'Annunciation' by El Greco
Caryll Houselander, (1901 - 1954) was an English lay Roman Catholic ecclesiastical artist, mystic, popular religious writer and poet. 'The Reed of God' was one of many books she wrote, and in this she included the following article on Advent.I find her views deeply spiritual but always practical, simple but profound.
'ADVENT' by Caryll Houselander
Advent is the season of the seed: Christ loved this symbol of the seed.
The seed he said, is the word of God sown in the human heart.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed.”
“So is the Kingdom of God as if a man should cast seed into the earth.”
Even His own life blood: “Unless the seed falling into the earth die, how shall the earth be sown?”
The Advent, the seed of the world’s life, was hidden in Our Lady.
Like the wheat seed in the earth, the seed of the Bread of Life was in her.
Like the golden harvest in the darkness of the earth, the Glory of God was shrined in her darkness.
Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.
It is the season of humility, silence, and growth.
For nine months Christ grew in His Mother’s body. By His own will she formed Him from herself, from the simplicity of her daily life.
She had nothing to give Him but herself.
He asked for nothing else.
Working, eating, sleeping, she was forming His body from hers. His flesh and blood. From her humanity she gave Him His humanity,
Walking in the streets of Nazareth to do her shopping, to visit her friends, she set His feet on the path of Jerusalem.
Washing, weaving, kneading, sweeping, her hands prepared His hands for the nails.
Every beat of her heart gave Him His heart to love with, His heart to be broken by love.
All her experience of the world about her was gathered to Christ growing in her.
Looking upon the flowers, she gave Him human sight. Talking with her neighbours she gave Him a human voice. The voice we still hear in the silence of souls saying: “Consider the lilies of the field.”
'Our Lady of the Magnificat' by Sandro Botticelli
Sleeping in her still room she gave Him the sleep of the child in the cradle, the sleep of the young man rocked in the storm-tossed boat.
Breaking and eating the bread, drinking the wine of the country, she gave Him His flesh and blood; she prepared the Host for the Mass.
This time of Advent is absolutely essential to our contemplation too.
If we have truly given our humanity to be changed into Christ, it is essential to us that we do not disturb this time of growth.
It is a time of darkness, of faith. We shall not see Christ’s radiance in our lives yet; it is still hidden in our darkness; nevertheless, we must believe that He is growing in our lives; we must believe it so firmly that we cannot help relating everything, literally everything, to this almost incredible reality.
This attitude it is which makes every moment of every day and night a prayer.
In itself it is a purification, but without the tense resolution and anxiety of self-conscious aim.
How could it be possible that anyone who was conscious that Christ desired to see the world with his eyes would look willingly on anything evil? Or knowing that He wished to work with his hands, do any work that was shoddy, any work that was not as near perfection as human nature can achieve?
Who, knowing that his ears must listen for Christ, could listen to blasphemy or to the dreary dirtiness of so much of our conversation, or could fail to listen to the voice of a world like ours with compassion?
Above all, who, knowing that Christ asked for his heart to love with, for his heart to bear the burden of the love of God, could fail to discover that in every pulsation of his own life there is prayer?
This Advent awareness does not lead to a selfish preoccupation with self; it does not exclude outgoing love to others – far from it. It leads to them inevitably, but it prevents such acts and words of love from becoming distractions. It makes the very doing of them reminders of the presence of Christ in us.
It is through them that we can preserve the secrecy of Advent without failing to offer the loveliness of Christ in us to others.
Everyone knows how terrible it is to come into contact with those people who have an undisciplined missionary urge, who, having received some grace, are continually trying to force the same grace on others, to compel them not only to be converted but to be converted in the same way and with precisely the same results as themselves.
Such people seem to wish to dictate to the Holy Ghost. God is to inspire their neighbour to see things just as they do, to join the same societies, to plunge into the same activities. They go about like the scriptural monster, seeking whom they may devour. They insist that their victims have obvious vocations to assist in, or even to be completely sacrificed to, their own interests. Very often they unwittingly tear out the tender little shoot of Christ-life that was pushing up against the dark, heavy clay, and when the poor victim has been devoured, he is handed over, spiritless and broken, as a pre-digested morsel for the next one-hundred-per-cent zealot who comes along.
Our Lady’s example is very different to this.
When a woman is carrying a child, she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart.
This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.
We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in a hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in a martyr spirit or with that worse spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.
We shall do it just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world.
By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent; He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; Her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.
