Evelyn Waugh wrote a terrific little book, Helena. It is about the mother of the Emperor Constantine. US HERE – UK HERE
In our book, St. Helena, discoverer of the True Cross, prays to the Holy Magi.
This is a prayer by and for people who are talented, intellectuals, artists, who because of their intellectual gifts find it difficult to arrive at the same faith of simple people.
The prayer has two messages.
First, simple folk need far less ratiocination (e.g., exegesis, syllogisms, disputations, etc.) than those who are more gifted in order to adore the Baby in the manger. They come to the side of the Lord so much more quickly, willingly, with less hesitation.
Second, there is nevertheless hope for intellectuals, scientists, artist, who, in spite of the difficulties their intellects pose to the Faith, can arrive late at the manger and still by welcomed with open arms by the Holy Family.
This is my day, and these are my kind.
“Like me, 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.
How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
You finally came to the last 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 began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
Yet you came and 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 were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
You are my especial patrons, 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.
Dear cousins, pray for me, 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.
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.”
Great stuff, Pater. You’ve been hitting ’em out of the park lately and this is yet another zinger. Was thinking of you yesterday, as the Epiphany water was blessed in the afternoon before the 5:00 PM Mass. It’s a good time of year to get one’s house blessed.
Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful book. St. Helena was my inspiration when I went on my Holy Land pilgrimage a few years back. She wanted to find tangible things evidencing the reality of Our Lord’s life, like the True Cross and the Manger site. I admire her spirit. If it’s all just a nice fairy tale, then, as Flannery O’Connor said about the Eucharist if it were a mere symbol, “to h*** with it”!
Thank you! I read Helena not so long ago, but this had not impressed itself in my memory – even though it includes “all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt”. How easy that is. How thoroughly it is exploited (even more than its yoke-fellow of more direct fear).
Love the book, Evelyn Waugh has such sympathy for Helena! The prayer is wonderful, thanks, Father, for the n’th time, for everything!
This prayer reminds me of something our daughter showed me just the other day. She occasionally reads a blog by a gentleman who was a Wall Street type, but now takes pictures and records stories of the most destitute – women who are drug users &/or prostitutes. His pictures are compelling, as are the stories. He is an avowed atheist. She tells me he says that one of the things that surprised him most is how most of these women are Christian on some level, and he has come to realize atheism is a luxury the well-off can afford. He is still atheist. I said an Ave for him.
Those in most despair need a source of hope. To those not in despair, that need is not so obvious.
I would wonder if the challenge of a great intellect isn’t to come to the Manger, but to stay there. Everyone, including a great mind, needs some sort of moral anchor, even if that question isn’t considered very frequently, it is relevant: especially a powerful intellect will ask what it will leave behind, and what it wants to be. And those are in essence moral questions.
The bigger challenge is to, after the glancing encounter with Christianity every modern life still has, and which will provide at least a brief outline of the answers to those moral questions,, remain hooked, and not to classify the Faith with a bunch of other alternatives. It’s easy to throw everything on a big pile of “religion” and then decide that with so many competing and mutually exclusive claims, to try and do without, or at best use some inputs to mould one’s conscience and leave it at that. To see what makes Christ different, requires much more effort/study/life experience, especially for an intellect that is inquisitive.
The real risk with a great intellect isn’t a late arrival, but an early departure. Since staying with Christ is, as we can all attest, an arduous task that takes time. Time we lack if our minds move on too soon.
I had this in my Amazon wish list, but then deleted it recently. Perhaps I’ll add it again.
Helena is my patron saint, and I’ve been grappling with such things recently. A very timely post. I’ll be adding this to my list.
Some who devoted their great intellects to the service of God include Saint Albert the Great, called “The Universal Doctor” for his great learning in philosophy, theology and the natural sciences, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Bonaventure, in fact, all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church may be said to be intellectually gifted. In fact, the university system in Europe was established in medieval times specifically to train men with good minds in theology.
In more recent times we have Fr. Joseph LeMaitre, a brilliant Belgian priest and theologian who first proposed what is now called the Big Bang theory.
There need be no barrier between a brilliant human mind and God, the author Creator of the intellect.
Our priest mentioned this prayer in his homily yesterday. Helena and Monica (Augustine’s mother) are good examples of how, in its early years, Christianity seems often to have come to women first, and then to their families. That’s also not a bad thing to be reminded of during the Christmas season (Mary’s “yes” being necessary for the Incarnation).
Flannery O’Connor never said about the Eucharist that if it were a mere symbol, “to h*** with it”! She said that if it were a mere symbol, “to hell with it”!
If one can’t quote Flannery O’Connor accurately, without editorial fussiness, please do not quote her at all.
Well, excuuuuuse me, Dr. Peters!
A great novel, in which opinion I am apparently joined by the author – who considered it his best novel. I’m not sure I would rank it ahead of Brideshead Revisited, and while I would normally defer to Waugh’s much better informed literary judgment, perhaps he is less objective where his own works are concerned.
While initially off-putting, I think it was a brilliant choice to largely retain the modern English style of dialog for the book. Characters in historical novels are too often utlanning, framling or worse (a nod to another Father Z literary interest), and phrasing their speech and thoughts like ours prevents that. Quite justly, too, as the aristocratic Roman citizens leading up to Helena’s time might be among the few who can compare in terms of neuroses to the modern Western man. In particular, their jaundiced eye with respect to all things “religious” was very like our own.
Also, it more easily allows us to tie Helena to the thought of Waugh through other Waugh greats, such as Lady Marchmain and Charles Ryder. In her consideration and dismissal of some of the mystical religions of her day, you get a sense of the appreciation of a religion whose “quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims….” With an eye toward the season, you could readily put the following quote into Helena’s mouth, as well:
“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”
Forgot to say, Helena is my patron saint.
Maybe it is my intj personality, but I always imagined that Joseph would have used the gold, frankincense and myrrh to set up shop in Egypt and then in Nazareth again. The gifts of the Magi were symbolic but also useful.
I love this book and read it years ago. Thanks for the lovely reminder. God bless you this Epiphany Day.
I cannot think of Epiphany this year without Shakespeare’s “The Eleventh Night” coming to mind.
Thank you, Fr. Z, so very much for this! It was exactly what I needed to read today. This book is on my list of books to buy with my various holiday gift cards, and I will order in today.
Phil N_L: Interesting. Not sure I agree; I think by the time someone really thinks it all through and researches all the questions in detail, once an intellectual commitment to the truth is made, and the intellectual assent to faith is given, it tends to endure, as all the Doctors of the Church exemplify.
msc: Thank you for that insight.
A Blessed Epiphany to all!
Oh, thank you for this! More help to enlist for my stubborn husband! And in gratitude, I will now use your Amazon link to find the book, Father Z.
Many thanks for the post. The idea behind the prayer reminds me of the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” where Mrs. Turpin is tagging along near the end of the redeemed ones, and the thought, if my memory has any accuracy at all, is that, Yes, even the proper and stodgy and on-the-self-righteous-side types, who are nevertheless necessary if anything is to get done, can by God’s grace get to Heaven.