At the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, the main character, Charles Ryder, expresses the depths of his disillusionment with the military. Leaving camp with his regiment, he reflects that whatever lies ahead, nothing could compare with the brutality of what they were leaving, that place of no happy memories. ‘Here love had died between me and the Army,’ he writes.
He compares his relationship with the military, rather vividly, to a marriage in which all affection has died, where ‘nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom.’ There is a feeling of an enchantment fading.
This opening passage continues to haunt my imagination, years after first reading the novel, not least because of what it suggests about the nature of love.
It’s sometimes said that the meaning of love has been diluted in our day, rendering it little more than a matter of feelings. While there might be some truth in that, the claim that love is primarily about the will—about what we do—doesn’t tell the whole story either. The truth is that love, experienced in its fullness, is a coming together of both deep affection and the will, and they both need to be nurtured. Feelings alone burn out; duty alone is painfully cold.
St John Henry Newman pointed to this when he said, in a sermon on the crucifixion, ‘True love both feels right, and acts right.’ Newman resists the tendency to separate the two. Our feelings about Christ are not enough on their own, he says; we must also follow him. But without deep feelings, we have an imperfect religion. We are left only with Charles Ryder’s chill bonds of law and duty. The depth of our emotion—and the struggles that come when we don’t experience that depth—is part of what marks us as uniquely human and uniquely spiritual beings.
Newman goes on to say that Holy Week is the time for bringing these two elements together. It’s the time for remembering and being moved by Christ’s suffering. The more we dwell on Christ’s passion, the more it will work its way into us, opening us to see and feel and grasp, as far as we can, the significance of it.
This might be one of the hardest and most important aspects of Holy Week. Opening our hearts is risky. It’s much safer to keep Christ’s passion at a distance, keeping our hearts to ourselves instead of opening them to the God who suffered to win them over. Just think of St Teresa of Avila: meditating on Christ’s passion was what broke through her complacency and marked the beginning of true conversion. There are so many stories like hers.
Just as romance doesn’t thrive by itself, neither does faith. It needs to be tended, cultivated, intentionally sought. As Newman says, the way we can do that during Holy Week is by dwelling on Christ’s passion more than we normally might. Maybe then the rituals of Holy Week will become more than rituals. Maybe then we will begin to feel, in a very real way, the agony of his love for us.
Banner image: Francesco Trevisani, The Agony in the Garden, 1740.
Melbourne Catholic04 April 2023
Melbourne Catholic03 April 2023