Dr. Robert Hickson
6 January 2022
Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
Two Emperors in Trouble and a Mother’s Prayer for Her Groping Son:
Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 Presentation of Saint Helena’s Deepening Faith and Eloquence
“’I know I am human. In fact I often feel [says Constantine himself to his Empress Mother as the reigning Emperor; and, moreover, still “an unbaptized convert” (138)] that I am the only real human….And that’s not pleasant at all, I can assure you. Do you understand at all, mother?‘
‘Oh, yes, perfectly.’
‘What is it, then?’
‘Power without Grace,’ said Helena [the future Saint Helena].
‘Now you are going to start nagging about baptism again.’
‘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 [of just and sustained ruling] they will take it all on themselves each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.’…
‘We talked of it years ago….I have always remembered your words [,Constantine]. You said: ‘If I wish to live, I must determine to rule.’ ‘
‘And that is true today.’ [said her son, Emperor Constantine]
‘But, not without Grace, Constantine.’
‘Baptism. It always comes back to that in the end. Well, I’m going to be baptized, never fear. But not yet. In my own time. I’ve got other things to do before that…. [even though he was still “one indeed who was not yet formally admitted as a catechumen”! (138)]….’”
(Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), pages 185-186—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)
“In the inmost cell of the foetid termitary of power, Diocletian [the Emperor Diocletian] was consumed by huge boredom and sickly turned towards his childhood’s home. He ordained a house of refuge on the [Dalmatian coast] shores of the Adriatic.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 100—my emphasis added)
“Everywhere Constantine prospered until he became blandly [so presumptuously and delusively?] aware that he was invincible….There were glimpses of [his son, Crispus] a nobler figure; young Crispus, all dash and fidelity, last warrior of the high Roman tradition on whose shield the fanciful might descry the fading blazon of Hector [of Troy]. Reports of him [and his death] came to Helena….His name was remembered always at her palace Mass. For Helena had been baptized.
“None knows when or where. No record was made. Nothing was built or founded. There was no public holiday. Privately and humbly, like thousands of others, she stepped down into the font and emerged a new woman. Were there regrets for her earlier loyalty? Was she persuaded point by point? Did she merely conform to the prevailing fashion, lie open unresisting to Divine Grace and so without design become its brimming vehicle? We do not know. She was one seed in a vast germination. (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 132—my emphasis added)
“’I’m only teasing, Lactantius [said Helena, but before she herself became a Christian]. Of course I know why you are all so excited. I confess I am a little uneasy myself. It’s this story that is going around that my boy has turned Christian. Has he?’
‘Not exactly, ma’am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ.’
‘Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one….All I want is the simple truth. Why don’t you answer me?’
After a pause Lactantius said: ‘Perhaps because I have read too much. I’m not the person to come to with straight and simple questions, ma’am. I don’t know the answers [to your several questions]….We all have the chance to choose the Truth….As you know he [Constantine] has brought the Church into the open.’
‘Beside Jupiter and Isis and the Phrygian Venus.’ [said Helena]
‘Christianity is not that sort of religion, ma’am. It cannot share anything [of the sort] with anybody. Whenever it is free, it will conquer.’
‘Perhaps there was some point in the persecutions then.’
‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ [said Waugh’s Lactantius to an attentive and receptive Helena, though as yet unbaptized; Helena, pages 127-128]
In 1912, three years before World War I began, Hilare Belloc first published an essay entitled “The Decline of a State.”1 And this compact essay, full of fresh insights, unexpectedly concluded with a memorable and challenging sentence:
Those who have least power in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and saints. (242)
After my further reflecting upon Belloc’s selection of especially vulnerable persons in a time of decline and disorder, I recalled some passages from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel, Helena (1950), especially two of Waugh’s formulations about the insufficiency of “Power”: Emperor Diocletian’s own boring and “foetid termitary of power”; and Emperor Constantine’s own self-sabotaging “power without Grace” as envisioned and articulated to her son by his mother, Helena, and concerning an imagined future ochlocracy or mob rule that is likewise trying to rule “without Grace”.
