Tuesday, 31 December 2019

'St. Aloysius and the Tomatoes' by Fr. Bernard Bassett S.J.

Today is the last day of the year 2019 A.D. and I feel the need to complete my limited number of posts this year with a light-hearted tale by Fr Bernard Bassett S.J. entitled 'St.Aloysius and the Tomatoes',.  probably written in the 1950s, and subsequently published in his delightful book 'The Seven Deadly Virtues' published by Sands and Co., London.


 Saint Aloysius and the Tomatoes

'I discovered only the other day that Marjorie entertains some very odd notions about saints. Of course, I have known for some time that her prayer book was packed with pictures of saints in impossible postures, but now I know that her head is also full of impossible ideas. For myself, I own with some confusion that sanctity has often appeared a dull and rather monotonous profession, for I was never much use at prayer or preaching, and certainly should be tongue-tied if called upon to preach to the birds.
          Marjorie’s  difficulty lies rather in not preaching to everybody and everything which comes within range  of her batteries,  but I cannot picture her standing for all eternity with a lily in her hand.  Perhaps she is right when she calls me a cynic, but I would rather be sceptical than commercial  in my devotions,  and her love for the saints is measured by their ability to get her out of a muddle,  or to find her other pair of spectacles which she had put in so safe a place that they have not been seen for three months.
          Marjorie is very lavish with sanctity and attributes it to anyone who dares not say boo to a goose.  “Oh, she’s a perfect saint,” she once remarked of Mrs Heskith, “you can see it from the way that she walks back from the Communion rail”,;  though what Marjorie was doing staring about at such a moment I did not dare to ask.  Anyway, I had a squint at Mrs Heskith myself next Sunday, and I agree that she does not look unlike the pictures in Marjorie’s prayer book;  at least she has her head on one side.  Far be it for me to say anything against Mrs Heskith’s candidature for a niche over the altar, but I should be sorry if St Peter decided our places in heaven by the elasticity of our necks.
          Then there was Sister Raphael, the portress at the convent, “a saint if ever there was one,” to use Marjorie’s expression,  whose qualifications as far as I can judge. were an inability to raise her voice above a whisper or her eyes above the lowest bolt on the convent door.
          On the other hand,  Mother Aphonsus, the headmistress, who could call a spade a spade and who told Marjorie that she could not have the children home two days before the term ended,  was dismissed by her as “one who means well but who has no manners and is not at all my idea of a nun.”
          From these and other examples it is clear to me that Marjorie’s saints suffer from spiritual tuberculosis in this life, while in heaven they spend their time looking for her spectacles with their heads on one side.
          To Marjorie I am the complete Philistine, for I see sanctity in cheerfulness and a sense of humour with plenty of spiritual fresh air and exercise.  I would not condemn old Mr Herringbone, as Marjorie does, because his fingers are stained with tobacco, for such trifles are beside the point.  Marjorie says that St Aloysius would not have had yellow fingers, nor would he have yawned as Mr Herringbone does in church.  She goes further and accuses me of picking my saints to fit my own low standards so that I can settle my conscience.  Few of my favourite saints, like Thomas More or Thomas of Canterbury, had any recorded vision, they expressed no particular affection for dumb animals, and they did not hold their head on one side.  Marjorie in her nasty way says that my heaven is going to be an eternal cup-tie final,  and the only snag for me will be  that as it is eternal there will be no half-time.
          As far as I could make out, the Canon did not agree with Marjorie at all when he held forth on the saints the other evening, but Marjorie maintains that it might have been herself speaking, which is partly true.  There she was chatting away and trying to reduce the Canon’s contribution to an occasional affirmative at the end of each paragraph, but his Reverence was not to be silenced by such propaganda.
          It happened like this.  The meal was progressing according to plan, when suddenly Marjorie looked at me with her famous imitation of Garbo and begged me to be a saint and fetch the tomatoes from the second shelf on the left just inside the pantry door.  I replied with dignity that I would gladly fetch the tomatoes, but that sanctity did not enter into the matter, and I added that quite a number of saints might have refused to answer her request.  Marjorie countered by dragging in St Aloysius who would certainly have fetched the tomatoes for his mother, though he was a great prince.  That gave me the chance of saying that I could not appreciate the virtue of St Aloysius and that he would have brought the tomatoes with downcast eyes, for his biographer tells us that he always cast his eyes down.
          After that Marjorie fell back to other saints and other stories, and told us about St Elizabeth of Hungary, feeding a beggar and then finding hundreds of roses in her lap.  I could not see what this had to do with St Aloysius and the tomatoes, so I said so, appealing to the Canon for support. Before he could finish his mouthful, Marjorie was off on a tale about St Francis Xavier tearing up his letters from home unopened,  and another of St Lawrence Justinian, who buried both his parents without shedding a tear.  She had just reached another story about a saint hanging his coat on a sunbeam while sweeping his cell at the command of the abbot, when the Canon interrupted to arbitrate.
          The Canon agreed with me that not all the habits and customs of the saints could be appreciated by twentieth- century Englishmen, but he thought it was foolish to condemn where we did not understand.  Marjorie was delighted at this and began to nod approval, but the Canon caught her a dig with his next sentence, for as he said, we only know the saints as their biographers portray them, and not all biographers are saints. They stress the wrong points or they emphasise trivial qualities, or they try to make the saint what they imagine a saint should be. This was particularly the case in Victorian biography, when Little Lord Fauntleroy was in fashion, and poor St Aloysius had been decked out in velvet breeches and a sickly smile.
