Saturday, October 3, 2015

Evelyn Waugh's Helena: Simple Prayer for Truth

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh's fictional novel of St. Helen imagines what life might have been like for the Emperor's mother, the woman credited by tradition as the one who discovered the very beams that held Jesus at the crucifixion, the ones furtively hidden by Roman guards as the rumors of Resurrection flooded the streets.  In the Preface, the author admits how little we know about St. Helen and justifies his liberties in the fictional account based on his research and suppositions.
We do not know that the wood Helena found is the True Cross. We need make no difficulty about the possibility of its preservation, for the distance in time between Helena and Our Lord is not greater than between ourselves and King Charles I, but if we do accept its authenticity we must, I think, allow an element of the miraculous in its discovery and identification.
Waugh eloquently describes Helen as a rash young Briton maiden who falls for a visiting Roman military man without realizing his future prospects.
It was as though she had fallen asleep in the secure, child's bedroom at Colchester -- the low-raftered room that had been hers since first she slept alone, where sitting on the press she could toss her shirt to its peg on the opposite wall; where, dressing, she had countless times paced it's length and breadth two steps from press to looking-glass, four paces from glass to door -- and had lived since in a nightmare where walls and ceilings constantly receded and everything but herself swelled to monstrous size and in all the remote corners dark shadows lurked.
Her child-like nature is integral to his characterization of her relationship with her faith. She is always asking "child-like" (and yet profound) questions of religions, eventually including Christianity.
"What I should like to know is: When and where did all this happen? And how do you know?"
Until she asks these questions of a Christian, the answers are vague or nonexistent. The Christian answers with dates and names, the names of Pontius Pilate, John, Luke...These questions are still relevant today which is why the answer to them appears in the Creed we recite at Mass.

As in life, her baptism and acceptance of Christianity is hidden. She wasn't a Christian, and then she was. A fascinating conversation between Helena and Constantine describes the common but twisted view of baptism by those in power.
"Sometimes," Helena continued, "I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves, each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace."
Constantine misses (or ignores) her point. Eventually, he responds:
Well, then, what does the wise man do -- the man in a position like mine where it's impossible not to commit a few sins every now and then? He waits. He puts it off till the very last moment. He lets the sins pile up blacker and heavier. It doesn't matter. They'll be washed away in baptism, the whole lot of them, and then all he has to do is to stay innocent, just for a very short time, just to hold the devil at bay for a week or two, perhaps a few hours only. It shouldn't be too difficult. That's strategy, you see. I've got it all planned."
Her time in Jersusalem commences in a flurry of activity and hope, but as time goes on without reliable information on the true cross, Helena's strength fails, physically and spiritually. On Twelfth Night, she imagines herself talking with the Wise Men. It's a lovely scene of prayer, with bits and pieces like these:
"Like me," she said to them, "you were late in coming..."
"Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love..."
"You are my especial patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have 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."
There are no stories linking the Wandering Jew with St. Helen, but Waugh uses him to lead her to the True Cross in an illuminating dream:
"I wouldn't take anything for you, lady, for a little service like that. I shall get paid all right, in time. You have to take a long view in my business. How I see it, this new religion of the Galilean may be in for quite a run. A religion starts, no one knows how. Soon you get holy men and holy places springing up everywhere, old shrines change their names, there's apparitions and pilgrimages. There'll be ladies wanting other things besides the cross. All one wants is to get the thing started properly. One wants a few genuine relics in thoroughly respectable hands. Then everyone else will follow. There won't be enough genuine stuff to meet the demand. That will be my turn. I shall get paid. I wouldn't take anything from you now, lady. Glad to see you have the cross. It won't cost you a thing."
Helena listened and in her mind saw, clear as all else on that brilliant timeless morning, what was in store. She saw the sanctuaries of Christendom become a fair ground, stalls hung with beads and medals, substances yet unknown pressed into sacred emblems; heard a chatter of haggling in tongues yet unspoken. She saw the treasuries of the Church filled with forgeries and impostures. She saw Christians fighting and stealing to get possession of trash. She saw all this, considered it and said: "It's a stiff price"; and then: "Show me the cross."
Waugh's prose is witty and poignant, a joy to read. In a time when we are all more likely to be "confused with knowledge and speculation," the child-like questions as well as the prophetic vision of Waugh's Helena invite us to remember the faith that is both simpler and richer.

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