Abiding in Sin

The defining moment of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, is Lord Marchmain’s act of faith and repentance as he unexpectedly makes the sign of the cross during the last rites. This act not only has eternal consequences for Lord Marchmain, but also for his daughter Julia and her lover Charles Ryder. For this surprising act of faith from an obstinate “fallen” Catholic has, as Charles himself puts it, the effect of rending the veil of the temple from top to bottom (the veil here being Julia and Charles adulterous relationship).

Immediately after she leaves this deathbed scene, Julia tells Charles they must end their affair and not get married as planned. Why? Because, according to Julia,

The worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable-like those things in the schoolroom, so bad they are unpunishable, that only Mummy could deal with-the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.

Julia at last accepts that there is a sharp distinction between sinning, and abiding in sin. We are all sinners. But to sin once, twice, three thousand times, always returning to God, pleading for His mercy, and firmly resolving to sin no more, this constitutes the Christian life. But this pattern presupposes the recognition and acceptance that I am not God. I am not the Lord of the universe; indeed, I am not even the lord of my own life. Rather, I am subject to He who was, who is, and who shall be.

Contrast that attitude with abiding in sin. With making peace with sin. With living in sin, as Julia puts it. This is to set oneself up as God. Julia ultimately could not do that. Her breaking it off with Charles was no moment of utter peace, tranquility, and happiness; rather, the ending of her love affair was ripe with suffering. She knew that her human happiness would be drained. She recognized the good in a relationship with Charles after her terrible marriage to Rex Mottram. Julia sees all this, but recognizes that just because breaking off the relationship is hard, does not mean it is not what she is called to do, what she must do to be in right relationship with God. And although Julia’s suffering is real, it is not death.

A much greater suffering and death of the spirit would have occurred if Julia had abided in sin and set herself up as God. As Romano Guardini writes in The Lord:

That a person fails to do the right thing after he has recognized it is serious, and he will be called to judgment because of it. But incomparably worse is a breach with truth itself: intrinsic deception readable in the eyes because it has taken hold of the spirit.

We are all unquestionably sinners, desperately in need of Christ’s redeeming mercy. Might we all plead for His mercy and life in His Kingdom, rather than settling for the powerless kingdom of our own passing desires.

Jeffrey Wald

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American Literature & Catholic Faith

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