Category Archives: Literary Matters

Thoughts on Epiphany and Evelyn Waugh

Written by Adam DeVille

I prefer Theophany over Christmas. At one level, that is perhaps a reflection of my inner contrarian. The masses stampede towards Christmas in an orgy of spending garlandedwith tinsel and treacle so I must stand far from this madding crowd.

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At another level, and playing the academic snob—a role I am not at all averse to (Flannery O’Connor once said that snobbery is the besetting sin of Catholics)—I could say that I prefer Theophany (or Epiphany, as it is known in the West) over Christmas because the former is older as a feast than the latter, and still today retains a certain pride of place in Eastern Christian liturgical celebrations, especially among the Armenians, who celebrate both Christmas and Theophany on January 6th. In this light, Christmas is a puerile parvenu pushing in on a venerable celebration.

 Or perhaps it is the inner Scot in me: my Glaswegian grandmother told me that in Scotland until after World War II, Christmas was not a holiday but a regular work day. The fear of making it a holiday was that it was really just a “papist” festival, and dour Scottish Presbyterians would have none of that. (Oddly, however, Presbyterians had no cavil with all the superstitious practices surrounding New Year’s Day, which was, and is, a very big holiday in Scotland reeking of paganism.)

There are, as with all good feasts, many ways to celebrate. But in both East and West there is a common spirit of, well, Theo-phany, that is, God-revealing. In the West the tiny baby Jesus is revealed as God; in the East it is the man Jesus being baptized in the Jordan; but in both cases He is clearly God. The feast is thus strongly Christological—and, in the East, strongly Trinitarian also with the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descending to speak the Father’s word: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

In the West, Epiphany usually marks that time when the magi brought gifts and paid homage to the baby Jesus, and it is this aspect that is captured by the great English novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, who died on Easter Sunday in 1966, is best known for his Brideshead Revisited, which was turned into a wonderful television series in Britain in the early 1980s featuring a young Jeremy Irons, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and others—a real tour de force. (One passes over in near-silence on that abominable film bearing the same title that Hollywood meretriciously manufactured in 2008 for transparently tendentious reasons.)  But though Brideshead won fame for Waugh, and made him a wealthy man, it was not his favourite novel. Rather, his later work, from the 1950s, was a short novel called Helena, which Waugh regarded as his magnum opus.

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It is an historical novel centred on the life of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine (whom the East calls “co-equal to the apostles”) and dowager empress of the Roman Empire. Waugh used the novel to put forward a new understanding of sanctity, saying in one of his letters that “I liked 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, and she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.”

I like to re-read Helena in late December or early January each year, not least for this magnificent passage about Epiphany, a passage which, academic snob that I am, offers even me the hope of salvation:

     “Like me,” she said to [the Magi], “you were late in coming… . Yet you…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. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too….

     “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”….

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

Amy MacInnis on the Power of Stories in her Youth

I have always loved books. My parents often tell me that as a baby I would sit between them in bed, contentedly looking at books and magazines while they slept a little longer. One of my earliest memories is trying to find the red page in a magazine that I knew had pictures of toys on it. Another of my earliest memories—it almost seems like a dream—is my dad pointing to letters and repeating the sound they make, teaching me to read.

Story time in general had a huge influence on me as a child. I always associated it with the love of my parents; I still get nostalgic recalling the feeling of lying on my back next to mom or dad, looking up at a picture book. It was extra special when dad told us a story “out of his head,” as we called it. In the dark I could see it play out in my mind’s eye, obviously good for developing the imagination.

The content of the childhood stories I most strongly remember was certainly not insignificant. Christian themes ran throughout. There was one book about a little girl who broke her mother’s favourite statue and tried to avoid being confronted by putting on different animal masks; when she finally spoke to her mother as herself and came clean, she was met not with anger, but forgiveness—what an account of sin and repentance! My dad’s original stories almost always ran on the theme of one’s weakness becoming a strength—very Pauline and Christ-like, even if unintentionally.

Specifically Christian books were few and far between, at least in my memory, but we had The Early Reader’s Bible to introduce us to some of the more common Bible stories. We read from it often. My favourite was the one about Samson, which kind of surprises me as I read the story now because it’s pretty dark: God made Samson strong but when he did something bad that didn’t please God or his mother and father, he lost his strength, and bad guys tied him up, made them work for him and blinded him. The end. I would worry about needlessly scaring a child with this story if it weren’t for my own experience. I was a worrywart as a kid, but the Samson story didn’t make me terrified of God or of being bad. Maybe that was because of the commentary of whoever read us the story for the first time, I don’t know. I guess what I would take away from it is not to be afraid to tell kids stories from the Bible that we have difficulties with as adults, nor to shy away from the darker parts of stories that stress the badness of sin and evil.

