izhilzha (izhilzha) wrote,

10 Books to Read in 2016 -- Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Everyone talks about Evelyn Waugh, although usually they're discussing Brideshead Revisited. But I've wanted to read his fictional biography of Saint Helena ever since our rector put the prayer Waugh had her pray to the Magi in our Epiphany order of service. The prayer has a good deal more punch after reading the whole story—and I say that as someone who cries every time she reads it.

I love how Waugh says his novel is “historical” and then flat-out clarifies, “I mean, I just made it all up, you know that, right? Because it says 'fiction' on it?” It's plainly but cleverly written, with no attempt made to bring in archaic dialogue—that threw me at first, but I found it an excellent storytelling choice.

Fiction or no, this novel is full of intriguing insight into the alteration of Christianity into an imperial religion--its mixture with other beliefs, its folding in of the Roman ideas of power and mysticism, etc. A little scary, actually.

Beyond that, I found it to be a bold examination of how a life can be long and full of pain and change and seem to mean nothing and yet, at its latest moments, further growth may come and turn that life upside down, not erasing the journey but giving it a whole new meaning. I feel like such a latecomer to so many things; this gives me hope and puts my soul at rest.

Helena's Prayer to the Magi (slightly edited to remove unnecessary context):

You, too, found room before the manger. Your gifts were not exactly needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought through love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.

You are my special patrons and the patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through their politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

For His sake, who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not quite be forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.

By the way, this is the first of Waugh's novels I've read. Would anyone like to recommend a second?
Tags: books, christianity, history, prayer, quotey, reviews

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