Friday, August 18, 2017

An Ancient/Modern Lesson from Evelyn Waugh

Among the Saints and Blesseds traditionally listed in the Roman Martyrology on August 18 is Saint Helena (244-330). Her entry in the Martyrology for today reads: At Rome, on the Lavican road, St. Helena, mother of the pious emperor Constantine the Great, who was the first to set the example to other princes of protecting and extending the Church. The Martyrology says more about Constantine than about Helena (an occupational hazard, perhaps, when your son in an emperor). At least the Latin Church accords her a day of her own. The Eastern Church celebrates her jointly with her son on May 21, the "Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles." Obviously, Helena was able to accomplish all that she did identifying historical sites and relics in Israel because of who her son was. So perhaps it is only fair that she share her honor with him!

That said, she is certainly a historical personage in her own right. To the rescue, so to speak, came Catholic convert and 20th-century British author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), who published Helena, his only explicitly historical novel in 1950. Waugh himself considered Helena his best work - an opinion not widely shared among literary critics and students of Waugh.I was introduced to Helena a decade or so ago when we read it as part of our monthly "Great Catholic Fiction" book club at Saint Paul the Apostle parish in New York. I thought it was an OK book, but at best one of Waugh's minor works. Brideshead Revisited it most certainly is not!. 

Waugh's Helena draws on the medieval tradition that she was an ancient British princess, a daughter of King Coel ("Old King Cole"). The novel displays some of the humorous satire for which Waugh was so well known, but does so less memorably than some of his more famous works. 

One aspect of the book which I think especially worthy of mention, however, is how it captures the characteristic vanity and ambition of the imperial court and the persistence of murderous palace intrigue, notwithstanding conversion to Christianity.

There are tendencies in some quarters to over-interpret social and political events in pseudo-religious terms.  Nowhere has this been more ridiculously evident in recent years than in the bizarre notion that President Trump is a kind of Constantine figure, appearing on the political scene as the providential protector of Christianity. (See, for example, Blaise Joseph, "Is Trump the New Constantine,"

The analogy can be faulted on various counts - not least the fact that secular "political correctness," while problematic in so many serious ways, does not really represent a threat to Christianity comparable to that posed by Constantine's Christianity-persecuting predecessors! Indeed, as the events of this past week have highlighted, an obsessive opposition to "political correctness" may miss more pressing political and moral evils that also need to be forcefully opposed.

But, be that as it may, Waugh's depiction does demonstrate the inevitable limits not just of Constantine the actual historical emperor but of the whole enterprise of making religion an adjunct of political power - which has probably been the most consistent contemporary failing of the American "religious right."

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