I will close with the books that had probably the biggest influence on my Christian imagination: C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. My Great Uncle gave me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for my eighth birthday. It was probably at least another year before I actually read it, but I know that by the time I was eleven I had read the entire series at least once, enthusiastically checking the other books out of the library. Now I’ve heard that The Chronicles were criticized by Tolkien for being too blatantly Christian allegories, but let me tell you, one of the most joyful moments in my life was when I realized at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that Aslan was (represented) Jesus. Yes, Tolkien, even with my Catholic upbringing it took me that long to figure it out. But once I did and all the pieces slid into place—most obviously the sacrificial death and rising of Aslan in the first of the series I’d read—it was almost like receiving the Gospel. In fact, the first thing I wanted to do was share the good news, so I excitedly told my mom what I’d discovered.

If you’d asked me at the time, I couldn’t have articulated why this revelation was so important to me. I’m still not sure that I can, entirely, but I’ll try. I think that my moment of insight at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader told me that I had enjoyed the books deeply for the very reason that they were pointing to Christ, even though I’d not been conscious of that fact. In other words, Lewis’s fiction was the occasion of my dawning awareness that truth and beauty are united in the person of Christ, the key to all reality. Perhaps The Chronicles really did evangelize me. They opened my eyes to a level or reality about God beyond the moral dime

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Knowing how much stories influenced me in my youth (and still do), it doesn’t surprise me that Jesus so often spoke in parables. Story must be fundamental to our humanity and to our relationship with God. How great is that? It means that fiction is not necessarily an escape from reality but can actually be a means of deeper entrance into reality. There can be more profound truth in something that did not happen than in a science or history textbook. I love that God has hidden things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to little ones (Mt 11:25). Let’s never lose our delight in stories!nsion: the dynamic vivacity of beauty. Heck, my moment of insight could very well have sparked my pursuit of theology. So as good as The Lord of the Rings trilogy was when I read it at fourteen, to this day I think The Chronicles of Narnia series is better. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

An Interview with Archbishop Prendergast

An Interview with Archbishop Prendergast

 As often as possible, we would like to feature the insights of well-known Catholics – whether clerics, lay-authors, or others – on the world of books.

prenderHeart-felt thanks to Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa for taking some time to answer our questions. His Grace is an accomplished New Testament scholar, having taught for many years at various theological schools before being made a bishop, and uses his gifts for the edification of his flock in Ottawa, as well as for the Universal Church, through his writing, his work with various ecclesiastical entities in Rome and with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and on his blog, the Journey of a Bishop. He has been a great source of advice and encouragement to this Review.

1.      Your Grace, what is your favorite biblical book? Why?

A tie: Jonah in the OT (because I need to be challenged when I think I know what God should do instead of having mercy) and Mark, my first love in gospel study (because it never fails to call me to eagerly tell people about Jesus).

2.      What is your favorite non-biblical book? Why?

He Leadeth Me (by Walter Ciszek). His first book (With God in Russia) was a heroic account of an adventurous Jesuit missionary; the second was a “behind-the-scenes” look at the much more dramatic spiritual issues that he struggled with and are just as, or more, endearing.

3.       Does this book influence you today? How?

 I don’t read He Leadeth Me every year but from time to time when I make my annual retreat; I sense I’ll be packing it the next time when I make my yearly retreat (i.e. in January 2014).

4.      If you were to spend time in jail or marooned on an island, what three books would you want to bring with you?

Ingrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter; Alberto Savorana’s Vita di Don Giussani; Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote—all of which  are bricks that only time in prison, for instance, would allow me the leisure of reading anytime before I retire.

5.       Should Catholics read more? Why?

The life of the mind is most important in nourishing our spiritual life, so I would say “yes”; of course, “more” would mean a different thing to each person.

6.       What book should Catholics read – surprise us.

I like good human interest novels that are windows into the spiritual (just like movies, paintings, etc): e.g. Christopher Nolan, Under the Eye of the Clock

 When I was in the Holy Land for a sabbatical (1994-95), I got interested in captivity literature:  Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling; Terry Anderson, Den of Lions; Terry Waite, Taken on Trust; Lawrence M Jenco, OSM, Bound to Forgive.  They each show how the human spirit is able to overcome the most atrocious circumstances and, not without difficulty, keep hope alive. Each is in some sense truly spiritual.

7.       As a work of exegesis, to what author is your three-volume commentary on the Gospel readings, Living God’s Word (Novalis) most indebted?

I don’t think there is one exegetical work behind the commentary series but rather a person, Aloysius M Ambrozic, my mentor and thesis director and, later, the Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto, with whom I served my first 3 ½ years in the episcopacy. He showed me various approaches to Scriptural reading and exegesis and gave me the confidence to believe I could do it on my own.  Thus, I am able to read various commentaries and trust my own (spiritual) intuition as to the meaning of the text in the Church (which has always been the prime interest of my biblical reading, research, prayer).

8.       What book are you looking forward to reading next?

 For Advent I’m going to give an attentive reading to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (I guess I should get with the boss’s marching orders!?) and a little work of St Francis de Sales, of whom I have latterly become a fan, The Sign of the Cross—neither of which is too heavy for a very busy liturgical season!

      Thanks, Your Grace, for sharing your thoughts with us. You’ve given us several intriguing titles to look up.

      – ed.