Helena's Epiphany Meditation

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jan 06, 2007

In his historical novel Helena, Evelyn Waugh paints the mother of the Emperor Constantine as a Briton, the daughter of King Cole of Colchester, and a tardy convert to Catholic faith. She is already an old woman by the time she begins her search for the True Cross in Jerusalem, and by Christmastide is fatigued by her labors almost to the point of delirium. During the lengthy Epiphany Mass her exhaustion causes a semi-swoon that is part meditation, part reverie. At a time when many Catholic statesmen, and their chaplains, beamingly connive at assassination of the unborn and elderly, at a time when many Catholic intellectuals and artists grovel before the didactic paganism that dominates their world, Helena's reflections on Epiphany might serve to temper our censoriousness, even if they fail to extinguish it:

Helena knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words nor anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.

"This is my day, she thought, "and these are my kind."

The author's conceit in the novel is to make use of all the traditional props (those provided by legend, popular devotion, even Gibbon's history) while endowing them with a new -- and wittily contrived -- theological or narrative meaning. The tritest commonplaces are included, but put to work so deftly that they cease to be trite. Nothing is lost; instead the lowly are unpredictably exalted and the mighty are amusingly humbled. Waugh employs Helena's near-delirium to transform, gently, a weary grandmother's sentimental and erratic piety into the prayer of a mystic. To resume:

Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of outopia or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day's toys.

"Like me," she said to them, "you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed among the disconcerted stars.

"How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!"

The remaining part of Helena's discourse shows that Waugh was as prophetic in reality (the novel was published in 1950) as his heroine was by design:

"You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

"Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass."

Power corrupts. Yet absolute power corrupts incompletely. In the new order of charity, even tyrants and university presidents never entirely lose their human dignity.

"You are my especial patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had 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.

"Dear cousins, pray for me," said Helena, "and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.

"For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom."


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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 07, 2007 6:28 PM ET USA

    God never condemed riches of any kind..., Yet it is wise for the rich to debase themselves because of the weakness of the flesh...

  • Posted by: - Jan. 06, 2007 11:40 AM ET USA

    "You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and tunnel full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innnocence with divine wisdom and peace."