Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lessons from Brideshead

"Do you know last year, when I thought I was going to have a child, I'd decided to have it brought up a Catholic?  I hadn't thought about religion before; I haven't since; but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, 'That's one thing I can give her.  It doesn't seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.'  It was odd, wanting to give something one had lost oneself." 

Have you ever reflected back upon your life and, in retrospect, observed that the events and choices you've made--especially the difficult circumstances and the poor choices--weave together to create a path, a journey you never really anticipated, but in the end landed you in a destination so much more wonderful and joyful than what you had originally planned?

That line you marked on your life map, following you through your childhood, adolescence, adulthood and beyond, is the almost always imperceptible line of grace.  

It's the mark of Divine Providence upon the canvas of your life.  

And, with the eyes of faith, it creates the most stunning image...especially considering it has been formed using the poor, broken, and frail tools of fallen humanity.

The classic English novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a novel that follows the Flyte family during the 1920's and into the time immediately preceding World War II.  It contains many characters, but the main protagonist is none other than Divine Providence and through the drama of their lives, it is grace that ultimately draws the characters.


The novel centers around Charles Ryder, an only child raised by a distant, widowed father.  Charles is a painter and an agnostic.  His life seems to truly begin when he commences his studies at Oxford and meets Sebastian Flyte, who hails from an extremely rich and very (somewhat dysfunctional) Catholic family.  

Through Sebastian and the friendship that they share, Charles first begins to understand love.  

"In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Jasper warned me.  Descent or ascent?  It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired.  I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, the premature dignity and authority of the school system, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own.  Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liquers and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence...I could tell him [Jasper, Charles's cousin], too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." (p. 45)

Sebastian, quite reluctantly, introduces Charles to the rest of his family: his pious and controlling mother (who is separated from his father), his distant older brother Brideshead, his ravishingly beautiful sister Julia, and Cordelia, the youngest child who is very zealous in her beliefs.

Charles stays at the grandiose Flyte estate, Brideshead, during holidays and breaks and gradually enters into the inner life of the family.  One of Waugh's greatest strengths in his novel, in my humble opinion, is the way in which he presents this family.  His characters are so very real.  Each one is broken, troubled, prodigal in one way or another.  In other words, they are just like all of us. 

And while it is clear that they are Catholic, it is simultaneously apparent that their faith is far from perfect.  In fact, it is--at times--a bit comical.  Consider, for instance, the following passage that begins with a conversation between Cordelia and Charles.

"D'you know, if you weren't an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter?" 

"Nothing will surprise me about your religion."

"It's a new thing a missionary priest started last term.  You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you.  I've got six black Cordelias already.  Isn't it lovely?"

When Brideshead and Sebastian returned, Cordelia was sent to bed.  Brideshead began again on our discussion.

"Of course, you are right really," he said.  "You take art as an means not as an end.  That is strict theology, but it's unusual to find an agnostic believing it."

"Cordelia has promised to pray for me," I said.

"She made a novena for her pig," said Sebastian.

"You know all this is very puzzling to me," I said.

"I think we're causing scandal," said Brideshead.  


Yes, they are not perfect and their faith is flawed--at times, almost nonexistent.  But grace is working through their lives, as inapparent as it might seem.  In a passage in which she relates a famous quote from G.K. Chesterton, Cordelia remarks to Charles,

"Anyhow, the family hasn't been very constant, have they?  There's him gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone.  But God won't let them go for long, you know.  I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk...Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'" 

And a twitch upon the thread does indeed occur.  For Charles, it happens gradually, through an ascent in love.  Love was first awakened in his heart through a brotherly love for Sebastian.  But then that love gradually gave way to a deeper, stronger love: a romantic love for Julia.  

But these loves, while certainly good, are only reflections of the greatest good, the deepest and most powerful love: the love that is Love Itself.

This is my favorite passage from the novel and in it, Charles first begins to wonder if his feelings for Julia are a means, not an ends--that perhaps they are meant to beckon him onto something greater.

"It's frightening," Julia once said, "to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian."

"He was the forerunner."

"That's what you said in the storm.  I've thought since: perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke--a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace--perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of a shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

While the themes of faith and the activity of grace are present throughout the novel, Waugh presents Divine Providence as it typically is in our own lives: working quietly, unassumingly, gradually chiseling away here and there at the hard marble of our sinfulness, slowly and methodically operating through daily events, even through one's transgressions and lapses in judgment.  

In fact, Divine Providence works so imperceptibly in the book that, without the lens of faith, one might miss it which case, reading the novel still would be no waste: it's a wonderful step back into a time very unfamiliar to us today, a period of decadence and lavishness that the wealthiest members of society enjoyed to the fullest.  

And that's the brilliancy of it: Waugh writes a book about faith, but unless one is really looking for it, you might not even realize his intention.  

There is no "Saint Paul" moment of conversion.  But the call to conversion is there and it is heard only faintly, as though an echo at first, and gradually the door of the heart is opened to the one who stands patiently knocking.

Waugh is a brilliant, poetic author in his choice of diction and the plot he weaves is engaging, humorous, and so very relatable in many ways.  The ending, by many standards, may not be considered "happily ever after."

But I suppose that all depends on one's understanding of happiness. 

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