In the course of his many attempts, all unsuccessful, to convert the poet John Betjeman to Catholicism, Evelyn Waugh once explained the Catholic understanding of sanctity to his quarry in a letter:
“Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some few people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying, ‘I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.’ I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh after God knows what experiences in purgatory.”
Betjeman's inquiry had been prompted by reading Waugh's new novel, Helena. In thanking him for his compliments, Waugh explained why he found the Emperor Constantine's mother such an attractive figure, taking a nice sideswipe at intellectual agnosticism in the process:
“I like Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor and hungry, she didn't look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was that God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with this perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.”
Helena was poorly received by most critics when first published in 1930. Some thought it a lightweight confection. Others judged it another exercise in Waugh's snobbery masquerading as religiosity. Still others regretted its lack of satire. Waugh biographer Martin Stannard thinks the novel a fine technical accomplishment, one of the first experiments in literary post-modernism. But even the most friendly critics would rate Helena beneath Waugh's A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited. Critical heretic that I am, I would add Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy to the pantheon, thus pushing Helena even farther down the list.
Yet if you're looking for an unusual read this summer, I warmly recommend Helena. It is, as Stannard suggests, an experimental book. That the Empress Helena is made to sound like a somewhat brassy member of the Grade-B English aristocracy, circa 1950, is the most obvious of its literary peculiarities. Personally, I find the conceit of a fourth-century matron dismissing silly theological opinions as “bosh” and “rubbish” more charming than off-putting, but I admit it takes some getting used to. What I found most attractive about Helena on a recent rereading, though, was the resolute, even relentless, realism of Helena's, and Waugh's, faith.
Fish don't notice water; we don't notice gnosticism. Audiences still find it amazing, even unbelievable, when I tell them that, in the overwhelming majority of American universities today, you can find many members of the philosophy department prepared to defend the idea that the reality we perceive discloses the truth of things. Somehow, the radical skepticism and relativism of the intellectual guilds hasn't penetrated down to the level of the people who sign the checks that allow the guild members to live in style. Or perhaps normal people, who think they do know some things, feel intimidated by the serpentine arguments of the intellectuals.
Helena is a bracing antidote to this contemporary gnosticism — this “bosh” and “rubbish,” as Waugh's Helena would put it. From her childhood, Helena is determined to know whether things are real or unreal, true or false — including the claims of Christianity. For her, Christianity is not one idea in a world supermarket of religious ideas. Christianity is either the truth — the Son of God really became man, really died, and really was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world — or it's more “bosh” and “rubbish.” The true cross of Helena's search is not a magical talisman; it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.
Read it and enjoy. Better, still, read it and then give it to a young Catholic heading for the gnostic fever swamps of an American campus this autumn.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C