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.

How to Read Chinese Poetry


One of my favourite Chinese books is How to Read Chinese Poetry by Zong-qi Cai. It is, as the subtitle proclaims, a “guided anthology” and includes many wonderful poems as well as a huge amount of information about how these poems can be read. Whether you know Chinese or not, this book is a must-have for the light it throws on a glorious poetic tradition (or, to be more precise, on centuries of different poetic traditions).

An accompanying volume, a How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook, is also excellent. Surprisingly, it covers a slightly different range of poems, but that does at least mean that we get masterpieces like ‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’ by Su Shi. (I’ve also just discovered that there is a third volume: How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context – another book for the To Read pile.) Here is Su Shi’s poem in Chinese, followed by Zong-qi Cai’s translation:









‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’

All broad ridges it is, if seen lengthwise, all soaring peaks it becomes, if seen sideways;

Viewed from afar and near, high and low, it looks all different.

The true face of Mount Lu I cannot tell

Only because I am in the midst of it.

Su Shi (1037-1101)


How to translate such taut verse is a real problem, so I shall return to possible translations of the famous final couplet later in the year. For now, the poem is more than capable of standing on its own twenty-eight feet without any additional comment from me.

Books which span the years

In recent posts I have recommended some 11th century and 21st century books. Now it’s time to look at books which span the years. These books help us step aside from what Francois Hartog has called “presentism,” allowing us to be challenged by premodern ways of thinking, not so that we can retreat into nostalgic reverence for a non-existent past but so that we can see our own age in perspective. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to St Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’: 

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

Lewis’ argument was a lot subtler than he was sometimes given credit for. He certainly didn’t believe in some mythical Golden Age, but he certainly did believe in the power of old books:

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

Lewis’ recommendation was that, after reading a new book, we should not allow ourselves “another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” This remains very good advice. Nonetheless, we might also suggest that there are some modern books which can  have the same palliative effect of which Lewis wrote. I am thinking, in particular, of the following:

‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ by George Mackay Brown

‘Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ by Walter M. Miller Jr.

‘That Hideous Strength’ by C. S. Lewis himself

Some children’s books – think of Pan in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the Phoenix in ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’

We sometimes need to be reminded that the great conversation is not a monologue: it goes back and forth. So I’ll finish with a remarkable passage from Henry of Huntingdon’s ‘Historia Anglorum’ which he wrote in AD 1135. Towards the end of his book he wrote these words:

Ad uos igitur iam loquar qui in tercio millenario, circa centesimum tricesimum quintum annum, eritis. Cogitate, inquam, quo duenerimus. Dicite, precor, quid nobis profuerit, si magni uel clari fuerimus? Nichil prorsus nisi in Deo claruerimus. Si enim nunc in eo claremus, et uestro tempore clarescemus, cum Domino nostro domini celi et terre, milibus milium qui in celis sunt collaudabiles. Nunc autem qui tanto tempore antequam nascamini de uobis mentionem iam uestro tempore puluis in hoc opere feci, si contigerit – quod valde desiderat anima mea – uestras ut in manus hoc opus meum prodeat, precor ut Dei clementiam inexcogitabilem pro me miserrimo exoretis. Sic et pro uobis orent et impetrent qui quarto uel quinto millenario cum Deo ambulabunt, si generatio mortalium tamdiu protelabitur. 

which has been translated by Diane Greenway in her edition of Henry’s book in this way:

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Great 11th Century Books

While it is true that some great books have been written in the 21st century, Joseph Joubert was also absolutely right to argue that the trouble with new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones. So here – notwithstanding some difficulties with precise dating, which I shall skate over – are seven books from the 11th century which are well worth reading:


The Battle of Maldon

La Chanson de Roland

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which continued into the 11th century)

The Marvels of the East

St Anselm’s Proslogion

The poetry of Su Shi


Great 21st Century Books

While Joseph Joubert was absolutely right to argue that the trouble with new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones, it is also true that some great books have been written in the 21st century. Here are seven which are well worth reading:

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin (2009)

‘The Madonna on the Moon’ by Rolf Bauerdick (2009)

‘Waiting for the Evening News’ by Tim Gautreaux (2010)

‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin (2012)

‘The Seventh Day’ by Yu Hua (2013)

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson (2014)



I am currently listening to, and greatly enjoying, the audiobook of Véronique Olmi’s Bakhita. Once I have finished listening (and reading), I will write a proper review.

Listening to Olmi’s novel made me wonder what St Bakhita (whose saint’s day it is later this week) wrote herself. The answer is not much. As with St Thérèse of Lisieux, she was a reluctant autobiographer, telling her story only under obedience to her mother superior. The resulting journal, which is currently available in Italian and French but not in English, is simple but extremely powerful.

I was also greatly struck by a collection of pensées that are included in the Journal but which were collected by those who knew Bakhita in Italy. Time and time again, Bakhita directed her listeners away from her own great suffering towards the faithfulness of God. 

What we have, therefore, are two great books which are, in some ways, quite different from each other. The first will be available in English translation soon. Let’s hope the second is translated soon after.

Bakhita Journal


Secularization and Snowmen

The high point of the week for my children was the opportunity to build two snowmen and – this year’s innovation – a snow dog. A low point was the moment when they realised that those same snowmen (and dog) had begun to melt, the  first signs of terminal decline coming when the coal eyes and nose fell out.

Inside the house it was easy to miss that crucial moment. From a distance, eyes and nose still seemed to be there, the cavities being smudged black with coal. A closer inspection revealed the sad truth. And worse is still to come: as I type, with the temperature rising, limbs are starting to sag and heads, no doubt, will soon begin to roll.

There are two reasons why, sadly, I won’t be able to use this image of secularization in my PhD (on secularization and contemporary fiction). The first is that neither snowmen nor snowdogs are standard features of doctoral theses. The second is that the image doesn’t wholly work because it is grounded in an assumption of inevitability. Snowmen are built and snowmen melt. There is no other way. However, the secularization thesis no longer holds sway in the academy because secularization is clearly neither inevitable nor unstoppable. If anything is melting, it is the secularization thesis itself.