In the spring of 2008 I was a senior in college sitting in the backyard of a little white rental house near campus and I was weeping because an old man in a book had made the sign of the cross.
I was reading Brideshead Revisited for my twentieth-century novel class. I had been delighted by its colorful characters and the author Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant humor, but slightly confused about where the story was going or why the book was hailed as a Catholic masterpiece. The Catholic characters all seemed to be a mess, with failed marriages and scandalous decisions and addictions they knew were wrong. They were bad Catholics, people who could barely hold onto the cultural trappings of their faith. They were haunted by their sins, but they didn’t even attempt to hide them under a veneer of respectability. As a lifelong Protestant, I wondered, if Catholicism was true, wouldn’t Catholics behave better? What I wasn’t prepared for was the flood of grace waiting to overwhelm my heart in the final pages.
Brideshead Revisited is about the lost sheep of the historically Catholic and wealthy Flyte family and is narrated by their friend, agnostic Charles Ryder (fiance to the Flyte’s oldest daughter, Julia). When the family congregates because of the final illness of their patriarch, Lord Marchmain, the specter of death becomes a catalyst of grace. Following years of self-imposed exile after abandoning his devout Catholic wife, now deceased, for a life of “freedom” with an Italian mistress, Lord Marchmain returns to the family estate in England to die. After firmly refusing the sacraments from the local parish priest and claiming that he has “not been a practicing member of your Church for twenty-five years,” the old man’s health further declines. The two Flyte children still practicing, Cordelia and Bridey, desperately desire him to die in a state of grace, hoping he will not refuse last rites before he expires. But to Charles’ great surprise, Julia Flyte, who left the Church years ago, is also determined that her father should not die estranged from God.
Can’t the old man who has scoffed at the faith be left to die in peace? Charles wonders. Why would Julia, whose life seems to deny every doctrine of the Church she has abandoned, become anxious for the soul of her dying father? Surely she doesn’t think it’s all true? If Lord Marchmain is losing consciousness, what’s the point of performing the sacrament at all? And if the crux of the matter is a soul’s contrition, why is it so important that a priest shows up? It all baffles Charles and he interrogates the family regarding this sudden obsession with the sacraments and Lord Marchmain’s soul. Charles is shocked to discover that the family members and Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, have varying levels of devotion and understanding of Church teaching, yet all seem to agree that the sacraments matter. Cara, who has lived in sin for decades with Lord Marchmain and cannot be criticized for scrupulosity, closes the question by saying simply that when her death comes, “All I know is that I shall take very good care to have a priest.”
How is it possible that these bad Catholics would still, despite their wandering, be compelled to believe? Could the mark of Baptism and the pull of sacramentals still draw them with the powerful residual effects of grace? With Cordelia and Bridey both absent, Julia makes the decision to call for the priest when it’s clear that Lord Marchmain is in his final hours. Charles watches the priest begin asking Lord Marchmain, who is too ill to speak, to give a sign that he is sorry for his sins and to receive God’s grace in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Charles, despite his lack of faith, finds himself praying with Julia and Cara kneeling by the deathbed, “Oh God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin.” His hostility to the faith is no match for the grace being poured out through a very ordinary priest in Lord Marchmain’s last rites. Once he is anointed Charles sees the old man bring a trembling hand to his forehead, and Charles worries that Lord Marchmain is about to obstinately wipe away the chrism oil in a final rejection of the Church. Instead, with his last ounce of strength, Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross. This moment of grace will bring Julia back to her faith and bring Charles to it for the first time as he embraces prayers “ancient” and “newly learned.” But that powerful exhibition of grace didn’t just set their conversions in motion—it set mine in motion too.
As I sat in my backyard weeping over a fictional character’s receptivity to God’s mercy, something clicked. Grace, sin, the sacraments, human failure, and redemption—an indescribable awakening in my heart. I wanted that kind of powerful grace. I understood that the scandalous wandering of the Flytes was also my own wandering. Maybe my faults weren’t the cause of public scandal, but like the Flytes, I had chosen my sins over God, and like Charles, I was an outside observer being drawn against my will to the grace being offered me.
If the sacraments were real and powerful enough to change lives and restore lost souls, then the grace of God was waiting for me too. And I didn’t want to wait until my deathbed to receive it. Cordelia, the youngest Flyte daughter with the most charity and therefore the most clarity of vision, always has hope for her wandering siblings, knowing that “God won’t let them go for long, you know.” She compares the grace that will draw them home to an image from one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories about a thief who has been caught by “an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
I didn’t finish Brideshead Revisited and immediately sign up for RCIA. It wasn’t until a year later, when my son was born, that my husband and I were pushed across the Tiber by the desire for our firstborn to receive the sacrament of Baptism. But Lord Marchmain’s holy death was a twitch upon the thread drawing my wandering heart, by God’s grace, closer to his mercy.