The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander

From Marie Annie Mayeski’s introduction to the book:

  • The Reed of God gives flesh and spirit to solid theological affirmations about Mary. Houselander presents Mary for our contemplation as one that is at home in our world. Her interpretation of Mary is also liturgical in the deepest meaning of the word. For her, Mary’s experience of the Word taking flesh in her womb is the first step toward Christ’s giving of his flesh in the Eucharist. Houselander’s Reed of God is unremittingly Christocentric. She lays out for our contemplation not a woman of privilege, but a woman of grace so committed to Christ and his plan for redemption that her every thought and action is oriented to her son.

My notes from the book:

A very great many people still think of Our Lady as someone who would never do anything that we do.

Virginity is really the whole offering of soul and body to be consumed in the fire of love and changed into the flame of its glory.

The virginity of Our Lady is the wholeness of Love through which our own humanity has become the bride of the Spirit of Life.

When we are attracted to a particular saint it is usually the little human details which attract us. These touches bridge the immense gap between heroic virtue and our weakness. We love most those saints who before they were great saints were great sinners… But it is Our Lady – and no other saint – whom we can really imitate.

She is not only human; she is humanity.

The one thing that she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.

Nothing but things essential for us are revealed to us about the Mother of God: the fact that she was wed to the Holy Spirit and bore Christ into the world.

In contemplating her we find intimacy with God, the law which is the lovely yoke of the one irresistible love.

The reed of God:

  • Mary’s virginal quality – it is the emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.
  • The reed grows by the streams. It is the simplest of things, but it must be cut by the sharp knife, hollowed out, and the stops must be cut in it; it must be shaped and pierced before it can utter the shepherd’s song. It is the narrowest emptiness in the world, but the little reed utters infinite music.
  • Thus it is with us – we may be formed by the knife, pared down, cut to the least, to the minimum of our own being.
  • Christ is the Pied Piper to the human heart. He makes people become little children and suddenly turn the world they live upside down, because they have been enchanted by Him.
  • Christ is still the Pied Piper who first enchanted and disturbed the house of the newly wakened soul with His enchanting music.
  • God has taken His little reed into His hands and the breath of His love sang through it, and this utterance would go on for all generations.

The whole process of contemplation through imitation of Our Lady can be gone through, in the first place, with just that simple purpose of regaining the virgin-mind, and as we go on in the attempt we shall find that over and over again there is a new emptying process; it is a thing which has to be done in contemplation as often as the earth has to be sifted and the field ploughed for seed.

Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us, is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what ways are we to fulfil the work of giving Christ life in us?

Whatever we are gives form to the emptiness in us which can only be filled by God and which God is even now waiting to fill.

The Feast of the Annunciation is when we celebrate the wedding of the Holy Spirit with humanity, the wedding of the Spirit of Wisdom and Love with the dust of the earth.

It is in Our Lady that God fell in love with Humanity.

Christ’s insistence on the power of children is very striking. Almost more than anything else in the Gospel it proves that in God’s eyes being something comes before doing something. He sets a little child among his apostles as an example of what He loves. He says that heaven is full of children. Indeed, the Architect of Love has built the door into heaven so low that no one but a small child can pass through, unless, to get down to a child’s little height, he goes in on his knees.

How consistent it is with the incredible tenderness of God that His Christ, the Immortal Child, should be conceived by the power of the Spirit in the body of a child. That a child should bear a Child, to redeem the world. Our Lady was at most fourteen when the angel came to her; perhaps she was younger. The whole world trembled on the word of a child, on a child’s consent. To what was she asked to consent? First of all, to the descent of the Holy Spirit, to surrender her littleness to the Infinite Love, and as a result to become the Mother of Christ. It was so tremendous, yet so passive. She was not asked to do anything, but to let something be done to her. She was no asked to renounce anything but to receive an incredible gift… The one thing that He did ask of her was the gift of her humanity. She was to give Him her body and soul unconditionally, and – what in this new light would have seemed absurdly trivial to anyone but the Child Bride of Wisdom – she was to give Him her daily life.