          The Canon was so annoyed by stupid stories that I took the opportunity to kick Marjorie under the table, but in such a way that she might think that the Canon had done it by mistake.
          As the Canon rightly said, one century cannot judge another, their whole outlook and atmosphere and customs were different, and if some cynics laughed at the early saints for not washing, it is well to remember that Queen Elizabeth and Shakespearian England was just as bad. Each age has its own standards, its own peculiar virtues and vices, and the saints are typical of their age.
          “Sanctity,” said the Canon, “can show itself in a hundred and one ways, all quite different,  but though it varies in its manifestations it remains the same in essence wherever it is found.  I’m not sure that it is possible over baked apples and custard to analyse its ingredients, but it was accurately and humanly explained by Our Blessed Lord when He told the story of the merchant who sold all that he possessed to buy a pearl of great price. Now that merchant was a wise and shrewd man, not a fool nor an enthusiast, and we may be sure that when the priceless pearl was in his possession he did not pine for the money by which it had been obtained.  So it seems to me that the saints were not idealists or fanatics, but common-sensed and hard-headed men.  Once grant that the pearl for sale is priceless and they become the most logical men in history;  nor were they people who set out to make themselves miserable, but carefree enterprising merchants, who had picked up a tremendous treasure at a trifling price. If the saints puzzle us it is not because they were crazy, but because we have not properly estimated the value of the prize.”
          The Canon paused to consume some baked apple, and Marjorie was off on St Aloysius and the tomatoes again. The Canon swallowed quickly to cut her short.
          “St Aloysius,” said he, “is the most maligned of all the saints, thanks to his biographers, who present him as a sickly young man wearing a cotta and carrying a terrific scourge in his hand.  That is what comes of one century trying to judge another, without remembering the essential that a saint is a merchant out to buy a pearl of great price.  The merchants of every century are hard-headed and so are the saints. The contract, the price, the methods of purchase vary, the prize is the same. Don’t judge a saint by mere accidentals, put him in the circumstances which we all understand.  I cannot repeat too often that a saint has to get up in the morning, perhaps talks to himself while shaving, fills in the days and weeks with occupations which we ordinary twentieth-century Englishmen can appreciate.  His life is not made up of ecstasies and scourgings, and though the methods differ, the essentials of sanctity remain the same.”
          The Canon put down his spoon and fork.
          “I’ll admit,” said he, “that Saint Aloysius seemed very insipid to me until I had an intimate glimpse of him many years ago.  I was a young curate then, working in a poor parish, and I was invited to spend my fortnight’s holiday with rich titled friends.  There I was in a country house, with a feather bed, and trout for breakfast, and several dignified servants to put my pyjamas and tooth-brush away..  At first I was shy of these servants.  I rose early and said my breviary in the garden, but it did not take long before I was growing used to the leisure,, enjoying the lovely garden and the excellent food and wine..  Gradually my breviary got pushed into the last hours of the evening, and I stayed in bed longer in the mornings to have what my hostess called a real rest.  I began to fish about for further invitations, I delayed my departure, I saw a new world which I had never known before.  It seemed to me that I was squandering my youth and talents in my poor parish, when I was so obviously a success with my cultured friends.
          “Well despite all my efforts and evasions, the famous fortnight at last was over, and I returned to the presbytery with a heavy heart.  My poky little room and the Irish stew gave me jaundice, and I looked at my boy’s  club and other activities with a yellow eye.  On one terrible occasion, I don’t mind confessing, I sat at my desk, a man of twenty-six, five foot ten and a half in my stockings, and cried like a brat.  For one dreadful moment I doubted if I could ever resume my parish drudgery, and at that very moment old Canon McSweeney burst in, without knocking, to ask about a baptism.  He stopped dead in the doorway, for not even he expected to find his curate crying, and then he began to chuckle in his cheerful way. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “I need no explanation and will give no advice.  I know what’s the matter, and you’ll get over it, and the experience will open your eyes.  At any rate, my lad, you can’t do better than have a word with St Aloysius, for how that boy ever had the grit to leave a palace and a ducal crown and pomegranate toothpowder, to rough it in a presbytery or its equivalent, is more than we fish can understand.  Small wonder that he had to use extraordinary methods and that he wore himself out in a short time.”
          The Canon put down his napkin.
          “There you are,” he said, “that was McSweeney’s biography of St Aloysius, and my own short experiment as a country gentleman endorses his account.  We who have never enjoyed his means cannot appreciate his methods, but we ought to raise our hats or birettas to his strength of purpose.  Aloysius would have fetched the tomatoes, he might have cast his eyes down as he brought them, but the fatigue of getting them, like the pain of quitting his palace would have been no less than the common-sense of the young merchant who sold all his possessions with joy to buy the pearl of great price.” '


