Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review

Not too long ago, I came across several quotes by the Catholic British author, Caryll Houselander. I had never heard of her before that, even though my taste in literature runs very much in that direction. The quotes made a big impression on me, and one in particular stuck firmly with me: “Reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.” I work in a public library, and, during any given day, will come in contact with a variety of difficult, or downright nasty people, and I have been noticing lately, that I find it difficult to be truly charitable to people. Oh, I am nice enough, of course, and I am polite and helpful. It is not really charity, though. I am simply doing my job. I generally have quite a contemptuous view of mankind in general. However that particular quote inspired me, and since then, I have been trying hard to see Christ (or at least, the potentially risen Christ) in the people whom I work with each day.

It was on the weight, primarily, of that one quote, that I decided to read some more by Caryll Houselander. I had looked her up upon reading those quotes, and was not quite sure what to think of her. She was almost always described as a 'mystic' and that particular word generally sends off warning signals for me, since these days, it is almost always used in context with new-agey spirituality. The little bits and pieces of her writing that I came across, however, seemed very orthodox, so I decided to try one of her books. I elected for one called, "This War is the Passion" which was written in London, during WWII.

I am glad I did, for it is a very good book indeed. Caryll uses the War as a sort of backdrop to the spiritual life, and though this occasionally makes the book feel a bit dated, in general, it works brilliantly as a way of casting Christian spirituality into the realm of daily life. She begins by pointing out that suffering is actually a blessing in disguise. Suffering (at least to some degree) is unavoidable, but to Christians, and particularly to Catholics, who are trying to live a truly spiritual life, suffering is not wasted. We are all bound together by the life of Christ within us, so that the sufferings of each one of us is of merit, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of the Church - and by extension, the World. She points out that all men are made in the image and likeness of God, and reminds us of Christ's words, that whatever we do to the least of our fellow men, we do to Him... and she does it in such a way that you realise, all at once that the ordinary, daily encounters with other people (which you will have to make anyway) are actually opportunities to put that teaching into practice. She has an uncanny ability to take a concept that we are all familiar with - that Christ was true Man as well as true God, for example - and by the freshness of her writing, suddenly make it suddenly seem something staggeringly new and fantastic. She does not sugar-coat anything. She is able to make us see the ineffable sweetness of God's love for us, and the value He places on our love for Him - all out of proportion to its worth. But she also makes it very clear that so great a love will mean great sacrifices - on both parts.

"This War is the Passion" is not a very long, and could be read in a single evening. It is very full of ideas, though, and is well worth taking the time to read slowly, and, indeed, to re-read. Caryll's writing is clear and deceptively simple. She goes naturally from point to point, building each chapter off the one proceeding. She has a knack for being able to use the perfect word, or phrase, or metaphor, but, like all good writers, knows to use this talent sparingly, and so, to good effect. It is a practical book, but full of poetry. It is inspirational, but not sweet, or sentimental, and for all the focus on suffering and sacrifice, it is ultimately a tremendously encouraging book. I recommend it highly.

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