Evelyn Waugh and the Easter Liturgy

Evelyn Waugh’s love of the liturgy is well known, as is his famous diary entry from Easter 1964:

When I first came into the Church I was drawn not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest as a craftsman. He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. He and his apprentice stumped up to the altar with their tools and set to work without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them.

The daily work of the Church really mattered to him, but it was the Easter liturgy to which he returned constantly in his books. The Easter liturgy was the hidden force to which the compass of his fiction pointed, emerging briefly at crucial moments to help us reorient ourselves. In Officers and Gentlemen, for example, we are told that:

Outside, in the cathedral, whose tower could be seen from the War Office windows; far beyond in the lands of enemy and ally, the Easter fire was freshly burning. Here for Sprat all was cold and dark. 

And again,

All over the world, unheard by Sprat, the Exultet had been sung that morning. It found no echo in Sprat’s hollow heart.

Whether Sprat knew it or not, the Easter vigil was the centre that held all things together. Or, as the Catechism puts it:

Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance. Gradually, on either side of this source, the year is transfigured by the liturgy…. Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the “Feast of feasts,” the “Solemnity of solemnities,” just as the Eucharist is the “Sacrament of sacraments” (the Great Sacrament).

Waugh wrote with great restraint about the Easter vigil but he also touched on other aspects of the Easter liturgy, notably the glorious office of Tenebrae. In Brideshead Revisited, for example, Cordelia speaks about it to Charles Ryder, explaining that if he had ever experienced it he would know “what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola civitas … it’s a beautiful chant. You ought to go once, just to hear it.”

There seems little chance of that happening but, chastened by life, Charles changes. We do not see that change at first because it happens outside the narrative. However, after “nearly ten dead years,” he reflects on what has happened to him:

“Here I am,” I thought, “back from the jungle, back from the ruins. Here where wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity. Quomodo sedet sola civitas” (for I had heard that great lament, which Cordelia once quoted to me in the drawing-room of Marchmain House, sung by a half-caste choir in Guatemala, nearly a year ago).

As we enter Holy Week, it is worth reminding ourselves that, for Waugh, it was what lay beyond the words of the novel that really mattered, and what really mattered was nowhere better expressed – better done – than in the Easter liturgy.