Please pray for Fr Henry Nickel, SVD, who died this morning.
Fr Henry is one of the priests who loomed large in my childhood. He was never in my own parish in Ballarat East, but he moved to the cathedral when I was nine years old, so he was a familiar priestly presence.
I long identified him with Pope John Paul II. They shared a close physical resemblance — at least to my child’s eye — and they were both Polish. Their accents, though, were very different. Fr Henry was much harder to understand. Perhaps because of that, I listened closely at his Masses.
Fr Henry always prefaced ex tempore remarks with, “My dear people,” and his homilies were liberally peppered with the same. When he preached he exhorted, so even at a young age I differentiated him from most other priests, who tended not to exhort but to instruct. Popes exhort too. Another resemblance between Fr Henry and his compatriot!
In the first month of my priesthood, I lived and worked at the Ballarat cathedral. The first weeks after priestly ordination are filled with wonder and awe. Fr Henry dined late at night, and I would often share a drink with him, which allowed me to debrief. Those conversations demonstrated his great love for the priesthood, but this was even more evident in his spirit of service and his generosity.
I would add, too, that Fr Henry was a man who “thought with the mind of the Church.” That’s not easy, because the mind of the Church is really the mind of God, and our human minds naturally settle for narrower horizons.
When Fr Henry departed Australia last year, Fr Gary Jones — another priest I remember as a child, who did live in my parish! — wrote a warm tribute. It is timely.
Why, an astute readers asks, does Fr John Hardon nominate A Handful of Dust as one of Evelyn Waugh’s specially recommended works?
This is a good question, especially since Waugh’s later, explicitly Catholic Sword of Honour trilogy, is not included in Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. What’s going on here?
First, I think it’s fair to consider what Fr Hardon has to say about Evelyn Waugh. My copy of The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan finally arrived, and I think everybody should track down a copy. It is so much more than a list of books, as I think his treatment of Waugh shows. Fr Hardon writes:
Most of Evelyn Waugh’s writing was done after his conversion in 1930. By his own estimate, Brideshead Revisited is his best book. This is the story of a great British Catholic family through the decades between the two world wars. When critics found fault with the novel’s strong religious atmosphere, Waugh admitted that some people would be outraged “at God being introduced into my story. I believe you can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Modern novelists “try to represent the whole human mind and soul, and yet omit its determining character — that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style; and the attempt to represent man more fully — which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”
Fr Hardon then turns his attention to Waugh’s biographies, which are nearly as good as his novels, before concluding:
Evelyn Waugh’s writings reveal an author who had a deep sense of history. But he also had keen foresight. His books show every promise of being ‘relevant’ beyond the twentieth century.
- Brideshead Revisited
- A Handful of Dust
- Edmund Campion
It’s perhaps worth noting that although Waugh considered Brideshead Revisited his masterpiece for several decades, in his final years he was embarrassed by its excess, and settled on Helena as his greatest novel.
Helena is an historical novel, focused on St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Helen was no mystic, and was afflicted with the sort of character defects and bad habits which Waugh identified in himself (and which you and I see too, when we gaze at the proverbial mirror). But Helen is a canonised saint because of her work in the Holy Land. She devoted much or her life, and her wealth, locating the places which were significant in the life of Christ, and recovering relics like the true cross. Helen’s was a “practical faith,” which recognised that Christianity is incarnational. Helena an interesting study of sacramentality and holiness. But it’s not as good as Brideshead, or Sword of Honour, or A Handful of Dust, so not many people share Waugh’s appraisal that it’s his masterpiece.
Back to Fr Hardon’s appraisal. It’s good to remember that his Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan includes a comprehensive biography, which includes all the works in print and in English written by the 104 authors he profiles. So the book list I have prepared, which derives from Fr Hardon’s Reading Plan, is not only minimalist, but also arbitrary — perhaps unfairly so. Fr Hardon’s list is really a list of authors whom he writes about, not book titles.
It’s telling that his entry on Waugh is so focused on the religiosity of Waugh’s novels. It’s no wonder he “specially recommends” Brideshead Revisited. I’m very surprised Fr Hardon does not include the Sword of Honour trilogy, which in some ways is a more successful study of “man in his relation to God.”
But apart from all that, why does Fr Hardon include A Handful of Dust in a Catholic reading plan? My theory is this: although A Handful of Dust is not explicitly Christian, and really a study of humanism, not religion, it is nonetheless a brilliant and profound study of morality. I didn’t mention this in my previous post because you can’t mention everything, but this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Indeed, this is part of Waugh’s unique genius. But that’s another post. Maybe for tomorrow.
A Handful of Dust lived up to my expectations of mirth. You may recall that I laughed out loud reading the first page, and there are many more such moments.
But I can also add that Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is one of — if not the — most distressing book I’ve ever read. An alternative title might be, The Death of a Marriage.
The first part of the novel describes the grim detail of marital infidelity. I’m not talking about sex scenes. Waugh’s a better author than that. I’m talking about the passive-aggressive manipulation which confuses the innocent party, and the rationalisation and self-deception which afflicts the traitorous party. It is a compelling and excruciating portrait of infidelity, even in the midst of comic hilarity.
