My Idea of a Life Well Lived (Or Why I Tend to Like Scoundrels and Hustlers)

Martha of Ireland (now there’s a name!) at Internet Monk describes what that life is like the first of two posts entitled “Top Ten Things People Hate About the Catholic Church). It is an awesome list. And I agree fully with her explanation of item #4, “The Protestant Work Ethic versus the Catholic Idea of Success,” which posits a far better notion of “holiness” than any tawdry, tee-totaling pietist could ever endorse:

Or, why the Anglo-Saxon race ruled the world (British Empire version or American Pioneer Spirit version) and why all Papist nations are socially backwards, cannot innovate in technology or science and are mired in poverty, superstition, and misery. The Church indoctrinates us to expect pie in the sky when we die, and spends a massive amount of time and effort fixing our eyes on the world to come instead of inculcating the virtues of thrift, sobriety, hard work and manifesting the will of God through our lives in this life. This means we have a feckless, shiftless attitude of contempt to the affairs of the world and are content to run around in rags and beggary, while bribing saints and idols to do magical favours for us. 

The best example I can give of this is to swipe another example from “Brideshead Revisited” in the character of Lord Sebastian Flyte, the aristocratic, handsome, wealthy, socially prominent and attractive figure the narrator meets at Oxford. 

In an ordinary novel (or made-for-TV movie), we’d have a happy ending where Sebastian sobers up, meets a lovely girl (or nowadays comes out of the closet and ends up with a lovely guy), settles down to marriage and family life and buckles down to the successful career that his education and status in society deserve. Or if we were still going with the religion angle, he’d become a wildly successful society preacher saving the souls of bright young things like he was, or a cardinal, or end up as a male equivalent of Mother Teresa (or maybe St. Damien of Molokai, only without the leprosy, because leprosy isn’t glamorous when you’re the one suffering from it). Either way, he’d have a glittering, fulfilling career and a visible and measurable by the standards of the world record of achievement, whether in the service of God or Mammon. 

What does Evelyn Waugh do with him? 

He succumbs to his alcoholism, goes abroad to lead a dissolute life with pathetic little attempts to make some kind of a go of things and finally ends up in Morocco trying to join a monastery because he wants to be a missionary to lepers or cannibals or savages of some description. This is impossible, of course, because he’s not fit for it, and eventually he ends up – after bouts of drinking and falling ill – being taken in by the monks and given a pity job as a kind of under-porter, halfway between being a lay man and being a religious, and (through the character of Sebastian’s youngest sister, Cordelia, telling Sebastian’s uncomprehending friend Charles about where he ended up and in what state), Waugh forecasts his life: unexceptional save for his periodic falls off the wagon and shame-faced return to the monastery, years going by like this, getting older, becoming something of a joke to the novices and tolerated affectionately by the older monks, “a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys” and “He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected” until his eventual death which will be no more edifying nor uplifting than his life and the best his sister can anticipate for him is that “Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.” 

Waugh also has Cordelia tell Charles “The Superior simply said, ‘I did not think there was anything I could do to help him except pray.’ He was a very holy old man and recognized it in others.” “Holiness?” “Oh yes, Charles, that’s what you’ve got to understand about Sebastian” and “I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God.” 

And that, my dears, is the Catholic notion of success and why we will never get anywhere with an attitude like that.