In this context, we may even slightly expand Belloc’s original phrase concerning the vulnerable: namely,“those who have least power in the decline of a state [and amidst “power without Grace”].”
With this slight amendment in mind, we now propose to examine Belloc’s essay more closely. It will be conducted “on the premise that sustained power without Grace is inherently self–sabotaging and is presented by a ‘foetid termitary.’” (Waugh’s scented termite analogy is a vivid one for sure!)
One of Belloc’s main contributions is his examination of the influence and destructive consequences of “two vices” (240)—“Avarice” and “Fear”—in the decline of a State, especially as practiced in “an oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called.” (237) For example, he says:
In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be [democratic, despotic, oligarchic, or aristocratic], two vices will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for Avarice is the less despicable of the two—yet in fact Fear will be by far the strongest passion of the time [i.e., during the time of a growing decline]. (240—my bold emphasis and italics added)
By way of clarifying contrast, Belloc elsewhere in his writings often accents the perilous combination of “insecurity and insufficiency” both of which all too often tend to increase the passions and the vices of Avarice and Fear.
Let us now consider some of Belloc’s framing introductory words to his analysis:
The decline of a State is not equivalent to a mortal sickness therein. States are organisms subject to diseases and to decay…; but they are not subject to a rhythmic rise and fall…. A State in decline is never a State doomed or a State dying. States perish slowly or by violence, but never without remedy and rarely without violence. (237—my emphasis added)
Belloc then refers to the “texture” (237) of a State and its decline, namely whether or not it is mostly democratic, despotic, oligarchic or aristocratic—or some combination of them. For example, and also promptly recalling his own England as of 1911, he says:
An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and secondarily, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shelter themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies, wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a natural gift rather that a [disciplined and virtuous] product of the [informed] will.(237-238—my emphasis added)
Now he passes on to the second factor (or “agency”) of a growing “lack of civic aptitude” in the decline of a State:
Such [oligarchic-aristocratic] communities further fail from a lack of civic aptitude…,which means that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve them, and [they] are incapable of corporate action upon their own account. (238—my emphasis added)
Belloc then touches upon real differences between “a great State or a small one” (238) and the factors of “indifference, faction, ignorance, and private spite” (238). States are “rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production” whether as they be artisan or be peasant-agricultural. He weighs and differentiates “the basis of the State” (239) more specifically and more concretely. These candid observations we recommend to the attention of the reader, that he may better savor the diversities.
It is fitting that we now further consider Belloc’s focused insights and his illustrations of “Avarice” and “Fear” and their sabotaging influences in a growing decline of a State.
First, Avarice, as a passion and vice, thus an habitual deadly sin, under conditions of decline:
Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly subordinated to it [money], especially among the rich: wealth made a test for responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve the State [a declining State, moreover]. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it quite clear of the middle, the middle of it [society] quite clear of the dregs, and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe. Thus, in the last phase [of avarice’s illusion], there are no parasites but only friends, no gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once were. No one [is] vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only slack. (240-241—my emphasis added)
Although Belloc’s analysis is largely a secular analysis, Waugh’s Saint Helena—if not her son—would have detected new and crippling forms of Fear and of Cunning Carnal Prudence and Weakness without Grace. We may also consider the broken trust and increasing fears in our own society and decomposing civilization, at least as of 2022:
Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take. Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public governors, the action of the police, [of] the controllers of fortunes and of news….Under the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him [“a powerful minister”] will put a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.
