Evelyn Waugh

The Road to Damascus: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Fifteen Converts to Catholicism was published in 1949 and edited by Fr. John A. O’Brien, who was writer and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame (USA). Below are highlights from Waugh’s account.

But those who do not know my country should understand that the aesthetic appeal of the Church of England is unique and peculiar to those islands. Elsewhere a first interest in the Catholic Church is often kindled in the convert’s imagination by the splendors of her worship in contrast with the bleakness and meanness of the Protestant sects. In England the pull is all the other way. The medieval cathedrals and churches, the rich ceremonies that surround the monarchy, the historic titles of Canterbury and York, the social organization of the country parishes, the traditional culture of Oxford and Cambridge, the liturgy composed in the heyday of English prose style—all these are the property of the Church of England, while Catholics meet in modern buildings, often of deplorable design, and are usually served by simple Irish missionaries…

The shallowness of my early piety is shown by the ease with which I abandoned it. There are, of course, countless Catholics who, for a part of their lives at least, lose their faith, but it is always after a bitter struggle–usually a moral struggle. I shed my inherited faith as lightheartedly as though it had been an outgrown coat. The circumstances were these: During the first World War many university dons patriotically volunteered to release young schoolmasters to serve in the army. Among these there came to my school a leading Oxford theologian, now a Bishop. This learned and devout man inadvertently made me an atheist. He explained to his divinity class and none of the books the Bible where by their supposed authors; he invited us to speculate, in the manner of the fourth century, on the nature of Christ. When he had removed the inherited axioms of my faith I found myself quite unable to follow him in the higher flights of logic by which he reconciled his own skepticism with his position as a clergyman…

Here, I think, the European has some slight advantage over the American. It is possible, I conceive, for man to grow up in parts of the United States without ever being really aware of the Church’s unique position. He sees Catholics as one out of a number of admirable societies, each claiming his allegiance. That is not possible for a European. England was Catholic for nine hundred years, then Protestant for three hundred, then agnostic for a century. The Catholic structure still lies lightly buried beneath every phase of English life; history, typography, law, archaeology everywhere reveal Catholic origins. Foreign travel anywhere reveals the local, temporary character of the heresies and schisms and the universal, eternal character of the Church. It was self-evident to me that no heresy or schism could be right and the Church wrong. It was possible that all wrong, that the whole Christian revelation was an imposter or misconception. But if the Christian revelation was true, then the Church was society founded by Christ and all other bodies were only good so far as they had salvage something from the wrecks of the Great Schism and the Reformation. This position seemed so plain to me that it admitted of no discussion. It only remained to examine the historical and philosophic grounds for supposing the Christian revelation to be genuine…

My life since [my conversion] has been an endless delight tour of discovery in the huge territory which I was made free. I have heard it said that some converts in later life look back rather wistfully to the fervor of their first months of faith. With me is quite the opposite. I look back aghast at the presumption with which I thought myself suitable for reception and with wonder at the trust of the priest who saw the possibility of growth in such a dry soul.
From time to time friends outside the church consult me. They are attracted by certain features, repelled or puzzled by others. To them I can only say, from my own experience: “Come inside. You cannot know what the Church is like from the outside. However learned you are theology, nothing you know amounts to anything in comparison with the knowledge of the simplest actual member of the Community of Saints.

Additional information about Evelyn Waugh is available from many sources, such as The Evelyn Waugh Society, and articles such as this, this and this.

The praise [of Brideshead Revisited] was tempered by a vociferous minority who disliked [it] on both political and religious grounds. In particular, the American critic Edmund Wilson criticized the religious dimension in the novel. “He was outraged (quite legitimately by his standards) at finding God introduced into my story,” Waugh replied. “I believe that you can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Modern novelists, Waugh continued, “try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character – that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”

Increasingly Catholics were expected to be good writers–by secular standards–who just happen to be Catholic.  Having miracles in a novel, or even taking a position on what was true, was seen as bad form:  interfering with the “freedom” of the reader.  To do was to retreat into a Catholic “ghetto” (it was claimed).  It appears that Waugh himself came to flinch on this issue.

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