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Evelyn Waugh’s Helena in 5 Quotes

British novelist Evelyn Waugh, a high-profile Catholic convert in 1930, called his historical novel Helena, about St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, “far the best book I have ever written or ever will write.” In the same way, the author Mark Twain called his Joan of Arc the favorite of the books he wrote. Most of their readers disagree with both of them. It may be the contact with sanctity, not the books themselves, that impressed them. In fact, Waugh’s daughter Harriett reportedly said Helena was, “the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud,” and it starts to make more sense.
On a British interview television show, Waugh explained what he had in mind with Helena. “It wasn’t about her sanctity I was writing; it was about the conditions of fourth-century Rome, you see. She happened to be the empress,” he said. “It wasn’t the fact of her rank that made her interesting; it was the fact of her finding the True Cross made her interesting.”
On her Aug. 18 feast day, here are some quotes from Waugh’s Helena.

Helen Forsees Our Times

Legend says Helen was a stable maid in a poor family when Constantius Chlorus married her in the third century. She gave birth to Constantine the Great in 274 and was divorced by his father in 292 as he followed a politically advantageous marriage. Here in Waugh’s novel, Helen dreams of true power and glory.

“Sometimes,” Helena continued, “I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear this frightful curse they will take it all on themselves, each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.”

The Bluntness of the Cross

Helena is known for her discovery of the true cross during a trip to the Holy Land. Here Waugh describes the importance of that discovery.

“But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings, gorgeously encased, it has traveled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact. Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent. Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone lies Hope.”

The Cross’s Time Has Come

Constantine’s son was always faithful to his mother. He is also said to have been converted by a vision of the cross with the words “By this sign you will conquer.” Here Helen muses on how the true cross conquers in time.

“But how do you know He doesn’t want us to have it — the cross, I mean? I bet He’s just waiting for one of us to go and find it — just at this moment when it’s most needed. Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”

Simplicity in Religion

Here is an exchange Waugh imagines between St. Helen and a visiting scholar. This and the next quote are reminiscent of the simple faith Waugh imagined for his character Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.

“That is why your religion would never do for me, Marcias. If I ever found a teacher it would have to be one who called little children to him.”

“That, alas, is not the spirit of the time. We live in a very old world today. We know too much. We should have to forget everything and be born again to answer your question.”

Helena and the Magi

Helena is weary and overburdened and losing her feeling of Christianity when, during her celebrated trip to the Holy Land, she hears the story of the magi, and imagines what she would say to the three wise men.

“‘Like me,’ she said to them, ‘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 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.’”

Image: A Bysantine icon of Constantine the Great
and his mother, St. Helen. Wiki-media commons.


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Tom Hoopes

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Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia and the Register. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.