At the very end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel on the finding of the True Cross, Helena, he writes a paean to the Magi in the form of a prayer:
You are especial patrons, and 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 stand in danger by reason of their talents…
Dear cousins pray for me. Pray for the great, lest they
For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray
for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not
be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple
come into their kingdom.
Of course, Waugh was praying here for himself and all his jaded fellow travelers in the tony upper classes of England. He knew their insouciance, their condescensions, their stiff unbending pride. Before his conversion to the One, True Church, he was them. In fact, even after his conversion much of those entrenched flaws plagued him. Though this prayer to the Magi is Waugh’s cri de coeur, it is the tearful pleading of all of us.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Whether cradle Catholics or converts, all of us are “latecomers” to Our Lord, for all of us tarry in surrendering all to God. He desires our hearts now, and we delay. We want so much for ourselves, making bargains with Christ that we will love him here, but not there. Some parts of our life we love too much to surrender right now: our petty grudges, our cherished way of doing things, our fixed perceptions of others, our stubborn resistance to the purifying fires of charity. Though we truly love Christ, still we do not love him in so many details of our life. Rightly, with St. Augustine, we passionately confess, “how late have I loved Thee.”
Then there is in us all “the danger by reason of our talents.” This is the peril of our age, those who think their considerable accomplishments in the arts, science or higher learning have placed them slightly above the eternal, unchanging truths of Christ and his Church. The age prides itself on hitherto undiscovered intuitions into the human condition. Such entitle them to modify the teachings of the Savior. In the words of a prominent American Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Reese, “Like the Second Vatican Council, the recent synod on the family achieved consensus through ambiguity.” It takes a certain kind of “talent” to replace the teachings of God with a novum like “ambiguity.” But this flaw of “talent” does not reside only with the gifted, but with all of us. It is that flaw which tempts us to place our most impressive abilities, the ones that make us feel quite special and unique, above the will of God.
What of the “learned, opaque, the delicate”? Each one of these describe our civilization, and therefore, you and me. We know we are part of one of the most highly sophisticated cultures the human race has ever known. With such genius the Man of the West finds himself climbing to ever new heights, dazzling in their reach. Who has need of God? Or religion? Rudolph Bultman was the German Lutheran theologian who bleached the Bible of the supernatural and made secularism the New Creed. He famously remarked: “Now that modern man can illuminate a room with the flick of a switch, how can he ever believe in miracles?” Or God.
As we come more acclimated to ease, convenience, instantaneous satisfactions and fulfillment as the summum bonum, sacrifice stands alien to us. We become the “delicate.” The ancient disciplines of the Church designed to tame the self are rejected for that very reason. To modern man they are oppressive and insulting, if not harmful and demeaning. The sociologist Christian Smith names this “moralistic therapeutic deism”: Acceptance of a God who solely massages the self and leaves us satisfied in caring for more pressing matters comfortably distant to the soul, viz., the environment, good health, safe sex and climate change. With these as the new idee fixe, our wayward souls remain our own business. After all, it is easier to worry about climate change or world peace than about fidelity to Christ. While the Lutheran theologian H. Reinhold Niebuhr subscribed to this new secularist creed, he did have a pang of conscience when he wrote that it was merely proffering “a God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” One of the most eloquent voices warning of this metaphysical inversion was the estimable Philip Reiff in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic where he presciently wrote, “that all communications of ideals come under permanent and easy suspicion.” W.H. Auden lamented this decline of the Ubermensch West,
Instead of Gnostics, we have Existentialists and
God-is-Dead theolgians; instead of Neo-Platonists, devotees
of Zen; instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and Beats;
instead of mortification of the flesh, sado-masochistic
pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare
offered by television is still a shade less brutal than
that provided by the Amphitheater, but only a shade,
and may not be for so long.
We can almost feel Auden’s pen trembling when he writes the last lines of the prayer. With a reverent foreboding, the great English writer reminds us that only “the simple” come into the kingdom. He is terrified that the rest of us self-satisfied, priggish men risk being “forgotten at the Throne of God.” With these harrowing words the prayer ends, and our hearts are left raw, but strangely consoled. Though we stand indicted, we see ourselves as we truly are. There is peace in that. This is the glory of our Holy Faith. That, my Catholic friends, is the bliss of Bethlehem. No airbrushed platitudes: Just Christ. Only Christ. Fearlessly, Christ.
With the Three Kings let us kneel—no, prostrate—before the divine King of Bethlehem. For unless we surrender the heights of the parapets of our pride from which we reign, we shall never enjoy the reign of Christ.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Three Kings Altar: Adoration of the Magi” painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-fifteenth century.