Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox and the ‘Great Brotherhood’ of Ash Wednesday

COMMENTARY: ‘The little black smudge on the forehead,’ says Evelyn Waugh, seals Catholics as ‘members of a great brotherhood who can both rejoice and recognize the limits of rejoicing’

A priest distributes ashes Feb. 22 during Ash Wednesday Mass in New Delhi, India.
A priest distributes ashes Feb. 22 during Ash Wednesday Mass in New Delhi, India. (photo: Arun Sankar / AFP via Getty Images)

He spoke about it flippantly when he was a dissolute and essentially pagan high school student. 

“I think that I shall be forced into Lenten self-denial as my funds are rapidly decreasing and there is little prospect of more for a long time yet,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary. 

He entered the Church 10 years later, in 1930, at the age of 27, and he may seem from appearances not to have gotten the idea of Lenten discipline even after years in the Church. I think he got it very well, though no priest would hold him up as an ideal of Lenten discipline.

“I have ‘given up’ wine and tobacco. Laura wine,” he wrote in his diary in 1948. “As a result we drank heavily on Sunday 15th. ... My Lenten resolution to start work on Helena has not come to much.” (Laura is his wife and Helena his biography of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, said to have discovered the True Cross. The book appeared in 1950.) And then three weeks later: “A hangover from Sunday’s remission of Lenten abstinence. ... When the hangover is over I shall work on Helena.”

Most famous now as the author of Brideshead Revisited, a romantic treatment of God’s work in people’s lives, he was one of the last century’s Catholic writers who was also a major writer in the wider world. G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien were others. 

On Ash Wednesday 1953, he wrote that he had gotten his ashes and had resolved to give up opiates for Lent. He took the drugs for insomnia. A month later he reported that “Lent began well.” 

In 1956, he “resolved to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament daily during Lent and to eschew gin and paraldehyde,” the drug he then took for insomnia. Eight days after that, he notes “I have kept my Lenten resolution to eschew gin and visit the church daily,” but doesn’t mention the drugs. 

Waugh didn’t, as far as I can find, write much more about Ash Wednesday and Lent. He wasn’t a great one for asceticism. He doesn’t mention either in his letters, and only once in his collected essays. But that once was beautiful.


Ronald Knox

Waugh was a close friend of a fifth of the Catholic writers who were also major writers in the wider world. The convert priest Ronald Knox wrote best sellers and appeared in the major newspapers and on the BBC, as well as writing dozens of Catholic books.

Father Knox, alas, isn’t famous for anything now. I think he was a marvelous writer, and he has other fans, but his books will only be found way, way down any list of Catholic book sales. 

You might say he was the Catholic C.S. Lewis, but it would be much more accurate to say Lewis was the Protestant Ronald Knox. Part of the difference in current fame is that American Evangelicals were never going to discover a Catholic writer the way they discovered Lewis, and Knox had the misfortune to write detective novels rather than didactic children’s books.

Knox didn’t write much on Ash Wednesday and Lent either, as far as I can find, even in the three thick volumes of his collected sermons and talks. But he apparently felt some affection for the day. During World War II, he served as the chaplain to the sisters and students of a London convent evacuated to a house in the country. His wonderful Slow Motion books on the Mass, the Creed and the Gospel began as talks to the girls after Sunday Benediction.

In his biography of his friend, Waugh writes: “Ronald was to act as their chaplain without pay, receiving food, fuel, and laundry; he stipulated only that a substitute should be found for him when he was asked to preach elsewhere and that he should not be expected to sing Mass or perform any ceremony except giving the ashes on Ash Wednesday.” (He said daily Mass, but he wasn’t going to sing it.)


A Pagan Ceremony 

Here are two insights of Knox’s. The first comes from his book The Hidden Stream, a series of talks given to Oxford students when he was the Catholic chaplain there. “On Ash Wednesday morning you indulge in a curious ceremony,” he says. 

“You have your faces blacked with ashes, and those ashes have been sprinkled beforehand with lustral water, and had incense waved over them. When I say a curious ceremony I mean a curiously pagan ceremony, in the sense that all the elements of it go right back to the heart of natural religion; the whole business of disguising yourself, trying to obliterate your personality by smearing ashes over your face.” The ancient Roman poet Virgil would have liked it.

He didn’t say much more about this, except to note that the Church “incorporated paganism,” rather than banishing it. She “tamed and hallowed” them. The Church’s attitude seems (this is me, not Knox) to have been, “Does it work? Cool. We’ll take it.”

He does remind the students of the Reformation, which smashed up the Church in England. “It was, if you remember, these rather pagan-looking sacramentals of ours that were first swept away by the Puritans under Edward VI. Candlemas candles and Ash Wednesday ashes and Palm Sunday palms were the very things our medieval forefathers specially loved, perhaps (if the truth must be told) because they had a rather nice pagan feeling about them.” 

They were the first things the Reformers would take away from the people, “in order that they might be transformed into good little Puritans themselves.” I think his point is that the things the Church’s enemies hate tell us something about those things’ Catholic value.


Restoring Order

The second insight comes from a sermon Knox preached in Advent 1949 on “The Holy Year.” It’s not deep, but it’s nicely put. 

“We live in time, and the ravages of time are all around us,” he said. “Leave your garden untended, and it will not remain as it was; the weeds will be up before a month is out. How the dust silts up on our shelves, after a year’s neglect. … Left to themselves, things don’t stay as they were, they go back.”

We can too easily let that happen. “The days, the months, the years slip by and melt into one another unremarked.” The wise person sets a regular day for “the task of restoring order,” which he also calls “the business of tidying up.”

He concludes: “And so it is, not only with outward things but with the affairs of the soul; here too, alas, we are always going back unless, now and again, we pull ourselves together; a retreat, or the beginning of Lent, must be the signal for bringing back order into our lives.”


Waugh’s Ash Wednesday

Given those drunken Lenten Sundays, Waugh may seem not to have gotten the idea of Lenten discipline. He did, even if like most of us he didn’t always observe it the way he should.

There is this, written in an essay titled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” published in Life magazine in 1949. He described Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, the city looking “draggled” after Mardi Gras. Hungover tourists about to go home filled the hotel, and he wondered how many knew about Lent.

“But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: ‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.’”

He continues: “One grows parched for that straight style of speech in the desert of modern euphemisms. … Here it was, plainly stated, quietly accepted, and all that day, all over that light-hearted city, one encountered the little black smudge on the forehead which sealed us members of a great brotherhood who can both rejoice and recognize the limits of rejoicing.”