“God, Who is unchangeable, would appear now as a child in a stable, now as a boy in a workshop, now as a criminal on a scaffold, and now as bread upon the altar.  In these various guises Jesus chose to exhibit himself to us; but whatever character he assumed, it was always the character of a lover.”

Ack.  ‘Thoughts from St Alphonsus’ compiled by Rev C McNeiry C.SS.R

               'Wishing all readers a blessed and happy New Year'

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

'The Spirit of Meekness is peculiar to God'

This article is taken from the writings of St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori  (1696-1787),  founder of the  ‘Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer’,  known as the ‘Redemptorists’. It is taken from his book ‘The Holy Eucharist’,  being volume VI of ‘The Ascetical Works’, considering  the ‘Practice of the love of Jesus Christ’, and concentrating in this case on the specific virtue of meekness.

                   Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori CSsR  (1696 -1787)

                             'He that loves Jesus Christ loves meekness'.
The spirit of meekness is peculiar to God:  ‘My spirit is sweet above honey’. Hence it is that a soul that loves God loves also all those whom God loves, namely, her neighbours; so that she eagerly seeks every occasion of helping all, of consoling all, and of making all happy as far as she can.  St Francis de Sales, who was the master and model of holy meekness, says, “Humble meekness is the virtue of virtues, which God has so much recommended to us; therefore we should endeavour to practise it always and in all things.”  Hence the saint gives us this rule:  “What you see can be done with love, do it; and what you see cannot be done without offence, leave it undone.” He means, when it can be omitted without offending God; because an offence of God must always and as quickly as possible, be prevented by him who is bound  to prevent it

This meekness should be particularly observed towards the poor, who by reason of their poverty, are often harshly treated by men.  It should likewise be especially practised towards the sick who are suffering under infirmities, and for the most part meet with small help from others. Meekness is more especially to be observed in our behaviour towards enemies: Overcome evil with good.  Hatred must be overcome by love,  and persecution by meekness; and thus the saints acted, and so they conciliated the affections of their most exasperated enemies.

