Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.

Waugh gibes a gibbon

IMG_0405I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:

“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”

Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
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That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.

Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”

This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”