Dr. Robert Hickson 9 January 2019 (Within the Octave of Epiphany)
Saint Julian of Antioch (d. 313 AD)
“The present writer’s years of life can now be so few, at most, that the only reason for stating an opinion is that he thinks it true, and its opposite opinion not only untrue but harmful.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of the 1934 anthology Flee to the Fields—Father McNabb, speaking himself, was to die eleven years later, during World War II, in 1943.)
“As if in gratitude to the Family for having given Him welcome, He raised to the dignity of the supernatural the plighted love that unites husband and wife—father and mother.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (1934))
“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them.” (Luke 2:51)
Recently re-reading after some twenty years one of Father Vincent McNabb’s own writings on the family, and thus on Nazareth, I saw for the first time the importance and timeliness of one of the principles that he so concisely and lucidly articulates.
Writing in the early 1930s about one of “The Dangers to the Family”–in one sub-section of his longer essay, entitled “The Family”—he acutely said:
The second danger arises from the sentimental as distinct from the rational and ethical view of divorce. We have reached a legal state [already in 1934] when the fate of children can be decided by the existent sentiment between their father and their mother. Our divorce laws [in England], although not considered wide enough, are sufficiently wide to be governed by the principle that “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together when they have ceased to love each other.” This principle largely initiated here in the West has been carried out with characteristic consistency in Soviet Russia [under Lenin, N. Krupskaya, A. Kollontai, and Stalin].1
Soon after reflecting on this principle and its increasingly promiscuous implementation, which is all too often to the grave detriment and long-term harm of the innocent children, I thought of Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 historical novel, Helena, especially one passage from Chapter 11, entitled “Epiphany.”2 The conjunction and counterpoint of these two Catholic authors, with their fresh insights, will teach us still many important truths.
Shortly before Waugh’s Helen is to find the Cross in Jerusalem, she visits Bethlehem on the Feast of the Epiphany and, with deep wonder, identifies with the Three Royal Wise Men, as they were personified and presented by three Greek monks in their re-enactment of the composite scene:
Helena [herself a recent convert] knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words or anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest [for the True Cross] and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.
“This is my day,” she thought, “and these [three royal sages] are my kind.”….
“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.”….
“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod [i.e., “Crudelis Herodes”]. Deadly exchange of compliments [false flattery and deception] in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (222-223—my emphasis added)
We think at once about the impending Slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the three-decade later call for the release of criminal Barabbas and the resultant raging betrayal of innocent Jesus. Today, too, the Little Ones—the Parvuli of Christ—are indifferently, even impenitently, slaughtered. We are numbed by the magnitude of the dead and we struggle yet with the Permissive Will of God.
The wholehearted Evelyn Waugh nonetheless chooses to show us more of Empress Helena’s heart (and Waugh’s own heart, too) as he presents further and imaginative expressions to “those three royal sages” (222):
“Yet you came [to the Nativity], 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. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family….
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers [to Christ], 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.
“Dear cousins [ye royal sages], pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son [the still unbaptized Emperor Constantine]. May he, too, before the end, find kneeling-space in the straw….
“For His sake who did not reject your [three] curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” (223-224—my emphasis added)
In this passage, Evelyn Waugh shows us a reverent mother’s prayer for her son, hoping that he, too, would soon come to kneel humbly in adoration before the Christ Child—considering also His later, maturing youth in Nazareth. Helena herself, despite her energetic quest and mission, manifests a gracious reverence and spiritual childhood. She again and again acknowledges and submits to Divine Authority, believing that her own son must yet, and soon, be baptized—not just on his deathbed. For, she sees that he is pitifully “overloaded” by his own “Power without Grace.”
In 1934, Father McNabb likewise saw the pitiful spread of temporal “power without grace”–that is, without divine grace. After first commenting on “the fate of children” (76) and thus on the ill fruits of an increasingly-resorted-to secular principle of disorder—namely, “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together [in marriage and thus in the full rearing of their children] when they have [purportedly] ceased to love each other” (76—my emphasis added)—he speaks of another peril to the family:
The third danger to family life springs from the modern rejection of obedience to authority [to include the authority of the father]. This rejection begins by disobedience to the authority of God [thus also to the Rights of God abiding]. But, as all lawful authority is, as such, of divine right, the rejection of divine authority tends to dissolve the claims and rights of all authority. In this welter of might without right such fundamental rights as that of the parent and the family [as a unit] tend to be set aside as belated [outmoded] or suppressed as harmful. (76—my emphasis added)
Such interrelated matters are part of “the threatened social avalanche” (76) that was seemingly accumulating, and thus “of deep concern” (76) to Father McNabb five years before the outbreak of World War II.
Five years after the end of World War II, Evelyn Waugh had another insight about that then-actual “social avalanche.” For, like Father McNabb (1868-1943), Waugh knew that Christ was being hunted even at His birth and also soon thereafter. Other Holy Innocents were likewise altogether threatened. For, in a prior and deceitful “deadly exchange” with the graceless and cruel power of Herod (“Crudelis Herodes”) “there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (223—my emphasis added)
Almost seventy years after those heartfelt words from Evelyn Waugh, that war is still “unended.” The attacks on innocence and purity have now even increased. The amount and intensity of crude and cruel “power without grace” have also seemed to have increased. Yet, for the Loyal Faithful, wherever evil abounds, indispensable Divine Grace superabounds and we are to co-operate.
In one of his 416 A.D. sermons against the Pelagians (Sermo 169, 13—PL 38, 923), Saint Augustine of Hippo effectively said that God created us without our co-operation, but He will not save us without our co-operation. That is to say, without our free consent.
© 2019 Robert D. Hickson
1Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2003), p. 76—my emphasis added. This is a new addition of the original 1934 book, Flee to the Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement, which also preserves Hilaire Belloc’s original 4-page Preface, which is now on pages 15-18. All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.
2Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950). All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.