Today Christ is dependent upon men. In the Host, He is literally put into a man’s hands. A man must carry Him to the dying, must take Him to the prisons, workhouses, and hospitals, must carry Him in a tiny pyx over the heart onto the field of battle, must give Him to little children and ‘lay Him by” in His ‘leaflight’ house of gold.
The modern world’s feverish struggle for unbridled, often unlicensed freedom, is answered by the bound, enclosed helplessness and dependence of Christ – Christ in the womb, Christ in the Host, Christ in the tomb.
This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry Him in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them.
None of us know when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to the battleship, airfield, or camp.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Charles de Foucauld, a young French soldier of our own day, became a priest and a hermit in the desert, where he was murdered by some of the Arabs whom he had come to serve. His life as a missionary hermit seemed no more than a quixotic spiritual adventure, a tilting at windmills, on the desert sands, but he knew and said that it was worth while for just one thing; because he was there, the Sacred Host was there.
It mattered nothing if the heroic priest could not utter the wonder that was in his heart; the Blessed Sacrament was there in the desert; Christ was there, silent, helpless, dependent on a creature; that which His servant could not utter in words, Christ would utter, in His own time, in silence.
Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worth while.
'Visitation' by Frans Francken II
There is one exquisite incident in Our Lady’s Advent in which this is clearly seen: the Visitation.
“And Mary rising up in those days went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda.”
How lyrical that is, the opening sentence of St Luke’s description of the Visitation. We can feel the rush of warmth and kindness, the sudden urgency of love that sent that girl hurrying over the hills. “Those days” in which she rose on that impulse were the days in which Christ was being formed in her, the impulse was His impulse.
Many women, if they were expecting a child, would refuse to hurry over the hills on a visit of pure kindness. They would say they had a duty to themselves and to their unborn child which came before anything or anyone else.
The Mother of God considered no such thing. Elizabeth was going to have a child, too, and although Mary’s own child was God, she could not forget Elizabeth’s need – almost incredible to us, but characteristic of her.
She greeted her cousin Elizabeth, and at the sound of her voice, John quickened in his mother’s womb and leapt for joy.
“I am come” said Christ, “that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” Even before He was born His presence gave life.
With what piercing shoots of joy does this story of Christ unfold! First the conception of a child in a child’s heart, and then this first salutation, an infant leaping for joy in his mother’s womb, knowing the hidden Christ and leaping into life.
How did Elizabeth herself know what had happened to Our Lady? What made her realise that this little cousin who was so familiar to her, was the mother of her God?
She knew it by the child within herself, by the quickening into life which was a leap of joy.
'El buen Pastor' by Murillo
If we practise this contemplation taught and shown to us by Our Lady, we will find that our experience is like hers.
If Christ is growing in us, if we are at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life seems to be, from it He is forming Himself; if we go with eager wills, “in haste”, to wherever our circumstances compel us, because we believe that He desires to be in that place, we shall find that we are driven more and more to act on the impulse of His love.
And the answer we shall get from others to those impulses will be an awakening into life, or the leap into joy of the already wakened life within them.
It is not necessary at this stage of our contemplation to speak to others of the mystery of life growing in us. It is only necessary to give ourselves to that life, all that we are, to pray without ceasing, not by a continual effort to concentrate our minds but by a growing awareness that Christ is being formed in our lives from what we are. We must trust Him for this, because it is not a time to see His face, we must possess Him secretly and in darkness, as the earth possesses the seed. We must not try to force Christ’s growth in us, but with a deep gratitude for the light burning secretly in our darkness, we must fold our concentrated love upon Him like earth, surrounding, holding, and nourishing the seed.
We must be swift to obey the winged impulses of His Love, carrying Him to wherever He longs to be; and those who recognise His presence will be stirred, like Elizabeth, with new life. They will know His presence, not by any special beauty of power shown by us, but in the way that the bud knows the presence of the light, by an unfolding in themselves, a putting forth of their own beauty.
'The Road to Emmaus' by Altobello Melone
It seems that this is Christ’s favourite way of being recognised, that he prefers to be known, not by His own human features, but by the quickening of His own life in the heart, which is the response to His coming.
When John recognised Him, He was hidden in His mother’s womb. After the Resurrection He was known, not by His familiar features, but by the love in Magdalene’s heart, the fire in the heart of the travellers to Emmaus, and the wound in His own heart handled by Thomas.
"Whoever would become a saint, must during this life resemble the lily among thorns, which, however much it may be pricked by them, never ceases to be a lily; that is, it is always equally sweet and serene. The soul that loves God maintains an imperturbable peace of heart."
ack. Thoughts from St Alphonsus.