In Evelyn Waugh’s stunning classic, Brideshead Revisited, there is a scene which presses on my mind these days as I ponder so many forces gathering against a Church weakened greatly by the sins of her own children, both clerical and lay. All of us.
It is the time when Sebastian, Lord Alex Marchmain’s idiosyncratic, drunkard, but profoundly religious son, and Charles Ryder went to Venice to visit the family Patriarch who, after the war, left his wife of fifteen years and family and went to Venice to take up with his mistress, a dancer, Cara, not to return until it was time to die many years later.
Before Lord Marchmain left Brideshead, that great English sprawling estate which was the family home, he had built his wife a chapel so that she could attend Mass daily and make her visits before the Blessed Sacrament. Having done that, he left her with It. For Lord Marchmain was not a religious man by any stretch. And it was precisely Lady Marchmain’s depth of faith which in no small part drove him away. He was a charming, handsome, and free—if self-centered—spirit for whom the Catholic Faith was an intolerable ball and chain. He had only become a Catholic in the first place in order to marry the beautiful woman, who, when he left, could not and would not grant him a divorce, owing to her belief in the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage.
Sebastian was a great deal like his father, and a great deal of his mother, and therein lay his tragedy for which the bottle seemed the only constant relief, along with other flights into a world of obstinate permanent childhood. Charles Ryder, the quiet agnostic artist whom he had met at Oxford, was to become Sebastian’s playmate in anesthetized naughtiness, so long as Sebastian could keep the artist from the curiously enticing influence of his mother. He knew that the conflicts which tormented him were likely to torment anyone who was drawn into that frustratingly ambiguous sphere of religious beauty which is so inextricably tied to that burdensome yoke of the commandments.
A Volcano of Hate
One evening when Charles was alone with the father’s mistress, Cara, in Venice, she spoke openly of her place vis a vis Lord Marchmain. She startled Charles by telling him that she knew very well that Sebastian’s father did not love her, “not the littlest piece” of her. Charles was clearly very embarrassed by this confession from someone whom he hardly knew.
“Then why does he stay with me? I will tell you; because I protect him from Lady Marchmain. He hates her; but you can have no conception how he hates her. You would think him all so calm and English…my friend he is a volcano of hate. He cannot breathe the same air as she. He will not set foot in England because it is her home; he can scarcely be happy with Sebastian because he is her son. But Sebastian hates her too.”
“I am sure you are wrong there,” Charles said.
“He may not admit it to you. He may not admit it to himself; they are full of hate—hate of themselves. [Lord Marchmain] will not touch a hand which may have touched hers…
“I have never met Lady Marchmain; I have seen her once only; but if you live with a man you come to know the other women he has loved. I know Lady Marchmain very well. She is a good and simple woman who has been loved in the wrong way.
“When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating. Alex is hating all the illusions of boyhood—innocence, God, hope. Poor Lady Marchmain has to bear all that.”
The Great Crime
It was not until long after this episode in Venice, after Lady Marchmain had died, that Lord Marchmain returned to England, to Brideshead, to die. One always wishes to die at home, wherever that is. It is a returning to the womb, to the blood and heart which sustained one’s life for good or ill.
On his death bed, as his heart was failing fast, Lord Marchmain gasped for air.
“Free as air; that’s what they say—free as air. I was free once. I committed a crime in the name of freedom. Now they bring me my air in an iron tank”.
It was the first time that Lord Marchmain admitted he had committed a “crime” in leaving his wife, whose only fault was that she confessed the Truth all the days of her life, and paid dearly for it.
Lord Marchmain looked at Cordelia, Sebastian’s younger sister.
“Cordelia, what has become of the chapel”?
The chapel… it came to mind now on his death bed as he gasped for the air which now seemed so elusive.
“They locked it up, PaPa, when Mummy died”. The old man stared into the distance.
“It was hers, I gave it to her…Then I went away—left her in the chapel praying. It was hers. It was the place for her. I never came back to disturb her prayers. They said we were fighting for freedom; I had my own Victory.”
He turned to Cordelia. “Was it a crime?”
“I think it was PaPa,” Cordelia said, her eyes indicting and loving him at the same time.
“Crying to heaven for vengeance? Is this why they’ve locked me in this cave, do you think, with a black tube of air and the little yellow walls … Do you think that child?”
Cordelia could only avert her eyes in great sadness.
At the very end, after a long winter of suffering, Lord Marchmain, contrary to every expectation, even his own, confessed his crime during the Last Rites with one silent Sign of the Cross which astonished all those who attended his death bed.
Absolved. Absolved of his great crime… Of his great hate. Of the hate which Lady Marchmain could only bear for him, and not only for him, but for all in her family—except the sweetly believing Cordelia perhaps— who saw their mother’s faith as the great problem, and the great complex reason for their lives.
I think of all this as I ponder so many in the world today, both in and out of the Church, who seem to harbor hate—there is no other word for it— for the Church, Christ’s Bride, which can only bear that hate in rejected love (Col 1:24). Could it be, indeed, that, as Cara said,
“When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating. Alex is hating all the illusions … Poor Lady Marchmain has to bear all that.”
Type of the Church
Surely, for Waugh, Lady Marchmain was a symbol or type of the Church, our Mother, who is a problem to us because she tells us the Truth and upholds it in her very being. And she is not thanked, but ostracized, mocked and deserted—whether physically or in spirit—because she cannot deny herself.
Yet we are obsessed with her. Because she is our Mother. One only has one Mother. And we are tormented by the fact that she, above everyone else, loves us, even if we do not return her Love. For she serves the revelation of God in Christ Who is Love itself. She is the only one who in her teaching does not mislead us, no matter what we say or think sometimes. (Her Truth absorbs and assimilates all truths, wherever they may be found, for truth is truth).
Others miss the mark…and not a few lie. We know it, even if, in moments of bitterness, we sometimes like them better. The Devil pays well (for a time). But She tells us the Truth, leads us safely through all fearful storms, and bears ours sins and rebellions in her crucified Body, the Mystical Body of her crucified Lord.
In the end Sebastian never overcame his great weakness, but he did end his days in a monastery, bottle hidden under the bed, waiting on those who were even more ill than he, hand and foot. Cordelia, too, attended to the sick and the poor. And Julia, Sebastian’s older sister who was as complex as he, even if not a drunkard, had become Charles Ryder’s lover and had intended to marry him, a thing that would have broken her mother’s heart because she had already been married once, like her mother. Upon seeing her father confess his great crime on his deathbed with that one last Sign of the Cross, she knew she could not stay with Charles:
“How can I tell what I shall do, [Charles]? You know the whole of me. You know I am not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable . . . the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I am not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.”
Years later, long after the Brideshead estate was in shambles (like the modern world), and only the chapel’s sanctuary Lamp remained burning, an army troop during the Second World War asked his commanding officer, the same Charles Ryder, how and why one family could live in so immense an estate. “What’s the use of it?” he wondered aloud. Charles’ answer was that it was the drama of the redemption that played itself out as in a “fierce little human tragedy” which was the reason, something which the builders could not have foreseen:
“a small red flame—a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper door of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.” — Editor, 2005
(Excerpts from Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited [New York: Dell, 1960]. Photos courtesy of Granada BBC original series)