God’s Grace in “Brideshead Revisited”
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” God is the star in a half-paganized English Catholic family. In this epic, the human spirit, redeemed, can survive all disasters. We see this towards the end of the book and the film. Lord Marchmain, sojourning in Venice with his long-time mistress and companion, has repudiated his Catholic faith. Failing health returns him with her to Brideshead where he will spend his remaining days. The family summons a priest, but Lord Marchmain resolutely sends the churchman away. The family waits in distress.
As the end draws near, Lord Marchmain’s limp but determined sign of the cross seals his death-bed re-conversion. It remains one of the most powerful of all literary scenes. For him, faith was not primarily a matter of the head but of the heart, prompted by God’s grace. Charles Ryder, the prominent agnostic in the narrative, falls to his knees. He too signs himself. This scene has been mocked by anti-Catholics and Anglophobes alike. Waugh stands by his thesis: God is the star who engages every character in life’s fundamental option.
Conscience and Faith
Conscience is sacrosanct. The 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” chillingly uncovers the web of warped minds who rationalized their consciences all the way to the Holocaust. People of any status can appeal to conscience and reason their way out of belief in God.
The Catholic Church insists that conscience is sacrosanct even if it is uninformed or in error. No one can be forced to accept the existence of God, a faith or a faith-tradition even though it is not unreasonable to do so.
In our individualistic climate of opinion, the Catholic faith is surely a challenge to live. Throughout the centuries, scandal among the ranks is nothing new, beginning with Judas and Peter. It is alive and well in the United States. Though the Church proposes the faith, it does not impose it on any one. Once accepted however, bearing the name Catholic is like holding “the pearl of great price” in one’s hands. Losing the pearl is a tragedy.
As for the Nones and All of the Above, God’s abiding grace is for the asking, and one may not enter that sanctuary wherein the soul faces the self in the encounter with God, known or unknown. The grace of the known – or unknown – God is always active and at work in those who wish to receive it, reject it, or ignore it.
Jesus warns against judging the hearts of others. Externals can be objectively adjudicated, but not the inner recesses of the heart. We can never, never know what is going on there.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World has charged all of us to build a better world in three ways: (1) uphold the inviolable God-given right to life, (2) promote the dignity of every person, and (3) advance the common good (33-46).This mandate however was already initiated in the Garden of Eden. The call to fructify the earth is universal. The person of faith specifies this task and interprets it as collaborating as co-creator with God.
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The Psalmist uses the image of a garden to describe those who are just. They are fruitful in all they do because, at heart, they remain rooted in the Lord. “They will flourish like a palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just (Ps 92:12-15) … The just are like trees planted near streams; they bear fruit in season and their leaves never wither. All they do prospers.” (Ps 1:3-4)
The Christian scriptures are replete with images of fruitfulness. In the Middle East, the fig, for example, is one of the healthiest and most delicious of all fruits, symbolizing divine blessing and abundance. The barren fig tree has nothing to offer but misfortune. Jesus’ message is simple: we are expected to bear fruit in the garden, a metaphor for God’s kingdom. In common parlance, it means evangelizing the commonplace and sacralizing the landscape, a twofold vision that should appeal to the Nones and to All of the Above.