Readers of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited often remark on the novel’s many profound, evocative reflections on Christian faith. And, to be fair, there are many memorable quotes to be found in its pages. But, what makes the novel great are not its many quotable moments but its understanding of how God works when he appears most absent.
The novel records the story of Charles Ryder’s journey toward Christian faith through his friendships with Sebastian, Julia, and Cordelia Flyte, an aristocratic Catholic family on the verge of disintegration. Charles and Sebastian first become friends at Oxford and Charles slowly comes to know the rest of the Flytes siblings, along with Lord and Lady Marchmain, largely through the family’s efforts to curb Sebastian’s alcoholism. Throughout the first book, Charles is both fascinated and deeply annoyed by Sebastian’s Catholicism. He finds Sebastian’s faith “an enigma…but not one [he] felt particularly concerned to solve.” And yet, he seems unable to let leave Sebastian’s faith alone.
After Sebastian finally disappears into North Africa, Julia quietly marries a Canadian millionaire, Lady Marchmain dies, and book one concludes with a conversation between Charles and Cordelia in which Cordelia describes the closing of the chapel at Brideshead. She describes the priest as he “took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty; as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.” She then reflects on the “Quomodo Sedet Sola Civitas,” a chant taken from Jeremiah’s lamentation over Jerusalem that was traditionally used in the Tenebrae service during Holy Week, evoking the sense of loss, emptiness, and chaos of a world without God.
Their conversation continues for two additional pages: Cordelia reflects on her mother, Sebastian, and Julia, confessing her belief that God will not abandon her brother and sister. She suggests that God is like G. K. Chesterton’s detective Father Brown who catches the thief “with 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.”
Despite Cordelia’s faith in God’s unseen hook and thread, her sense of it always being Good Friday, a world in which God is dead, dominates book two of the novel. The closing of the Brideshead chapel and Cordelia’s reflections mark the apparent end of Charles’ time with the Flyte family and his ongoing wrestling with their Catholic faith. Charles marries, has children, goes to South America. Even when Charles reunites with Julia, Sebastian’s inescapable Catholicism and the God who was always lingering on the margins of the narrative remain a distant memory, particularly as the two begin their love affair. And yet, the second volume is titled “The Twitch upon the Thread.”
Waugh captures many of the beautiful, infuriating, confusing, mysterious truths of Christian faith in Brideshead Revisited. But what he gets particularly right is the sense of God working profoundly during his apparent absence, be it from the novel or from our lives. When Jesus is in the tomb, with the chapel dark and the tabernacle light extinguished, God is twitching the threads, calling Charles, Julia, the reprobate Lord Marchmain, and each of us back to himself.