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                  St Francis de Sales (1567-1622) Bishop of Geneva

 “There is nothing” says St Francis de Sales, “ that gives so much edification to our neighbour as meekness of behaviour.” The saint, therefore, was generally seen smiling, and with a countenance beaming with charity, which gave a tone to all his words and actions.  This gave occasion to St Vincent de Paul to declare that he never knew a kinder man in his life.  He said further, that it seemed to him that in his lordship of Sales was a true likeness of Jesus Christ.  Even in refusing what he could not in conscience comply with, he did so with such sweetness, that all, though unsuccessful in their requests, went away satisfied and well disposed towards him.  He was gentle towards all, towards Superiors, towards equals and inferiors, at home and abroad; in contrast with some, who, as the saints used to say, “seemed angels abroad, but were devils at home.” Moreover, the saint, in his conduct towards servants, never complained of their remissness; at most he would give them an admonition, but always in the gentlest terms.  And this is a thing most praiseworthy in Superiors.

            The Superior should use all kindness towards those under him.  When telling them what they have to do, he should rather request than command.  St Vincent of Paul said: “A Superior will never find a better means of being readily obeyed than meekness.”  And to the same effect was the saying of St Jane Frances of Chantal: “I have tried various methods of governing, but I have not found any better than that of meekness and forbearance.”

            And more than this, the Superior should be kind even in the correction of faults.  It is one thing to correct with firmness and another with harshness; it is needful at times to correct with firmness, when the fault is serious, and especially if it be repeated after the subject has already been admonished of it; but let us always be on our guard against harsh and angry correction; he that corrects with anger does more harm than good.  This is that bitter zeal reproved by St James. Some make a boast of keeping their family in order by severity, and they say it is the only successful method of treatment; but St James speaks not so: ‘But if you have bitter zeal …… glory not’.  If on some rare  occasion it be necessary to speak a cross word, in order to bring the offender to a proper sense of his fault, yet in the end we ought invariably to leave him with a gentle countenance and a word of kindness.  Wounds must be healed after the fashion of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, with wine and oil:  “But as oil” said St Francis de Sales, “always swims on the surface of all other liquors, so must meekness prevail over all our actions.”  And when it occurs that the person under correction is agitated, then the reprehension must be deferred till his anger has subsided, or else we should only increase his indignation. The Canon Regular St John said, “When the house is on fire, one must not cast wood into the flames.”

            ‘You know not of what spirit you are’.  Such were the words of Jesus Christ to his disciples James and John, when they would have brought down chastisements on the Samaritans for expelling them from their country.

Ah, said the Lord to them, and what spirit is this? This is not my spirit, which is sweet and gentle; for I am come not to destroy but to save souls: The Son of Man came not to destroy souls, but to save. And would you induce me to destroy them? Oh, hush! And never make the like request to me, for such is not according to my spirit.  And, in fact, with what meekness did Jesus Christ treat the adulteress? ‘Woman,’ said He, ‘hath no man condemned thee? Neither will I condemn thee! Go and now sin no more.’  He was satisfied with merely warning her not to sin again, and sent her away in peace.  With what meekness, again, did He seek the conversion of the Samaritan woman, and so, in fact, converted her.  He first asked her to give Him to drink; then He said to her: ‘If thou didst know who He is that saith to thee, Give me to drink’; and then he revealed to her that he was the expected Messiah.  And, again, with what meekness did he strive to convert the impious Judas, admitting him to eat of the same dish with him, washing his feet and admonishing him in the very act of his betrayal: Judas and dost thou thus betray me with a kiss? Judas, dost thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?  And see how he converted Peter after his denial of him! ‘And the Lord turning looked on Peter.  On leaving the house of the high priest, without making him a single reproach, he cast on him a look of tenderness, and thus converted him; and so effectually did he convert him, that during his whole life long Peter never ceased to bewail the injury he had done to his Master.

            Oh, how much more is to be gained by meekness than by harshness!  St Francis de Sales said there was nothing more bitter than the bitter almond, but if made into a preserve, it becomes sweet and agreeable: thus corrections, though in their nature very unpleasant, are rendered pleasant by love and meekness, and so are attended with more beneficial results.  St Vincent of Paul said of himself, that in the government of his own congregation he had never corrected anyone with severity, except on three occasions, when he supposed there was reason to do so, but that he regretted it ever afterwards, because he found it turned out badly; whereas he had always admirably succeeded by gentle correction.

            St Francis de Sales obtained from others whatever he wished by his meek behaviour; and by this means he managed to gain the most hardened sinners to God.  It was the same with St Vincent of Paul, who taught his disciples this maxim: “Affability, love, and humility have a wonderful efficacy in winning the hearts of men, and in prevailing on them to undertake things most repugnant to nature.” ……..


