Mary Frances Coady

Evelyn Waugh in America

When the English novelist Evelyn Waugh visited the United States in the late 1940s, a young journalist asked him what impressed him most in America.  His answer: the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  Finding that his interviewer, whom he identified only as “the wretched girl”, knew nothing about the Trappists and little about anything else in Christianity, the famous convert seized the opportunity.  “My apostolic zeal was roused, and, frankly, I preached to her,” he wrote in an article titled “Kicking Against the Goad” that was published in the March 11, 1949 issue of Commonweal.

CCF02232012_00001“I told her about monasticism,” he went on.  “It is a subject I have at heart because I believe that we are returning to a stage when on the supernatural plane only heroic prayer can save us and when, on the natural plane, the cloister offers a saner and more civilized life than ‘the world’.

Although he was particularly impressed with the monastic life, having paid an overnight visit to Gethsemani in order to meet the Trappist author, Thomas Merton, he could have mentioned many more aspects of Catholicism that appealed to him.   He could have lightly peppered his words with incomprehensible Latin phrases, or declaimed on the history of European civilization, or given a detailed explanation of the liturgical year and the sacramental system.  But at some point he probably also mentioned the matter of sin, guilt and the need for God’s mercy.

Waugh the convert

Waugh’s Catholicism, to which he converted on September 29, 1930, was almost as eccentric as the man himself.  As a student in Oxford he had mocked religious ritual while becoming increasingly attracted to it.  Then, at the age of 27 and still in the first flush of fame as the Bright Young Author of two successful novels, he was received into the Church by the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy.  His godparent was the parish charwoman and the announcement of his reception was made in a friend’s gossip column.

His godparent was the parish charwoman and the announcement of his reception was made in a friend’s gossip column.

It was, on the face of it, an intellectual conversion in the manner of several Oxonians before him.  “I realise that the Roman Catholic Church is the only genuine form of Christianity,” he had written to Father D’Arcy a few weeks earlier.  “Also that Christianity is the essential and formative constituent of western culture.  In our conversations and in what I have read or heard since I have been able to understand a great deal of the dogma and discipline which seemed odd to me before.” 

The only problem, as he saw it, was one that would hound him in one way or another for the rest of his life: “I don’t feel Christian in an absolute sense.  The question seems to be—must I wait until I do feel this—which I suppose is a gift from God which no amount of instruction can give me, or can I become a Catholic when I am in such an incomplete state and so get the benefit of the sacraments and receive Faith afterwards?”

His friends later speculated that Waugh’s world was in chaos during that period of his life because his wife had deserted him and he was wandering homeless from one friend’s country house to another.  Catholicism’s discipline and ritual helped to keep the turmoil in check. (He would later receive an annulment and remarry.) His inner world had always contained a terrifying disorder that erupted in savagely comic form in his novels and in a general misanthropic attitude, bordering on cruelty, toward others.

But there was probably more: although he regarded Catholicism as a bastion against the modernity which he eventually came to detest, especially after the Second World War, more profoundly he saw the Church’s teaching on prayer, charity and penitence exemplified in the monastic way of life as well as in the lives of the saints.  These became a guide for his own practice and behavior, and he knew that he came up woefully short at every turn.

“I have no eros, agape or philia for any of them,” he wrote to Father D’Arcy in 1950 about his attitude toward his own children.  “Just stark boredom & an intermittent sense of duty.”  He was scrupulous in his religious observance (he also gave up cigars and wine for Lent, an exacting practice), but found personal prayer an agony of frustration.  He had a keen sense of his own wretchedness and felt that all he could do was surrender himself to the mercy of God within the arms of the Catholic Church.

Visit to Gethsemani

His visit to Gethsemani Abbey took place in the fall of 1948.  He was already familiar with the writing of Thomas Merton, having received from Merton’s publisher a proof copy of the autobiographical work that would become The Seven Storey Mountain.  Waugh had responded to Merton’s work with enthusiasm, and the first edition of that book carried his glowing endorsement: “A book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.”

