This Virus Is The Passion
Updated: May 23, 2020
Friday Book Pick: This War is the Passion by Caryll Houselander
The combination of mystic and excellent writer would be reason enough to pick up anything written by Caryll Houselander. The content of her first book, published in 1941, is remarkably relevant spiritual reading for a time such as this. This War is the Passion was published in the height of World War II and yet feels like it was written this month, right in the midst of the pandemic. If you replace the word “war” with “virus,” you could easily imagine this book coming off the press last week, rather than nearly eight decades ago. Modern readers will find every paragraph applicable to our current situation.
In the pages of This War is the Passion, Caryll Houselander teaches her contemporaries a way of seeing the Second World War, in which they were living, through the lens of the passion of Christ. Her central idea is that Jesus Christ is living His life and suffering His passion in humanity again. He is present in the war. He suffers the war with them.
“Because He has made us ‘other Christs,’ because His life continues in each one of us,
there is nothing that any one of us can suffer which is not the passion He suffered.”
The reality of the Christ-life, as Caryll calls it, or the in-dwelling, is a concept that enables her to see Jesus in her neighbor and in the stranger, in her enemies and in herself. This core concept is the nucleus in all that I have ever read by Caryll Houselander. It is this concept that can charge this time with meaning for us. Christ is present in this pandemic; He suffers it with us.
In this first of her published works, she makes the case that, while it’s true that Jesus achieved the redemption of the human race by His passion, He also opened up the redemption to be experienced in us, His mystical body. We, the Church, experience the ongoing unfolding of the mystery of the redemption. “These things are mysterious,” she writes, “we can’t understand them with our brains, but now everyone is going to learn to understand them in sorrow, in courage, and in sacrifice. Now the time has come for each of us to prove our Christhood.”
In this spiritual gem she addresses fear and anxiety, she treats prayer and the Church, and she writes of the Mass. The war experience made it difficult to attend Mass, and Caryll Houselander addresses this painful loss through a mystic’s lens.
“We need not fear that because we might not be able to be actually present at Mass, Mass is no longer celebrated. Mass will always be celebrated, while the world lasts. It is the sacrifice foretold by the prophets, which must always be offered from sunrise to sunset, a promise to us which cannot and will not be broken.”
“This being so, we can always, though possibly from a distance, unite ourselves with the Mass that is being offered. There is never a moment when the Host is not being offered up for us, never a moment when we cannot lift ourselves up with Christ crucified.”
Then Caryll goes into a developed teaching on how to make, not just a Spiritual Communion—so familiar to us in these strange weeks without public Mass—but a Spiritual Mass. With the various parts of the Mass (sorrow for sin, offering, consecration, and communion) as the structure, she shows us how to pray through these parts of the Mass and make an ongoing offering of ourselves on our own “secret altar.”
Toward the end of the book, in the chapter on the Risen Christ, Caryll Houselander gives what I read as an exhortation or almost a battle cry for the present moment. “Easter is truly the resurrection of the children of God, because they are to live His life, the life that has overcome sorrow and death. There is no longer anything in life that can defeat the joy of the human heart.”
If you are interested in deep and, not only thought-provoking, but prayer-provoking reading, I whole-heartedly recommend This War is the Passion and anything else you can get your hands on by Caryll Houselander.
Mother Clare, CFR