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                                 St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)

  Kindness should be observed towards all on all occasions and at all times.  St Bernard remarks that certain persons are gentle as long as things fall out to their taste; but scarcely do they experience some opposition or contradiction than they are instantly on fire, like Mount Vesuvius itself.  Such as these may be called turning coals, but hidden under the embers.  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; and he shows this in her very countenance, being ever mistress of herself, alike in prosperity and adversity, according to the lines of Cardinal Petrucci:

               “Of outward things he views the varying guise,

                    While in his soul’s most inward depth

                Undimmed God’s image lies.”

Whenever it happens that we have to reply to someone who insults us, let us be careful to answer with meekness: a mild answer breaketh wrath. A mild reply is enough to quench every spark of anger. And in case we feel irritated, it is best to keep silence, because then it seems only just to give vent to all that rises to our lips; but when our passion has subsided, we shall see that all our words were full of faults.

            And when it happens that we ourselves commit some fault, we must also practise meekness in our own regard. To be exasperated at ourselves after a fault is not humility, but a subtle pride, as if we were anything else than the weak and miserable things that we are.  St Teresa said: “The humility that disturbs does not come from God, but from the devil”.  To be angry at ourselves after the commission of a fault is a fault worse than the one committed, and will be the occasion of many other faults; it will make us leave off our devotions, prayers, and communions; or if we do practise them, they will be done very badly.  St Aloysius Gonzaga said that we cannot see in troubled waters, and that the devil fishes in them. A soul that is troubled knows little of God and of what it ought to do.  Whenever, therefore, we fall into any fault, we should turn to God with humility and confidence, and craving his forgiveness, say to him with St Catharine of Genoa: O Lord, this is the produce of my own garden! I love Thee with my whole heart, and I repent of the displeasure I have given Thee! I will never do the like again: grant me Thy assistance!”

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Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) - Peter Paul Rubens (Wikipedia)

Monday, 19 August 2019

'Mathew Speaks' by Caryll Houselander (1901-1954)


 'Frances Caryll Houselander was born in Bath, England, on Sept 29, 1901, the second of two daughters.  She was not expected to survive for more than a day, and was immediately baptized,  given the name ‘Frances’ after her uncle, a gynaecologist who helped deliver her, and ‘Caryll’,  after the yacht on which her mother had spent the last months of her pregnancy!
     She went on to survive her first day, and indeed many more after that, though her health continued to be poor throughout her life.
     When she was 6 years old, a family friend persuaded her mother to have the children baptised in the Catholic faith. Although little formal religious education followed her reception into the Church, her mother encouraged a deep sense of piety and devotion in the home, and Frances, a devout child,  made her first confession and Holy Communion when she was just seven years old.
     Two years later, her world was shattered when her parents  separated. Though they were never  divorced, the separation was to be a permanent one. For the next several years, she changed homes and schools, never fully settling in one place before she was moved to the next.
     Her erratic health led her doctors to advise that she avoid all class work, and,  by the time she returned home in 1917, her formal education was virtually non-existent.  During her years in the convent schools, she experienced three religious visions, which led to a personal and absolute conviction that she had been called by Christ to give recognition to the reality of His loving Presence and Image in all people, particularly the suffering and poor of this world, and to convey the realisation and awareness of this to all those with whom she came into contact, personally and through her writings. Frances had a great affinity with young children, and during her life wrote and illustrated children's books, always revealing a simple delight in the love of God and His creation.
     When the war ended, she attended art school and it was during this period that she drifted from the Catholic Church. She explored the Orthodox Church among others, but found them all wanting, and craving for peace of soul and longing for the Sacraments, she returned to the Catholic Church; she was then twenty-four years old.
     Advised to concentrate on her writing, she  began to write articles and illustrate for the ‘Children’s Messenger of the Sacred Heart’, often on an unpaid basis. Her work ultimately led to her making the acquaintance of the Catholic publishers, Sheed and Ward, who were subsequently to  become the major publishers of her many books.
     Always willing to open her home and her heart to those in need, she was frequently physically and emotionally  overwhelmed by those who sought her advice, yet she remained reluctant to turn people away.
     Msgr. Ronald Knox, a contemporary, and admirer of Houselander, recognized her tremendous gift of insight, and was later to say, "She seemed  to see everything for the first time, and the driest of doctrinal considerations shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it." 
     Her popularity and success in healing the hurts and the hearts of many can be measured by the support of such eminent physicians as Dr. Strauss, later President of the British Psychological Society, who sent patients to her. His explanation was that "she loved them back to life".
     Her impact, both literary and personal, was due above all, to the intensity of her vision of the suffering Christ, a vision she expressed with utter sincerity and immediacy and, on occasion, with breathtaking luminosity. Indeed, she can best be described not just as a writer, nor even just an artist, but as a mystic and a visionary, even in the tradition of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, or Teresa of Avila, which would explain how she was able to communicate so directly and movingly to her large reading public, and accounts for her extraordinary success in counselling British and foreign children who had been traumatized by the war.
     Not gregarious by nature, she nevertheless radiated gaiety and a  sense of fun; her wickedly funny tongue often provoking as much hilarity among her intimates as it caused her remorse.
     She was unquestionably a genuine mystic whose frailties were transformed into real strength and whose neuroses became the means whereby she was able to join her sufferings with Christ on the cross. It was as though her burning love of God overflowed for the refreshment of all who came in contact with her.
    "She seemed to possess a well that never ran dry for anyone but herself. She gave of her food to feed the hungry, her time to counsel those in need, her energy to write countless letters, articles and books, and ultimately her health for the health and well-being of others. She spent years attending to the rigorous demands of her ailing parents, and, having been plagued by ill health her entire life, had become accustomed to pain and slow to address her own physical ailments. Her lack of self-concern, however, which extended to everything from her looks, to her diet, her sleep, her health, her living quarters, etc., took its toll."
      During her last years, she worked tirelessly to complete books, write letters, strengthen the works of charity she had begun, and minister to the many mentally ill children who were sent her way'            
      She died on October 12, 1954, from breast cancer. 
"The wonder of Frances Caryll Houselander is found in her humble willingness to suffer with Christ, to let Him transform her flawed and sinful nature into a divine work of art."

