Power Without Grace in a Foetid Termitary of Power: Insights from Evelyn Waugh

 hicksonfamily  Catholic FaithLiterature  December 5, 2022 4 Minutes

Dr. Robert Hickson

1 December 2022

Saint Edmund Campion (d. 1581)

Power Without Grace in a Foetid Termitary of Power:

Insights from E. Waugh’s Saint Helena and Saint Edmund Campion


Evelyn Waugh on Saint Edmund Campion (1946, 1948): “It [my own novelist-narrative presentation] should be read as a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness….The martyrdom of Father Pro in Mexico re-enacted Campion’s. In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison camps of Eastern and South Eastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more frightful than anything in Tudor England and of the same pure light shining in the darkness, uncomprehended. The hunted, trapped, murdered priest is amongst us again, and the voice of Campion comes to us across us the centuries as though he were walking at our side.” (Page x of the two-fold Preface to the 1948 American Edition of Edmund Campion.)


Evelyn Waugh on Saint Helena and Her Gradual Development of Her Cultivation and Her Womanhood: “The work of empire prospered, frontiers were everywhere restored and extended, treasure accumulated. But, out of sight on the shores of the Propontis [Sea of Marmara], ….; in the inmost cell of the foetid termitary of power, Diocletian was comsumed by huge boredom and sickly turned towards his childhood’s home.” (Helena—Chapter 5—page 100—my emphasis added.)


Evelyn Waugh’s Words of the Emperor Constantine with His Now Christian Mother, Helena:

“I know I am human. I fact I often feel [, mother,] that I am the only real human being in the whole of creation. And that’s not pleasant at all, I can assure you. Do you understand at all, mother?”

“Oh, yes, perfectly.”

“What is it, then?”

Power without Grace,” said Helena. (Chapter Nine—Recessional—page 183—my emphasis added.)


Constantine, now as Emperor, was still not to be considered a Christian, but he nonetheless had a private, sincere, and deeply searching conversation one day with his Mother, Helena. Here is how their ideas developed:

“Now you [Mother] are going to start nagging about baptism again.”

“Sometimes,” Helena continued, “I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear the frightful curse they will take it all on themselves, each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.” (Helena, page 186—my emphasis added.

Moreover, Helena reminded her son: if he was still “determined to rule,” he must do it, “but not without Grace, Constantine.” (186—my accent added) And thus not without the Sacrament of Baptism!

Later in Waugh’s admirable novel, in its chapter entitled Epiphany, Helena eloquently makes a heartful and mature prayer for her spiritually lax or slothful son, Emperor Constantine. Helena speaks to us on Twelfth Night (or Epiphany) in the Holy Land just before she discovers the True Cross, her Mission.

Passages from pages 222-224 of Epiphany will now be presented, and the whole section be savored and recommended to the reader.

For example:

But by Twelfth Night she [Helena] rallied and on the eve set out by litter along the five rough miles to the shrine of the Nativity. There was no throng of pilgrims. Macarius [the Bishop] and his people kept Epiphany in their own church. Only the little community of Bethlehem greeted her and led her to her room they had prepared. (222)

After a little time, Helena said to herself:

“This is my day,” she thought, “ and these are my kind.”….

“Like me,” she said to them [the late coming, adoring, Three Kings], “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They [the shepherds] had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way….How laboriously you came…..where the shepherds had run barefoot!….You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

Yet you came, and were not turned away. You found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with 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 especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, and of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end fine kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Treves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always 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.” (pages 222-224 of Chapter Eleven: Epiphany to the 1950 book, Helena—my emphasis added.)


We have attempted to counterpoint two books by the same author, Evelyn Waugh—one on Edmund Campion and on Saint Helena.

It discussed “Power without Grace” and its contrast, “a Feotid Termitary of Power.” Also a Mother’s prayer for her overloaded son, also an Emperor. With loyal prayers for others, as well, especially for the vivid!


©2022 Robert D. Hickson

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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