As Christmastide brings us to Epiphany, we inevitably turn to Evelyn Waugh, that maddening amalgam of irreverence, anger, faith, and generally agreed-upon misanthropy.
I first wrote about Evelyn Waugh's 1950 novel Helena for Epiphany several years ago, before I had read it, because I knew its famous passage about the feast—pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate—through sermons.
And I knew the novel was historical fiction about he journey of St. Helen (or Helena)--the mother of Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to the Holy Roman Empire when he himself converted to Christianity--to Syria Palestine in 320 or so to find the True Cross of the crucifixion, which she does from instructions from the Wandering Jew in a dream.
At one point in the novel Helena is at an Epiphany Mass in Bethlehem. She is tired, and as the service goes on and on her mind begins to compose a somewhat mystical dialogue to the Magi (abridged here).
"This is my day, she thought, "and these are my kind."
"Like me," she said to them, "you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.
"How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot!
“How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!"
"You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
"Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too.
"You are my special patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
"For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate."
Such beautiful thoughts about outsiders, late-comers of all kinds, and gifts that may not seem needed but are not turned away because they are brought with love. We should all keep such charity in our hearts all year round.
I later stumbled upon the novel in a used book store, and reading the whole story found that it is a highly personal expression of faith of a Catholic believer converted from and living within the Anglican tradition.
The fact that it's from the same biting satirist who brought us Vile Bodies and The Loved Ones makes it more surprising. Just the idea of writing the "story" of Constantine's mother search for the True Cross is intriguing.
Here is how Waugh introduces us to his tale in his Preface:
"It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. 'I got the real low-down at last,' she told her friends. 'The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel 'the Invention of the Cross.'"
It has not been my primary aim to disillusion this famous lady but to retell an old story."
Ellen is the Anglicized Helen. [I was baptized Helen because back in the day you needed a saint's name for the rite.] The allusion that St. Helen/Ellen was "a British woman" is part of a literary tradition (not factual) from 12 century Geoffrey of Monmouth down to G.K. Chesterton that she was a daughter of King Coel, married off to Constantius then having Constantine the Great, thus giving a British pedigree to the Holy Roman Imperial line!
Like Brideshead Revisited, the novel is a prose poem filled with the most beautiful cadences possible. Wiki quotes Waugh as declaring it "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write," and that daughter Harriet later said, "the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud."
In the course of the novel Helen finds and excavates the chamber where the 3 crosses from Good Friday were stored.
And so Waugh ends his tale in the last chapter entitled "Ellen's Invention," a mocking of the Anglican lady in the Preface who attributed the crucifixion to her:
"Helena's many prayers seem to have received unequal answers. Constantine was at long last baptized and died in the expectation of an immediate, triumphal entry to Paradise. Britain for a time became Christian, and 136 parish churches were dedicated to Helena. The Holy Places have been alternately honoured and desecrated, lost and won, bought and bargained for, throughout the centuries. But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings gorgeously encased it has travelled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact.
"Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent.
"Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is Hope."