God did mean it to be the ordinary thing, for it is His will that Christ shall be born in every human being’s life and not, as a rule, through extraordinary things, but through the ordinary daily life and the human love that people give to one another.

Our Lady said yes for the human race. Each one of us must echo that yes for our own lives. We are all asked if we will surrender what we are, our humanity, our flesh and blood, to the Holy Spirit and allow Christ to fill the emptiness formed by the particular shape of our life. The surrender that is asked of us includes complete and absolute trust; it must be like Our Lady’s surrender, without condition and without reservation. We shall not be asked to do more than the Mother of God; we shall not be asked to become extraordinary or set apart or make a hard and fast rule of life or to compile a manual of mortifications or heroic resolutions; we shall not be asked to cultivate our souls like rare hothouse flowers; we shall not, most of us, even be allowed to do that. What we shall be asked to give is our flesh and blood, our daily life – our thoughts, our service to one another, our affections and loves, our words, our intellect, our waking working, and sleeping, our ordinary human joys and sorrows – to God.

The surrender we shall make will ask two hard things of us straightaway. The first of these hard things is that through being wed to the Spirit, we shall receive the gift of understanding. In the world in which we live today, the great understanding given by the Spirit of Wisdom must involve us in a lot of suffering. We shall be obliged to see the wound that sin has inflicted on the people of the world.

“Be it done unto me according to thy word” seems a very bold prayer indeed in view of the words we know God has uttered. It would be easier to sacrifice some big thing to God, to impose some hard rule upon ourselves, than to say, “Do what you like with me.” This prayer surrenders yourself and all that is dear to you to God, and the trust which it implies does not mean just trusting God to look after you and yours, to keep you and them in health and prosperity and honour. It means much more, it means trusting that whatever God does with you and with yours is the act of an infinitely loving Father.

Mary trusted God, she understood on earth that which many mothers will only understand in heaven; she was able to see her boy killed, lying there bruised from head to toe, wounded and dead, and believe the Father’s cry: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”


Advent is the season is the seed: Christ loved this symbol of the seed. The seed, He said, is the Word of God sown in the human heart. The Advent, the seed of the world’s life, was hidden in Our Lady. It is the season of humility, silence, and growth. 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.

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 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.

Today Christ is dependent upon men. 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.

Sometimes is 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 Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile. 

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.

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.

So that it is possible to whisper in wonder and awe, and without irreverence, on seeing the finished work: “The Word is made flesh.”

The truth is that they are too impatient to wait for the season of Advent in sorrow to run its course; a seed contains all the life and loveliness of the flower, but it contains it in a little hard black pip of a thing which even the glorious sun will not enliven unless it is buried under the earth.

If only those who suffer would be patient with their early humiliations and realize that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give place to a splendour of peace.

Joy also must be allowed to gestate. Everyone should open his heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in him; and he should wait the flowering of it with patience.

In this contemplation there is great virtue in practicing patience in small things until the habit of Advent returns to us.

Today, in many souls, Christ asks that He may grow secretly, that He may be the light shining in the darkness.

Humanly speaking, the time of Advent must have been the happiest time in Our Lady’s life. He was completely her own, utterly dependent upon her: she was His food and warmth and rest, His shelter from the world, His shade in the Sun.

She shares that desire of the young priest to finally hold Christ in between her hands.

Once Mary’s Advent work was done, there could never be anything He suffered which she did not.

We need to say to ourselves a thousand times a day: “Christ wants to do this”; “Christ wants to suffer this.”

In surrendering to the Spirit and becoming the Bride of Life, she wed God to the human race and made the whole world pregnant with the life of Christ.

We have to remember and keep on stressing this: that Our Lady is, first of all, the Spirit’s Bride; then, as the result of that, the Mother of Life; and that she has made humanity, first of all the Spirit’s bride and after that the life-bearer.

