The Quest for the True Cross

The reality of the True Cross, found by St. Helena, testifies to the historical facts behind the Gospel, and thereby behind our salvation.

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If there is a serious writer in this century who has given more pleasure to his readers than Evelyn Waugh, I cannot think of his name. —Joseph Epstein

In a rare interview with the BBC, Evelyn Waugh, who detested giving them, was asked which of his many books was his favorite. Helena, he shot back. Puzzled, the reporter asked why. Because, he said in effect, it was both the best book he ever wrote, especially given its religious theme, and because it was the one book he took more pains in producing than any other. So fond in fact was he of the book that, according to one of his daughters, it was the only one he would read aloud to his family. 

So, why had it failed so spectacularly to catch fire with the reading public? Or that so few of his biographers even bothered mentioning it? Not only had it fallen out of print, despite the brisk sale of nearly everything else he wrote, but it became the least read among even ardent Waugh enthusiasts. Why would that be? 

Well, just take a look at the story itself, along with the obvious didactic intent in Waugh’s telling it, and you’ll see why it never really took off. I mean, who’s going to be interested in the story of a young pagan girl living in Britain in the late third century, who grows up to become wife and mother to a couple of Roman Emperors, then converts to the True Faith, spending her last years in search of a few lumps of wood on which hung the Savior of the world? Never mind that she succeeded in locating the True Cross, who’s going to want to read a fictionalized account of all that? Hardly the stuff of which Academy Award movies are made, is it? What A-List actress would want to play the part of the aging empress? Meryl Streep?

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The fact that Waugh wrote the purest English prose of any living author at the time makes no difference if nobody gives a hang for the story. Besides, there is neither sex nor violence in it, thus spoiling whatever mainstream appeal movies nowadays require. On the other hand, Waugh never intended that it should be adapted to the screen. It was a novel he wrote, not a movie script; yet one which was so steeped in the truth claims of the Catholic Church that it was not possible to detach the theology from the tale. The two stand or fall together. 

No wonder few were interested in reading a piece of fiction expressly harnessed to faith. And not certainly from an artist otherwise celebrated for works of sheer comic genius. Such an abrupt departure would have proven most unwelcome. And if that kept the wider reading public at bay back in 1950, when the book first appeared, imagine the reluctance these days when faith seems to be in full-scale retreat among the literati.   

So, what exactly was Waugh up to in Helena? What were those truth claims woven into the story of her life? And why does it matter anyway? So, what exactly was Waugh up to in Helena? What were those truth claims woven into the story of her life? And why does it matter anyway?Tweet This

Begin with Waugh himself, for whom it mattered enormously—as did the public’s reaction to his book, which so disheartened him. Indeed, notes Christopher Sykes, friend and fellow Catholic, it was precisely this indifference “to what Evelyn believed to be by far his best book that proved to be the greatest disappointment of his whole literary life.”  

In another letter, sent to fellow novelist Nancy Mitford, he wrote: 

Six people think it the most beautiful book they ever read and I am first of the six.  Otherwise they all say: ‘What was the point?’  

The answer to that may be found in Waugh’s reply to another letter, this from the poet John Betjeman, who objected to the fact that Waugh’s heroine did not seem the least bit saintly. “Saints are simply souls in heaven,” Waugh reminded him, and unless we become saints ourselves, none of us are likely to get in. What Waugh particularly liked about the holiness of Helena was that hers was so strikingly unlike what we moderns regard as sanctity:  

She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the physical historical fact of the redemption… 

That little word fog, it seems to me, says it all. When Joseph Ratzinger, for example, brought out Introduction to Christianity back in 1969, the work that would put him on the fast track to becoming a bishop (the rest, as they say, is history), he seized upon that same word to describe the atmosphere in which faith finds itself. “The question of the real content of the Christian faith,” he began, “is enveloped today in a greater fog of uncertainty than at almost any earlier period in history.”  

How little the times change. It’s as if we’d just opened a time capsule buried back in the early fourth century, to find a snapshot of the same fog surrounding us now. So much gnostic gibberish emitted by both the learned and the foolish blanketing an entire world. Consider Constantius, for instance, Helena’s husband, speaking the sheerest mythological mush about Mithras, only to fall silent the moment she pressed him for details.

All she wants to know are the simple facts. “You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?” To which he replies, condescendingly, “That’s a very childish question.”

“Is it?” she asks. “And when did this happen? How do you know if no one was there? And if the bull was the first thought of Ormazd and he had to be killed in order to make the earth, why didn’t Ormazd just think of the earth straight away? And if the earth is evil, why did Mithras kill the bull at all?”

Alas, poor Constantius is no match for the common sense of his wife. Nor is she impressed by the learned evasions of Macias, her former tutor, whose erudite obfuscations she puts to flight by putting to him the same pesky set of questions. When and where did it all happen, and how does he know if any of it is true? 

“These things,” he suavely replies, “are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof.” 

Say what?

Helena, however, will not let go; and soon the dialogue breaks off, leaving Macias to conclude that her questions are those of a mere child.

“That is why,” she tells him, “your religion would never do for me, Macias. If I ever found a teacher it would have to be one who called little children to him.”

Well, she is not far from finding Him, along with enough physical evidence to document how, when, and where He died. Her search will then be over, her vocation fulfilled. “The fact of the True Cross,” declared Waugh, ending his interview on a triumphant note, “was that there was an actual piece of wood, a historical fact, behind the Gospel.” Establish that and, like Helena, we can all go home to God.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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