Saturday, January 11, 2014

Waugh on relics false and true

     “‘What happened to the cross?’ asked Helena.
     “‘Oh they threw those away, all three of them.  They had to, you know, by law.’
     “‘Where did they put them?  Do you remember?’
     “‘I want that cross.’
     “‘Yes, come to think of it I expect there’ll be quite a demand for anything to do with the Galilean now that he’s suddenly become so popular and respectable.’
     “‘Could you show me where it is?’
     “‘I reckon so.’
     “‘I am rich.  Tell me your price.’
     “‘I wouldn’t take anything from you, lady, for a little service like that.  I shall get paid all right, in time.  You have to take a long view in my business.  How I see it, this new religion of the Galilean may be in for quite a run.  A religion starts, no one knows how.  Soon you get holy men and holy places springing up everywhere, old shrines change their names, there’s apparitions and pilgrimages.  There’ll be ladies wanting other things besides the cross.  All one wants is to get the thing started properly.  One wants a few genuine relics in thoroughly respectable hands.  Then everyone else will follow.  There won’t be enough genuine stuff to meet the demand.  That will be my turn.  I shall get paid.  I wouldn’t take anything from you now, lady.  Glad to see you have the cross.  It won’t cost you a thing.’
     “Helena listened and in her mind saw, clear as all else on that brilliant timeless morning, what was in store.  She saw the sanctuaries of Christendom become a fair ground, stalls hung with beads and medals, substances yet unknown pressed into sacred emblems; heard a chatter of haggling in tongues yet unspoken.  She saw the treasuries of the Church filled with forgeries and impostures.  She saw Christians fighting and stealing to get possession of trash.  She saw all this, considered it and said:  ‘It’s a stiff price’; and then:  ‘Show me the cross.’”

     Dialogue between Helena and "The Wandering Jew"ish (xii) "business man" (chap. 9) who, in the "dream that she knew was of God" (244), directed her to the location of the True Cross.  Evelyn Waugh, Helena:  a novel, chap. 12, Ellen's Invention ((London:  Chapman & Hall, 1950), pp. 249-251).

     “Helena’s many prayers received unequal answers.  Constantine was at long last baptized and died in the expectation of an immediate, triumphal entry to Paradise.  Britain for a time became Christian, and 136 parish churches, a great part of them in the old lands of the Trinovantes, were dedicated to Helena.  The Holy Places have been alternately honoured and desecrated, lost and won, bought and bargained for, throughout the centuries.
     “But the wood has endured.  In splinters and shavings, gorgeously encased, it has travelled 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.”

     Evelyn Waugh, Helena:  a novel, chap. 12, Ellen's Invention ((London:  Chapman & Hall, 1950), pp. 249-251 and 264).  The penultimate sentence of the novel I would read as follows:  Hounds on the trail of sacred history, but "hunting wild" in such a way as to service the hucksterism so often associated with the traffic in false relics, are put back onto the trail of the historicity of the faith by the dogged childlikeness of St. Helena, who asked (e.g. of the Gnostic Marcias) the simple "'child's question'" (130) "'When and where did all this happen?  And how do you know?'" (128).  The English word "invention" derives, of course, from the Latin "inventio", which derives from "invenire", "to come upon, find, meet with, discover" but also (as with the the Englishwoman "prominent for her hostility to the Church") also "invent, make up":
"It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exaltation.  'I got the real low-down at last,' she told her friends.  'The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen.  Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened.  Even the priests admit it.  They call their chapel 'the Invention of the Cross'" (Preface, p. ix).

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