A friend recently lent me Helena, Evelyn Waugh's historical-fictional-mythical-legendary account of the life of Constantine's mother. She's my patron saint, you know, so I have a bit of personal interest in the book, but I've also been thinking that I need to move beyond Brideshead in the world of Waugh. George Weigel wrote the introduction for this particular edition. I really only started reading introductions routinely back during my teaching days, and now I've come to the point where I feel it's only vaguely permissible to skip one, and not at all if it's less than ten pages long and written by someone like Weigel.
Weigel quotes some of what Waugh had to say on how fond he was of this particular book, and why he is especially fond of St. Helen. We're all called to be saints, yes, but God doesn't much care for Stepford Saints; he made us all different on purpose. Waugh found in St. Helen's bodaciously unique duty in life--finding the actual physical cross that Jesus had died on--the perfect hyperbolic demonstration of how we each need to figure out what God wants from us as individuals, not as some indiscriminate and faceless bunch of lumps of that albeitly unmatched great communion:
In the course of his conversion to Catholicism, which took place in 1930, Evelyn Waugh came to the conviction that sanctity was not for the sanctuary only. Every Christian had to be a saint. And one of the hardest parts of that lifelong process of self-emptying and purification was to discover one's vocation: that unique, singular something that would, in accord with God's providential design, provide the means for sanctification. Helena's sense of vocation. . . was what attracted Waugh to the fourth-century empress, whom the world remembers as the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Waugh later explained his choice in a letter to the poet John Betjeman, who confessed to being puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena "doesn't seem like a saint":
"Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. Is it no good my saying, 'I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.' I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh -- after God knows what experiences in purgatory."
If God had done what we might have expected and advised (we're good at telling God what he should do, cause we're so smart and everything), he would have found a more conveniently placed individual to dig up that cross on Golgotha. Instead, he got a little British girl of pagan upbringing who only came into contact with the world at large because a sallow-faced Roman soldier got stuck on a far distant outpost. I bet no one saw that one coming.
Not all of us will have such dramatic lives, paths that will literally take us across the world, and cause us to be remembered for however many millennia are yet to come. But our quieter and less-known wayward journeys and wanderings have to be filled with that same sense of epic proportions and world-scale battles. Striving and struggling to find our place, earnestly and whole-heartedly applying our whole selves to recognizing, learning and doing whatever that it is that God wants each individual one of us to accomplish -- that is our way of sanctification, our way of becoming saints, and the best and only right way that it makes sense for us to mimic all those liturigical calendar saints. It would be all very noble and lots of hard work and then really dumb for me to physically go look for the Cross. That was somebody else's job, and it's done. The question is, where is my cross?
This is where Dolly Parton comes in: "Find out who you are, and do it on purpose."