Ack.  Karen Lynn Krugh / Catholic Culture.org

Ack.  Margot H. King - currently working on biography for Peregrina Publishers.
Ack.   Robin Maas - Caryll Houselander, an appreciation.

Frances Caryll Houselander
- mystic, poet, artist, writer
         (1901 - 1954)

In 'Mathew Speaks', Caryll Houselander reveals a deep spirituality enveloping a sympathetic and sincere humanity. Through the thoughts and words of  Mathew, the tax collector, she reveals the hopes and aspirations of his Jewish community who hear and see Jesus, probably for the first time, when he visits their township. The expectations of the young and the older people concerning the coming Messiah, are of this world rather than the next. They believe that the Messiah will restore worldly power and glory to the Jewish people, although Mathew knows that this will not be the case. Caryll Houselander, through the mind of Mathew, gently explores the fears and expectations of the ordinary people, gradually introducing the overwhelming concept of Christ's love for all mankind. The concept of 'Christ being in all men' is one which Houselander preached and practised throughout her life. A similar poem by her, 'Philip  Speaks', explores the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, as experienced through the mind of  Philip, who Jesus made responsible for distributing the loaves and fishes to the multitude. This is a most moving poem which I recommend, and I leave a link at the end of this post for those interested.


Mathew Speaks  

His fame had spread through Syria like flame in
dry grass.
From Galilee and the Decapolis and over Jordan
the people came.
Crowds came out of Judea and out of Jerusalem.

In the hearts of the old men
hope for the race smouldered again:
“Oh, that Messiah were come to set us free!”
In the hearts of the women
hope for the children flickered with faint flame:
“Oh, that Messiah were come to set them free!”
The proud heart of youth blazed, suddenly on fire:
“Oh, for our own glory, in the glory of Messiah!”

I was afraid,
I, the tax collector,
who had sat in the Custom house.
I knew men through and through,
having got my living, as it were,
by other men’s despair.

I knew the humiliated,
I knew the oppressed;
I knew the king,
whom they had crowned already
in their desire:
they had created him
out of their bitterness.

Out of their broken flesh,
out of their hunger and thirst,
out of their chains –
weaponless, they had forged him a sword:
ragged, they had woven for him
purple raiment and cloth of gold for a king:
out of the festering wound,
out of the conqueror’s scorn,
in dreams, the son of the race was born –
Messiah, the Son of Dreams.

