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St Helena, Evelyn Waugh, and the Finding of the Cross

Gregory DiPippo

In 1950, the English writer Evelyn Waugh published his only historical novel, Helena, a fictionalized account of the life of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, and her discovery of the relics of the True Cross. For well over a millennium, this event was celebrated with a feast day on May 3rd, the Finding of the Cross; Waugh’s introduction to the novel begins with a funny story based on the Latin version of the feast’s title, “Inventio Crucis.”

“It is reported … that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. ‘I got the real low-down at last,’ she told her friends. ‘The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel “the Invention of the Cross.” ’ ”

“a British woman named Ellen” refers to a medieval tradition that Helena was the daughter of a chieftain in Roman Britain, which Waugh incorporates into the story. He always regarded it as his best work, a fact which may well surprise those who know him for much more famous books like The Loved One or Brideshead Revisited. The latter was made into a critically acclaimed mini-series, and several of his other works have likewise been brought to film, although none as well or successfully. Helena, on the other, has not only never been filmed, but is in fact the only one of his novels that ever fell out of print, although the age of electronic books has brought it back.

(Evelyn Waugh in 1940: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Two years after its publication, Waugh was invited by Claire Booth Luce, a prominent convert to Catholicism, to contribute to a collection of essays called “Saints for Now”, and chose St Helena as his subject. His essay, essentially a summary of the theological point of the novel, is deeply insightful, especially considering that the author had no pretense of any sort to be a theologian.

What he correctly saw was that in the 4th century, once Christianity had been legalized, it was in danger of being assimilated to (if not into) the numerous other cults that existed in the ancient Roman world. Much about Christianity was already very congenial to the Roman religious mind: “(a)nother phase of existence which select souls enjoyed when the body was shed; a priesthood; a sacramental system, even in certain details of eating, anointing and washing—all these had already a shadowy place in fashionable thought. Everything about the new religion (i.e. Christianity) was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished…” And the then-fashionable version of the Creed, Arianism, which most of the Emperors after Constantine adopted, was just such an interpretation, refinement and diminution: the translation of Christianity into Platonism, with God the Father as Plato’s One, and God the Son as the demiurge of the Timaeus.

But Waugh goes on to specify that everything about Christianity was capable of being interpreted in such a fashion “except the unreasonable assertion that God became man and died on the Cross; not a myth or an allegory; true God, truly incarnate, tortured to death at a particular moment in time, at a particular geographical place, as a matter of plain historical fact.” And thus, in the novel, St Helena herself (a classically British self-assured older woman who could well be played by Maggie Smith if it were ever filmed), says to the Pope, St Sylvester I, “Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it… there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”

(St Helena and the True Cross, 1495, by Cima da Conegliano; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)d

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