This vice [of Fear] has for its most laughable effects the raising of a whole host of phantoms [subtle deceptions, or sensate “fake news,” perhaps?], and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at a piece of print, a whispered accusation [e.g., about the immunities of International High Finance or the Money-Laundering of International Drug-Money Networks]. (241-242—my emphasis added)
By way of concluding his selectively nuanced essay, Belloc gives a glimpse of those who darkly and dubiously flourish in times of a State’s disorder and decline, as well as those who preserve some kind of independence or a deeply suffering vulnerability:
Moneylenders under this influence [of Fear] have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of all kinds, and next after these [two manipulative niche-operatives] eccentrics who may [“but, not without Grace”] blurt or break out [from under the vicious influence and atmosphere of Fear].
Those who have least power [under these secular and graceless and debilitating conditions] in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the [loyal] lovers of one woman, and saints. (142—my emphasis added)
It was a wise man who said that “those who are themselves uprooted tend to uproot others.”
Hilaire Belloc’s 1911-1912 essay on “The Decline of the State” is certainly resonantly enhanced in its complemetarity and counterpoise with Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 vivid historical novel, Helena—a novel about the times of Emperor Diocletian and Emperor Constantine and a newly germinating and spreading Christianity that Waugh himself so deeply cherished. (It was the only one he ever read aloud to his own beloved children.) Would that we knew whether Hilaire Belloc, who died in July of 1953, read Waugh’s moving 1950 novel with its supernatural perspectives on the indispensability of Grace.
In the 1960s, while a military officer in Southeast Asia, I one day somehow formulated to myself a principle about the mysteriously Permissive Acts of Divine Providence that was especially then consoling to me. It was a correlative relative proposition that went like this:
“The greater the evil that God allows, the greater the good He intends to bring out of it.”
The faithful Practical Application of that Principle and Correlative Proposition goes like this:
“Therefore, here and now, I (we) must promptly collaborate with the Divine Intention and thus resourcefully and loyally try to bring about a GREATER good out of what God, and sometimes so mysteriously, has allowed to happen—also in combat and other forms of warfare!”
These are difficult principles and codes to live by. But “we are only as courageous as we are convinced,” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. himself once solemnly and very supportively said to me.
Now comes an unforgettably beautiful literary passage: Let us thus now closely consider and gratefully savor St. Helena’s own cultivated prayers for her son (as well as for others) as offered to the Three Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany. Evelyn Waugh presents them at the end of his penultimate Chapter XI, which is aptly entitled “Epiphany,” from Helena by Evelyn Waugh (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1950), pages 221-224, here, printed for the reader’s sake without indentation:
Everyone in Jerusalem remarked on Helena’s vigour. The old lady was positively indefatigable, they all said. But in truth she was very weary. Winter set in. The convent was exposed, damp and chill. It was not thus, in Dalmatia, that she had planned her old age. She seemed to have come to the end of her questions. No one was helpful. No one was hopeful. At Christmas she had not the strength to ride out with the procession to Bethlehem. She went to communion in the convent chapel and that day allowed the nuns to make a fuss of her, spending the feast crouched over a wood fire which they lit for her in her room.
But by Twelfth Night she rallied and on the eve set out by litter along the five rough miles to the shrine of the Nativity. There was no throng of pilgrims. [Bishop] Macarius and his people kept Epiphany in their own church. Only the little community of Bethlehem greeted her and led her to the room they had prepared. She rested there dozing until an hour before dawn when they called her and led her out under the stars, then down onto the stable-cave, where they made a place for her on the women’s side of the small, packed congregation.
The low vault was full of lamps and the air close and still. Silver bells announced the coming of the three vested, bearded monks, who prostrated themselves before the altar. So the long liturgy began.
Helena knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words nor anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest 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 are my kind.”
Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of ‘ουτοπία’ [Utopia] or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day’s toys.
“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. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed among the disconcerted stars.
“How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, 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 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. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
“Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at 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 than the ox or the ass.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had 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, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son [the Emperor Constantine himself, who was still unbaptized]. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.
“For His sake who did not reject your 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.”
© 2019 and 2022: Robert D. Hickson
1Hilaire Belloc, First and Last (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1912—the second edition; 1911 was the first edition), pages 237-242. All further page references will be to the text of the Second Edition, and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.