All photos – Castle Howard, England, 2008
In a chapter in Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, the author George Weigel unites two of this blog’s favorite leitmotifs: Brideshead Revisited and conversion. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it uses fourteen physical locations around the globe to explore fourteen themes that a young Catholic or “curious soul” might want to grapple with as he or she matures in their faith. Weigel visits G.K. Chesterton’s favorite pub in London to talk about a sacramental world. He takes the reader to a churchyard in Warsaw, Poland to examine how vocations (vowed religious life–priests, sisters, brothers) change history.
Let me start by saying I am not completely convinced that the artifice holds up. And Weigel is a contested figure in American Catholicism because of his political commentary. However, neither of those condemn the book in its entirety. In fact, one particular letter stood out to me. In the seventh letter, buried near the middle of the book, Weigel transports the reader to a large estate in the north of England, Castle Howard in Yorkshire. This happens to have been the site of two film adaptations of Brideshead Revisited, a novel set largely between the world wars. Again, I’m not the Brideshead or Waugh expert here, RJR is, but I can say that we both have journeyed to this very location that Weigel uses to frame a concept he calls “the ladder of love.” In fact, this ladder the metaphor he uses to describe the conversion of the primary character in the novel, Charles Ryder. Weigel points out that both the book’s author, Evelyn Waugh and his creation, Ryder, both found the ascent up that ladder steep.
“Charles Ryder is a man who grows from lesser affections to harder, yet truer loves,” Weigel explains. He goes on to describe how Charles’ relationships, first with Sebastian Flyte, and then with his sister Julia Flyte, and ultimately with the entire family, are loves that allow his love for God in Christ to flourish. There is a sort of growing nobleness in the truer and deeper loves that each subsequent relationship brings. Yet still, as human love, they are finite and limited. When Julia and Charles finally part company (ending their adulterous relationship), we see him beginning to realize that there is a greater love present, a divine love. Weigel remarks, “His relationship with Julia takes place on a higher rung of the ladder, but it’s still a spiritually deformed love, an incomplete communion–indeed a communion that can never be complete, and thus it must be abandoned, at least in its present form. Love, and the truth about a true love’s true object, can never be separated.”
The remainder of the chapter moves into two other vignettes, not from the novel, but from another great film of faith: A Man for All Seasons, and a scene from Weigel’s own life. Both seek to embody his primary point: “The truth that we have come from love, that we have been redeemed by an infinite love, and that we are destined for an eternity of love with Love itself.” The letter to a young Catholic like me (celebrating 6 years at the Vigil on Saturday) is a refreshing reminder that we are moving upward, perhaps slowly, perhaps with several detours or falls, but that our journey and the destination are both to be embedded in a pure and true love that is greater than that even between two people who care about each other deeply.
Weigel closes with an exhortation: “What does all this business about love and Love come down to for you? Simply this: never settle for less than the spiritual and moral grandeur which, by grace, can be yours. They are your baptismal birthright as a Christian. You will fail. You will stumble on the ladder of love, and you will fall. That’s no reason to lower the bar of expectation. That’s a reason to get up, dust yourself off, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and try again…Let His grace lift you up to where, in your heart of hearts, you want to be.”