Evelyn Waugh and the Resolute Old Lady

In an article in Crisis magazine, Professor Regis Martin from a Roman Catholic college in Ohio is reminded of Waugh as he conducts a group of his students around Europe. This occurs as they are about to visit a church in the outskirts of Vienna before enjoying the pleasures of the city. The church is called Heiligenkreuz and is noted for housing a relic of the True Cross. Prof. Martin recalls how that object remained buried for nearly a millennium: 

Until, that is, an old and resolute woman by the name of Helena decided to travel to the Holy Places, and there unearth the instrument on which the Lord of life had been slowly tortured to death…And as Evelyn Waugh tells us (who, incidentally, wrote a profound and beautiful novel about her), for all the trouble she took to find the True Cross, to determine the authenticity of it, she really deserves to be a Doctor of the Church:

“[F]or she was not merely adding one more stupendous trophy to the hoard of relics which were everywhere being unearthed and enshrined. She was asserting in sensational form a dogma that was in danger of neglect. Power was shifting. In the academies of the Eastern and South-Eastern Mediterranean sharp, sly minds were everywhere looking for phrases and analogies to reconcile the new, blunt creed for which men had died, with the ancient speculations which had beguiled their minds, and with the occult rites which had for generations spiced their logic”

The article goes on to note how Waugh explained that this discovery helped overcome the “stumbling block” of disbelief “in Carthage, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Athens” notwithstanding that “all the talents of the time went to work, to reduce, hide, and eliminate” its importance. Among those converted was the Roman Emperor Constantine, Helena’s son. The quotes are from Waugh’s book The Holy Places (1953) and appeared first in an article published in the Month (January 1952) based on a talk broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. It is reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 405. 


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