Halfway through this novel I realised it is probably semi-autobiographical. Evelyn Waugh’s wife and his best friend had an affair which most of his circle learned about before he did. In fact, he learned of the affair only when his wife left him. I think the suffering and humiliation Waugh endured is given masterful expression in A Handful of Dust. (In the aftermath, depressed and overwhelmed, Waugh swam out to sea one night intending not to return. But his suicide attempt was thwarted by a stinging jellyfish attack which forced him back to shore. Is it any wonder Waugh is a master of black humour?)
Nonetheless, although the death of the protagonist’s marriage is harrowing, the plot actually gets even more depressing. Waugh kills off one of the novel’s most attractive characters, and he subjects another to a torturous fate worse than death. Again, all in the midst of comic hilarity!
As every reader knows, the measure of a good book is the feeling which comes when you finish it. If you’re sorry that it’s ended, and wish there was more, and wander around desolate for a while, then you know you’ve read a good book. In the case of A Handful of Dust, I was glad it was finished, wished I’d never read it, and resolved to recommend it to nobody.
And yet, in the days since I’ve finished A Handful of Dust, my thoughts have returned again and again to the book’s characters and themes. That’s not the measure of a good book. That’s the measure of a great book — the sort of book you can and will re-read every decade or so.
So in the end I do recommend A Handful of Dust, whole-heartedly. I concur with its popular recognition as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. But I completely reject the suggestion that it is Waugh’s masterpiece. Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy eclipse it.
The three titles have a great deal in common. They document and critique the decline of western culture and the rise of modernity in all its banality and viciousness. But where Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour extol Catholicism as a glowing exception, a bastion of order holding out against chaos, A Handful of Dust barely mentions religion. Its focus is secular humanism of the noblest kind — the kind exemplified in Charles Dickens. Nonetheless, this humanism is no bastion: it is exposed as deficient and unworthy. A Handful of Dust endorses the Christian tradition, but only implicitly.
I can understand why the secular reader would prefer A Handful of Dust. It shares many themes with Brideshead Revisited and A Sword of Honour, and the economy and richness of Waugh’s prose is a joy. Moreover, it makes no demands on the reader’s faith, or their view of the Catholic religion.
Yet what Waugh achieves in A Handful of Dust is perfected in his later novels, where the negative gives way to the positive. So I can’t imagine a Catholic reader anywhere who would prefer A Handful of Dust to his explicitly Catholic novels. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to hear it if I am.
This time next week it will be Lent. Talk about a quick turn around. It feels like Christmas was only a few weeks ago!
I prepared the following notices for our parish bulletins this weekend. (You can tell I’m happily occupied with work when I consecutively post non-exclusive material to my blog!)
Ash Wednesday obligations
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat. In Australia all Catholics over 18 and under 60 are obliged to fast. Tradition recommends one full-sized meal in the middle of the day, and two small-sized meals in the morning and the evening, which together don’t equal the large meal. Snacking between meals is not permitted. Of course, health considerations and common sense must define each person’s observance of the fast.
All Catholics aged over 14 are obliged to abstain from meat. Children aren’t obliged to fast or abstain from meat, but parents are asked to ensure they are taught the true meaning of penance.
We are not obliged to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, nor are we obliged to receive ashes. Still, the reception of ashes is a very popular custom, and an ancient one: at least 1,000 years old.
Who can receive ashes?
Unlike the discipline regarding sacraments (communion, absolution, marriage, etc.), the Church does not regulate who can receive sacramentals.
Non-Catholics are welcome to receive the ashes, which is a sign not only of Christ’s call to conversion, but also our personal response to his call. Even people who aren’t baptised, and people who don’t believe that Jesus is Lord, identify with conversion and self-improvement.
The ashes are also a reminder of our mortality. Again, every person – Christian or not – will die, and even the pagan philosophers insisted on the benefits of pondering death, and dying well.
Who can minister ashes?
Anyone can place the ashes on a person’s head. You are welcome to take some blessed ashes home in an envelope and place the ashes on the foreheads of people who can’t get to an Ash Wednesday liturgy.
Should we keep the ashes on, or wash them off?
There is no right or wrong rule about this. It is a personal decision made in dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, our Lord instructs us:
“Be careful not to parade your good deeds to attract notice … When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that no one knows you’re fasting except your Father who sees all.”
Therefore, many people wash the ashes off soon after they receive them.
Other people choose to keep the ashes visible throughout the day, as an exercise of religious freedom, or to witness to their faith. It is certainly a conversation starter! With the Holy Spirit’s help, you might be able to explain Lent to a colleague or friend in an edifying and attractive way.
‘PRIEST GUILTY’ was the front page headline in Hamilton’s local newspaper last Wednesday. A priest in Ballarat, who has never before been publicly associated with child abuse, pleaded guilty to crimes he committed in the 1970s.
The news shocked me, and I know it shocked many parishioners. So instead of preaching on the readings this Sunday, I spoke about the clergy abuse scandal. Tactfully, I hope. I also distributed a homily on this subject which Pope Francis preached last July. It is a beautiful example of “reading the signs of the times” in light of the Gospel.
There’s an old saying that every preacher should have a Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. Something analogous could be said about every member of Christ’s faithful. It’s good to foster a supernatural outlook on current affairs, and drawing lessons from the scriptures is a great way to do that.
I formatted the pope’s homily in such a way that it is easily photocopied. Parishioners were grateful to have it. Maybe some readers will appreciate it too.
Download the PDF or view online: