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Caryll Houselander’s “The Reed of God”

This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.

One of my favorite books for meditating on Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary is Caryll Houselander’s “The Reed of God.” I was introduced to this book just a few years ago and it has since become one that I return to quite often for contemplation.

Houselander’s prose writing is as lyrical as her poetry, which is also sprinkled throughout the book, and makes for a beautifully slow and contemplative read. The rhythms of the writing invite one to frequently pause and reflect; and the intimacy and depth of the ideas bring an immediacy and relatable quality to those reflections.

The aspects of Our Lady’s life that Houselander focuses on in this slim volume are simple ones, yet profound in the context of Divine Revelation. The simplicity of a young girl giving her “yes” to God, which on the surface meant only continuing to lead the ordinary life that she was already set to lead: to be married to a good man, to work in the home and to care for her family. Yet that “yes” changed the course of human history. The simple agreement to bear a child and to live the everyday life of a mother brought God Himself to humanity.

God did not even ask her to separate herself from the world as He came to dwell within her. As Houselander says, “No, He asked for her ordinary life shared with Joseph. She was not to neglect her simple human tenderness, her love for an earthly man, because God was her unborn child.” The Blessed Virgin is the most beloved of all God’s creatures, given the supreme task of bearing Christ into the world, and that task primarily meant living the simplest and humblest of human lives.

Of course, not everyone is called to such lives of simplicity the way that Our Lady was. Some are called to be great leaders, reforming the world and bringing it back into alignment with God’s will. Some are called to go out like the Apostles, preaching with words and teaching the uninitiated. Some are called to the priesthood or religious life, giving themselves entirely to God. These are perhaps the callings that we think of most often when we think of vocations, but by their very nature they cannot be the universal expectations. We need families, good mothers and fathers, to raise up great leaders, holy priests and faithful religious. St. Paul reminds us, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ ” (1 Cor 12:21). All the members of the body are important; none is less valuable than the others. And the humble life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she whom we also refer to as Queen of Heaven and Earth, is an important reminder that the greatest vocation is the one to which we are personally called. There is no small task in life, if it is the task that God asks of us.

Our Lady was asked by God to be a mother, and it is a role she continues to this day. Something I have deeply loved when reading about the various apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary – such as at Lourdes and Fatima – is how her demeanor is described: always very beautiful, but also radiating a maternal compassion towards the visionaries and speaking lovingly of all of us as her children.

One of my favorite accounts is when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Kibeho in Rwanda in the early 1980s. In her book “Our Lady of Kibeho,” Immaculée Ilibagiza relates the casual and relaxed tone which the visionaries would fall into when conversing with the Blessed Mother. She says of one of the visionaries, “She chatted with the Queen of Heaven as breezily as if she were sitting at a kitchen table gossiping with a favorite aunt.” What if we were all to converse with Mary this way? Bringing to her our troubles and concerns, but also our joys and amusements. What if we talked to her in our prayers as if she truly were our mother? Because she is. It might be difficult to imagine, depending on the relationships we have with our earthly mothers, but Mary loves each of us as her children and wants to hear us, console us and take our prayers to Jesus.

We might be tempted to hold her at a distance, thinking only of her supreme purity and perfection, but we must never forget that Our Lady was still human. She experienced hardship and grief just as we all do. In reflecting on the three days that Jesus was lost as a child, and why Mary had to undergo such a trial and loss, Houselander says, “Mary, being one with Him, would not be exempt from any human experience: she did not live the perfect Christ-life in privileged circumstances or ask for exemptions from the common lot.” As we all experience times when we feel God is far away and has abandoned us, even Our Lady knew that pain and ache as she spent those three days searching for Jesus. In her earthly life, she experienced poverty, exile and heartache. The piercing of her heart was foretold when Christ was still so newly born and she herself was not much more than a young girl. She understands the trials of our own lives.

The relational quality of our faith is such a beautiful thing. We call God our Father, we call each other brothers and sisters, and we call Mary our mother; and because of God’s love for us these are all true statements. Let us always remember to turn to our Blessed Mother, to ask for her prayers, to seek her consolation and to remember her great love for us all.

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