Only Christ-bearers can restore the world to life and give humanity back the vitality of love.

We can give birth to Christ only by unity with the Holy Spirit.

We have seen that her “Be it done unto me according to thy word” is uttered again in His “Not my will, but thine be done.” Just so is her “Son, why hast thou done so to us?” repeated in His “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

“Seek and ye shall find”; that seems to be the quintessence of all spiritual direction for everyone. Even the saints, who were most conscious of the immanence of God, had to seek during nearly the whole of their lives. Our Lady’s seeking was lifelong, as ours must be.

How is that the lives of so many people who profess to be Christian are utterly inconsistent with Christianity? If we believed that the whole of Christianity consisted in imitating Christ, these extraordinary inconsistencies would be perfectly logical, because it is quite obvious that not one of us, by himself, could imitate Christ: we are a handful of dust, kept together by seventy-five percent of liquid, with souls that were stained at birth and which are weighted all through our lives with a heavy downward lurch towards sin. Christ said, “Without Me you can do nothing,” and we see how true this is.

Why must we be always seeking for the lost Child? If we did not, we should not realize that our idols are not God, are not Christ. Bad as they are, they match our limitations; and if they could content us, we should never know the real beauty of Christ: we should not become whole.

** We know Christ only by continually learning Him anew; we get away from false gods only by continually seeking Him; we hold Him only by losing Him.

From the moment when Christ told Our Lady to see Him, her son, in John, she saw Christ in all Christians. She took her only son to her heart in all men born.

Our Seeking

Where must we seek? Everywhere – in everyone.

How must we seek? With faith and courage and limitless love.

We begin our seeking by making acts of faith in the presence of Christ in our own souls. It is quite incredible to think that God is really present in me. “My God, I believe that You are within me.”

The next act of faith is in Christ in other people. It is very easy to believe in the indwelling presence of Christ in the souls of imaginary people; to believe in it in people whom we do not know; but it is very difficult to believe in it in the case of our own relations and our intimate friends.

Just as we cannot depend upon feelings to know that Christ is in ourselves, we cannot depend upon appearances to know that He is in others. 

We need to bring to other people faith like that which we bring to the Blessed Sacrament. It is really easy to believe in one as in the other. We have exactly the same reason for believing in both: the word of Christ.

If we made daily acts of faith in the presence of Christ in other people, we should soon accept that, too. It would be the first step in discovering the lost Child.

Whenever you meet someone – before greeting them out loud – greet Christ within him in secret.

Faith simplifies the search. We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found: we must look for Him in them all.

In every one of us there is some lack which is Christ’s need.

Why does Christ hide His glory and manifest Himself in humility, poverty, and necessity? It is b/c He must be about His Father’s business. His Father’s business, the purpose of His life in human creatures, is to love and be loved. That is the reason for our being in God; that is the reason Christ’s abiding in us. That is His sole purpose in man, to love and be loved. Therefore Christ wants to be accessible: He wants to be disarmed of His glory so that the inglorious can come to Him without fear, so that He may come to the lowliest and least and be taken to their hearts. There could not be a more ingenious way than the one He has devised, His way of hiding Himself in us, revealing His presence in our necessities, so that we can only find him by obeying His commandment: “Little children, love one another!”

The giving up of our own idea of how Christ should be in another person is one way of sifting the chaff out of our love and purifying it.

Those who share in Our Lady’s courage will be comforted for the deaths of their sons if, as she did with St. John, they take the youth of the world to their hearts as their responsibility.

In sinners we can kneel at the tomb in which the dead Christ lies.

While we are seeking in one another for the lost Child, Our Lady still seeks and finds Him in us.

For each one of us is “another Christ”; each one, to Mary, is her only child. It is therefore not tedious to her to hear the trifles that we tell her, to look at the bruises that we bring her, and seeing our wound of sin, to heal it.

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