I knew it all.
How often I had sat in the market place
and seen the women there, rocking to and fro,
like those who sit by the dead to reap-
rocking, rocking, rocking,
to and fro;
trying to rock the cradled nothingness
in the barren womb
to sleep.

As for the young,
they wanted a leader, whose power
would be in his lust for power,
one whose tongue
would utter their dumb pride
in song,
one in whose heart
their frightened hearts would beat
to the sound of drums.


I was afraid
that they would despair
when they saw the Lord.

He was very poor.
He had the chiselled features
of one who denies himself;
His hands
were the large hands
of an artisan –
and without a sword;
His eyes,
the eyes of pity and love;
His speech,
the broad, slow speech
of a countryman.

I was afraid.
But when He began to speak
It seemed to each who heard
that the word was spoken to him alone.

He dawned upon the people;
He did not take them by storm:
soft as the blown thistledown’s sowing,
the seed of the Word was sown.

Each who heard
knew the light growing within him,
like morning,
slowly swelling
and filling the empty sky
before the first song
of the first bird.

I understood,
when He began to teach,
why first
He had given light to blind eyes;
and to deaf ears,
the music of water and wind;
and to hands and feet that were numb,
the touch of the delicate grass and the sun;
and speech to the dumb.

For He spoke of the things
men see and taste and hold:
of salt and rock and light
and the wheat in gold;
of winds and wings and flowers
and the fruit on boughs:
of candle-light in the house.

They heard His voice.
Like the voice of a murmurous  sea
a long way off, washing the shores of peace:
but each knew within him
a soundless music,
a voiceless singing,

“feel the pulse of My Love
with your fingertips;
prove My tenderness
in the tiny beat
of the heart of the mother bird;
lay your hand on the hard bark of the tree –
know Me
in the rising sap
of the green life
In the dark.

“I have strewn the flowers
under your feet:
see if I love you;
see if My love is sweet!”

There was a thawing then,
like the melting of frost
when winter is done
and the warm sun
kisses the world.

There was a thawing then
in the hearts of the women,
and after the hard frost
of the hard years,
their unshed tears
were flowing.

They understood
how the Lord
takes the lowest least
for His self-bestowing.
They would remember,
when they were baking bread,
how He had said
that His grace
works secretly in them,
like yeast.

When they sifted the ash
and blew the spark of the fire,
they would remember
the Breath of the Spirit
that fans the smoking flax.

He spoke of chastity,
the splendour of love;
of desire,
silver purified
in the heart of the fire;
of thought,
white linen spread
for the marriage feast.

Then –
the men knew,
with a great sighing of joy,
that the dead bough
must fall from the living tree;
the fetid thought,
the furtive word,
the seeping lust,
the cloying grief,
the blight on the green leaf,
the hard fruit
with soft rot at the core,
would be no more,
no more.

But the heart would be born again
to a white maying and morning
and first falling in love.


Christ looked at the people.
He saw them assailed by fear:
He saw the locked door;
He saw the knife in the hand;
He saw the buried coin;
He saw the unworn coat,
consumed by moth;
He saw the stagnant water
drawn and kept in the pitcher,
the musty bread in the bin –
the defended,
the unshared,
the ungiven.

He told them then
of the love
that casts out fear,
of the love that is four walls
and a roof over the head:
of the knife in the sheath,
of the coin in the open hand,
of the coin given
warm with the giver’s life,
of the water poured in the cup,
of the table spread –
the undefended,
the shared,
the given –
the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christ looked at the people.
He saw the hard years
graven upon their faces;
He saw the old clothes,
worn to the shape of their work;
He saw their unshed tears;
He saw the labourer’s hands,
hollowed out by the tools
as his own were hollowed out
by the mallet to cup the nail.

He saw the crust of the will,
like the hard crust of rye;
He saw flesh and blood,
the sacramentals of love;
He saw the image of God,
the crystal in the rock.

He lifted
His large and beautiful hands
to bless.

                                                             Caryll Houselander

E saw2 the hard years graven upon their faces:

Ack.  'The Book of the Saviour'

an anthology published by Sheed and Ward

London and New York 1952


N.B.    link to 'Philip Speaks'