Monday, January 4, 2016

The Royal Magi: Patron Saints of All Latecomers

Evelyn Waugh is one of three great British Catholic novelists who lived and wrote during the twentieth century. Along with Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, Waugh demonstrated that Catholic fiction was not dead in the postmodern era that was ushered in so cruelly by the Great World Wars.

Waugh's most famous novel is Brideshead Revisited, but it may not be his most Catholic novel. Helena, published in 1950, may be his most consciously Catholic work. Helena is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross.

As Waugh tells the story, Helena comes to Jerusalem in the evening of her life, and using the great resources of her son's empire, she finds the wooden cross on which Christ died.

As her search nears its end, Helena feels a special kinship with the Magi, the three Wise Men who followed a star to find the infant Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem.  And to the Magi, Helena utters a simple prayer.

"You are my special patrons," Helena prays, "and patrons of all latecomers, 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 the sake of Christ, she continues, who did not forsake the Wise Men's 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."

In the spirit of St. Helena's prayer, surely all of us who live in the glittering postmodern era of skepticism and materialism can claim the Wise Men as our patron saints. Almost all of us who attended our society's cacophonous and chaotic universities have learned little more than sophistry. We have become confused with so-called knowledge and speculation; we have had a tedious journey to the truth. In fact, most of us have not found the truth.

Only a few among the learned have stumbled on life's great mystery--that God entered the world as an infant in a cave, lying in the straw among farm animals. Only a few among the elite have been given the grace to set aside their pride and worship in childlike wonder among the simple.

Magi, pray for us that we, like you, may find "kneeling space in the straw." And as Helena invoked your aid in Waugh's hidden gem of a novel, we call on you: "Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly."

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