Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Waugh's Counter-Intuitive Catholic Apologetic

When I finished Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited", I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the novel. Certainly, there is an element of tragedy involved - by the end of the story each of the characters seem to be rather broken as their ambitions and desires have failed to come to fruition. However, by Waugh's own admission, the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This being the case, it seems that the various tragedies that befall the characters are not meant to be the focal point of novel, but nonetheless play an important role in Waugh's theological argument.

The first thing that I noticed was that Waugh's depiction of the Catholic characters in the novel is often less than flattering. Each seems to be subject to fairly chronic personal failings. Sebastian, who is converted in his thirties seems completely incapable of beating his alcoholism. Brideshead is socially awkward and rather judgmental. Cordelia, the best intentioned of the lot, seems to be rather naive. But perhaps this is the point. Waugh is pointing out that the Church is a place for broken people; not for saints, but for sinners. In fact, Waugh seems to allude to the idea that it is only when people are brought low that faith begins to truly emerge.

The most charming element of the novel is the power of belief. Throughout most of the story, Julia is an incredibly skeptical lapsed Catholic, but the remnants of her faith remain, like glowing embers beneath the ashes. While she starts to consider that her religion may be true towards the end of the novel, it is only at the memorable deathbed scene of her father, recounted by the intensely agnostic Charles, when her faith is irrevocably restored:

'Now,' said the priest, 'I know you are sorry for all the sins of your life, aren't you? Make a sign, if you can. You're sorry, aren't you?' But there was no sign. 'Try and remember your sins; tell God you are sorry. I am going to give you absolution. While I am giving it, tell God you are sorry you have offended him.' He begin to speak in Latin. I recognised the words 'ego te absolvo in nomine Patris ...' and saw the priest make the sign of the cross. Then I knelt, too, and prayed: 'O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,' and the man on the bed opened his eyes and made a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign. It seemed so small thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgement of a present, a nod in the crowd. I prayed more simply; 'God forgive him his sins' and 'Please God, make him accept your forgiveness.'

So small a thing to ask.

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oil wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism annd was wiping it away. 'O God,' I prayed, 'don't let him do that.' But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

The remarkable thing about this scene is Charles' desperate desire to believe. After rejecting the Catholic faith on the basis of logic, Charles breaks down in this scene to pray to the God who may or may not exist. He finds himself swept up in the moment and starts to pray, almost against his wishes. When sanity is restored, Charles seems to be embarrassed about letting his guard down and returns to his agnosticism. However, this is not to be the last word, and some years later faith finally gets the better of him.

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