Waugh is Me

There is a well-known story about the novelist Evelyn Waugh. He was once very rude and his hostess remonstrated: “How can you behave so badly – and you a Catholic!” Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

–Francis Phillips in The Catholic Herald

This is a story that resonates for me as a sinner, and, I think, any Christian if they were honest with themselves. Another version of this story includes that Waugh said he would have probably killed himself long ago if it weren’t for his Christian faith. This may be true for a lot of us, too. 

Kristen Schurr Photo

God in all His wisdom has given each of His children a particular gift. Some are born with a natural disposition for leadership; others born with a proclivity for dance; some with the talent to tell the truth or draw beautifully. Like Mr. Waugh, I wasn’t born with a natural predisposition for the virtue of charity. Truth be told, I can be the sullen and moody type, preferring to be left on my own than in the company of others. 

It appears that I may be in good company. Besides the aforementioned Evelyn Waugh–whose last years of life were filled with holiness and union with God–the incomparable Saint Padre Pio possessed our shared irritability. Of course, Padre Pio was incredibly loving in his way, but did have his moments of terseness when he lost his patience. 

Please don’t think I am making excuses for a vice. The words of Chesterton gravely remind me to avoid falling into the temptation of levity: 

“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

–G.K. Chesterton

Like Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh (pronounced ee·vluhn waa) was a convert to Catholicism, and was a revered English writer. I only recently discovered him and his works, and found how much we have in common. For me, it is always comforting to find help, inspiration, and consolation from those who have gone before me. Besides his extraordinary gift with a pen, he is certainly and comfortingly human, full of vices and irritations and imperfections. Perhaps that is why he is so relatable. 

However, he loved a lot, too. He loved his children and his family very much. He loved his friends and corresponding with them. But the one thing he perhaps loved most of all was Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

“The mass mattered for him most in this world.”


For 30 years, from his conversion to the changes made to the mass in the early 1960’s, Waugh enjoyed the ancient and everlasting fruits of the Traditional Mass. Sadly, toward the end of his life, the incorporation of Vatican Council II saw his beloved mass stripped of beauty, tradition, and mystery, to be replaced with “handshaking and embarrassed smiles or smirks,” as he said.

The changes to the mass aggrieved him terribly, and he spent many long hours writing to, and meeting with, his most charitable Archbishop Heenan, as well as submitting letters to editors and writing amongst his friends about his strong protestations. 

The Mass of the ages at the 2022 Sacred Liturgy Conference in Laurel, Montana.

In his view, the changes to the mass rendered it less reverent. His grievances did not come from a place of staunch traditionalism, or out of criticism, but from a place of deep love for Christ in the Eucharist. He believed that Christ ought to receive the greatest reverence humanly possible. The traditional Mass elevated his soul in a way that no other form could. Among other questions, these were a few of his grievances with changing the mass: 

  • “There was six times as much Old Testament in the old services than in the new.” 
  • “How does he suppose the cause of participation is furthered by the prohibition of kneeling at the incarnatus in the creed?” 
  • “‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voices. Only He knows who is ‘participating’ at Mass. I believe, to compare small things with great, that I ‘participate’ in a work of art when I study it and love it silently. No need to shout.” 

All of this and more has my full agreement. Reading Waugh’s correspondence was putting words to my own thoughts and feelings about the Mass my generation was denied all our lives, and am continuing to be denied by Church leaders who further ban its celebration. It is a sad state, indeed, to wish only to worship Jesus Christ in the most ancient and uplifting rite, but to be denied it for the sake of “unity” in what is modern. 

“Awe is the natural predisposition to prayer.” 

Evelyn Waugh, a complicated man with one great love.
AP Photo.

The title of this piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, because Mr. Waugh–and myself, six decades later–can be tempted to take on the attitude of desperation and “woe is me.” Waugh, though pronounced slightly different, once said in a letter that attending mass had become “a bitter trial.” Indeed, it still can be. Like Waugh, I will never apostatize, because despite Her human flaws and tribulations, the Church Christ founded is the vessel for salvation, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her. Saints rise up in times of heresy, persecution, and difficulty, so I take heart in their examples from history. 

What a great paradox it is to find hope and virtue inspired by a miserable sinner like Evelyn Waugh. He was brooding and rude, even on his better days–nevermind what his sins may have looked like before his adult conversion. He was not trained in theology, or doctrine, or otherwise. He was a grumpy English writer with a glass of brandy and a pen in his hand. Why ought we to listen to his opinions about the liturgy? And today, why ought we listen to the common, modern church-goer? 

The heart of this contradiction is rather the whole point. 

If the Traditional Latin Mass was the one thing that could elevate a suicidal, drinking curmudgeon to a state of holiness, joy, and peace, perhaps that is exactly who we ought to be listening to. Hearing the state of the poorest and most miserable among us, who find little consolation except in the ancient rite–is not that the most Christian approach to understanding the subject? I tend to think so. 

Evelyn Waugh died in his home on Easter Sunday, having returned from morning Mass celebrated in Latin. 

Until brighter days for traditionally-minded Catholics, the only thing left to do is hope, pray, and know that we are not left alone, even if our holy company cannot be seen by earthly eyes. Evelyn Waugh gave us wonderful imagery to remind us of this: 

“This was the Mass for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold. St Augustine, St Thomas a Becket, St Thomas More, Challoner and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us; were, in fact, present there with us. Perhaps few of us consciously considered this, but their presence and that of all the saints silently supported us.” 


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