
Ora pro nobis!

Almost in the same breath, the Litany flowed into the “Tantum Ergo.” Again the bell rang out, loud and sweet and solemn, the bell of benediction. It shivered into silence. Silence possessed the people. Silence possessed the whole of Riverside.

Not the silence of emptiness, but of fullness, of a crescendo of expectation like a towering wave, gathered to the whole of its strength, lifted up to its fullest height, pausing in the moment of its upmost integrity, rolling on, to fling itself forward and break upon the rocks.

The flowers on the altar breathed the shimmering breath of the candle flame. The incense rose in straight blue lines through the haze of gold.
“Blessed be God.” Said the priest, and the wave broke, surging, tumbling, rushing forward in a torrent of praise.

“Blessed be God,” roared the people.

Blessed be God,
Blessed be His Holy Name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
Blessed be the Name of Jesus.
Blessed be His most Sacred Heart.
Blessed be Jesus, in the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Blessed be the Great Mother of God, Mary most holy.
Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception.
Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.
Blessed be St Joseph, her most chaste spouse.
Blessed be God, in His Angels and His Saints.

Now the “Adoremus” rose, gentle as a caress and flowing over the Sacred Heart, as Father Smith lifted It from the monstrance, put it back into the tabernacle and locked the door.

Benediction was over, but Miss Mulliger (organ player) maintained the fervor of the people as they crowded out into the street by thundering an improvisation of her own on the organ, a triumphant pot pourri of piety, incorporating all the most loved hymns with the most familiar marches, a number of indescribable chords and discords, sudden, almost frivolous trills, and melodies suspiciously like the popular song hits of the day.

Someone was waiting outside the church with news: “Willie is a little better.”

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Poverty

There are two kinds of poverty, the holy and the unholy. The unholy is like damp rot, it is the poverty that men should not accept. It is forced upon them by evil and injustice. Everything that it touches rots and decays; it is verminous and dirty; it breeds bitterness, fear, and hatred; it is the misery generated into the world by the union of fear and greed.

The other, Holy Poverty, is different. It is the poverty that flowers to frugality; it teaches men the glory of working for those whom they love and lifts their minds to contemplation; they discover in it God’s Fatherhood. This poverty does not ask for rest, it possesses peace. It is content with necessity. It has the vision which enables the heart to discern between the essential and the unessential. It has the humility which makes it invulnerable, the freedom which goes with having nothing, the gratitude that goes with having everything. It is poverty made lovely because Christ has taken it to His immaculate heart.

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’

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Transcendent poetic fiction

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’

“Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul.”

He had wanted his prayer and to be a draught of the shining water of Life, clear and sparkling, a fountain springing up from the dry dust of his heart, but the water that entered into his soul was the dark mysterious water of the Thames.

The water that carried men away to other lands, that brought them from distant, unknown worlds to London, that carried merchants and sailors and travelers to and fro on errands that sometimes separated, sometimes united men forever. The waters that flowed with tears of old mothers and lonely lovers. The waters that ran strong and black with tides of longing and of destiny, bringing men and women to one another’s arms or sweeping them away over seven seas. The waters that carried food and wine and merchandise to and fro between the cities of the world. Cargo of fruit, grapes and oranges and golden pomegranates, sugar candy, candy peel and spice, tea and coffee and sugar and nuts, bales of cotton and wool and silk, dyed vermilion and emerald and blue, and rugs from Persia and China and Egypt and India, and treasures of ivory and teakwood, metal and copper and jade, all the full measure of delight for the feast and splendor and laughter of living.

The water that whispered dark secrets down its tides, drugs that passed swiftly, silently from hand to hand, from thin yellow fingers in far off lands, to hands tattooed with flowers and hearts entwined with roses, to hands already crimson with blood, and black with the touch of evil gold, to terrible soft hands white in the moonlight, with scarlet nails.

Waters that carried outcast and derelicts and the lost and the forgotten, all the flotsam and jetsam of wrecked humanity to and fro, to and fro through time to the ultimate harbor. Waters that caressed strange little wooden wharfs, running furtively beside ramshackle warehouses and taverns, where here and there, a light behind a blind in a window cast a shower of golden petals on the dark ripples. Water that carried rats along the side of the wharfs, and into the ships and cities, waters that knew dark and lovely secrets, water that is the soul of London and brings the world to her heart.

Water that is part of the darkness of humanity flowing forever round the mystery of its light, water that is, with all its whispering and weeping and seeping darkness, symbol of the water of Life.
Water of the Thames, dark and lovely water, gently, gently lapping against the dockside, chug chug chug of the river Thames against the wharf, and Father O’Grady rocking, rocking, rocking, into the sleep of the dark water. Now his deep breathing too is woven into the lapping of the river and the rest of his prayer is sleep.

“Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul.”

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