On this Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Western Christian Churches, the National Catholic Register has posted an article recounting how Evelyn Waugh and his colleague Fr Ronald Knox observed the occasion. Here’s the Waugh version:
He spoke about it flippantly when he was a dissolute and essentially pagan high school student.
“I think that I shall be forced into Lenten self-denial as my funds are rapidly decreasing and there is little prospect of more for a long time yet,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary.
He entered the Church 10 years later, in 1930, at the age of 27, and he may seem from appearances not to have gotten the idea of Lenten discipline even after years in the Church. I think he got it very well, though no priest would hold him up as an ideal of Lenten discipline.
“I have ‘given up’ wine and tobacco. Laura wine,” he wrote in his diary in 1948. “As a result we drank heavily on Sunday 15th. … My Lenten resolution to start work on Helena has not come to much.” (Laura is his wife and Helena his biography of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, said to have discovered the True Cross. The book appeared in 1950.) And then three weeks later: “A hangover from Sunday’s remission of Lenten abstinence. … When the hangover is over I shall work on Helena.”
Most famous now as the author of Brideshead Revisited, a romantic treatment of God’s work in people’s lives, he was one of the last century’s Catholic writers who was also a major writer in the wider world. G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien were others.
On Ash Wednesday 1953, he wrote that he had gotten his ashes and had resolved to give up opiates for Lent. He took the drugs for insomnia. A month later he reported that “Lent began well.”
In 1956, he “resolved to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament daily during Lent and to eschew gin and paraldehyde,” the drug he then took for insomnia. Eight days after that, he notes “I have kept my Lenten resolution to eschew gin and visit the church daily,” but doesn’t mention the drugs.
Waugh didn’t, as far as I can find, write much more about Ash Wednesday and Lent. He wasn’t a great one for asceticism. He doesn’t mention either in his letters, and only once in his collected essays. But that once was beautiful.
After a review of Knox’s more subdued observances, the article returns to Waugh and concludes:
Given those drunken Lenten Sundays, Waugh may seem not to have gotten the idea of Lenten discipline. He did, even if like most of us he didn’t always observe it the way he should.
There is this, written in an essay titled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” published in Life magazine in 1949. He described Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, the city looking “draggled” after Mardi Gras. Hungover tourists about to go home filled the hotel, and he wondered how many knew about Lent.
“But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: ‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.’”
He continues: “One grows parched for that straight style of speech in the desert of modern euphemisms. … Here it was, plainly stated, quietly accepted, and all that day, all over that light-hearted city, one encountered the little black smudge on the forehead which sealed us members of a great brotherhood who can both rejoice and recognize the limits of rejoicing.”