He also offered to edit The Seven Storey Mountain for publication in Britain.  The British edition, with an Introduction written by Waugh, was published as Elected Silence, the title taken from “The Habit of Perfection”, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  There has been no general agreement either on the amount Waugh cut out of the original book (some say ten percent, others say twenty percent), or on whether or not Waugh improved Merton’s text.

He himself considered Merton to be a sloppy writer, and his intent in the editing process was to tighten sentences and remove redundancies.  Some think that by attempting to remove Merton’s slang and Americanisms, he also removed the monk’s unique voice.

At Gethsemani, deep in the Kentucky countryside, Waugh was deeply moved by the sight of a monastery bursting with young monks who were embracing a life of contemplation, silence and sacrifice.  At the same time, he himself was eating caviar, drinking fine wines and sleeping in elegant hotels as he toured the United States—all on the tab of the media giant Henry Luce who had commissioned him to write on American Catholicism for Life magazine.

“The American Epoch in the Catholic Church”

He felt overwhelmed by the prospect of this complex task and prepared Merton and others for disappointment by saying that his treatment would probably be somewhat superficial.  His article, “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church”, appeared in the Life issue of September 19, 1949.  What comes across in the lengthy and somewhat pedantic piece is his admiration for the vibrancy of American Catholicism during that postwar period.

Tellingly, the most vivid and intensely personal parts have to do with simple devotions he saw carried out, as in an Ash Wednesday service in New Orleans, where “the old grim message” of dust-to-dust was repeated over the signing of the ashes on foreheads, and in the “heroic fidelity” of African Americans, for whom “the Church has not always been a kind mother….”

Waugh made his final visit to the United States in 1950.  He pronounced the New York skyline “ugly” and Manhattan architecture “quite worthless”.  He wrote to his friend Lady Diana Cooper that “American men are beastly of course but I like the middle aged rich women, particularly if they are childless as they mostly are.”  He edited one more of Merton’s books for publication in Britain (The Waters of Siloe, a history of the Trappist order, which he renamed The Waters of Silence), but in the early 1950s their brief correspondence ended.

“American men are beastly….but I like the middle aged rich women, particularly if they are childless as they mostly are.”

By then, he seems to have given up on Merton.  “The Church and the world need monks and nuns more than they need writers,” he wrote in his Life article.  “These merely decorate.  The Church can get along very well without them.”  These exaggerated comments (which Waugh the prolific Catholic writer surely didn’t believe himself) can be read as a barb directly aimed at the most famous monk-author in America, who was by now churning out books as fast as his publishers could print them.

What was worse, despite Merton’s humble acceptance of the great man’s mentorship, he seemed unable to write in anything other than diffuse and slangy American prose.  “I wish I saw the faults of The Seven Storey Mountain disappearing,” Waugh had written to Merton as he embarked on the editing of the monk’s second book, “and I don’t.”

Second Vatican Council

With the 1960s, the world and the Church seemed to leave Evelyn Waugh behind.  In 1935 he had written to a friend, “For me, Christianity begins at the Counter-Reformation,” and three decades later this view had hardly changed.  The Second Vatican Council, a breath of badly-needed fresh air to most Catholics, rang the death knell of Catholicism as Waugh knew and loved it.  He wrote bitterly to Father D’Arcy about his disappointment with the Council (regarding the visit of Pope Paul VI to New York in 1965: “It would be very amusing if the Black Mahomedans killed him.”).

Still, Waugh knew his Christian priorities.  When in a 1960 BBC interview he was asked how he’d like to be remembered after his death, his answer was, “I would like people in their charity to pray for my soul as a sinner.”  Years earlier, he may have had himself in mind when, in his novel, Brideshead Revisited, he had Cornelia, the sister of the alcoholic renegade, Sebastian Flyte, say that her brother and others like him “are very near and dear to God.”

And perhaps he was thinking of himself even further when he had the other sister, Julia, say, “…the worse I am, the more I need God.  I can’t shut myself out from his mercy.”

Waugh was spared the seismic ramifications of the Council and the many-levelled shifts in the Catholic Church.  Doggedly Catholic to the end, he died on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966, after coming home from a Latin Mass. For a Christian, and especially a Counter-Reformation Catholic, death could not have come on a better day or under more consoling circumstances.

—published in Catholic Life, October, 2012