The Real Sword of Honor

Part of what it means to be a Christian is to be zealously concerned with the sufferings and needs of those whom society often overlooks. Scripture is filled with exhortations that make our priorities clear. For example, the Bible says that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Dt. 10:18-19) The elderly, unborn, orphans, asylum seekers, and refugees – these are as much a part of our mission field as the unchurched.

This work isn’t glamorous. For every Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, there are thousands of priests, brothers, sisters, and laypersons who will never be canonized or lionized by the media. Moreover, our materialist and utilitarian world finds many of these efforts confusing, if not a direct infringement on our idols: personal freedom and libertinism. We need today a continual return to the quiet, unsung Christian sacrificial life that St. Paul speaks of, defined by love, humility, and hard work.

It may seem a stretch, but British novelist Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated Sword of Honor trilogy offers a poignant demonstration of these virtues to help us navigate a world teeming with antagonism to our calling in Christ.

Sword of Honor capped off Waugh’s literary career. Written during the 1950s and early 1960s (Waugh died in 1966), the books were lavishly praised. Even so, the trilogy has been largely overshadowed by Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and even his other novels. Yet Sword of Honor is Waugh at his most mature – with penetrating (if cynical) depictions of English aristocratic culture in decline – as well as at his most spiritually insightful.

It tells the story of Guy Crouchback, heir to an esteemed English Catholic family in decline. Guy is a sorry case: married to Virginia, a beautiful and lively woman who soon tires of him and departs for a series of non-Catholic husbands and lovers. In his sorrow, Guy wastes some of his brightest years, alone, on a small family estate in Italy, unwilling, because of his Catholicism, to wed again. He nears forty as England approaches war with Nazi Germany.

The war re-invigorates Guy, who sees himself as imitating a saintly crusading ancestor by joining the English army. He quickly falls in love with military traditions and disciplines, but is frequently disheartened by the laziness, selfishness, and cowardice of the aristocratic officer corps. The narrative gravitates around unfulfilled expectations, especially assignments to the front lines.

Mr. Waugh
Mr. Waugh

Instead, the protagonist is involved in a minor expedition off the coast of Senegal, and a confused, at times dishonorable British evacuation of Crete in the face of Nazi assaults.

The war’s final months are spent providing material support to largely inactive communist guerrillas who divide their time between harassing fascist Croatian units, and antagonizing what remains of the Catholic Church. This is no heroic, good-versus-evil tale like “Patton” or “Saving Private Ryan,” but an epic pervaded by irony and deep cynicism regarding English bureaucracy and objectives.

In spite of all this, Waugh does not leave the reader with the typical existential disenchantment in post-World War II literature. Rather, Guy remains a quiet but faithful Catholic in spite of failure and disappointment.

That’s most visible in Guy’s determination to save 100 or so elderly Jewish refugees seeking exfiltration from Yugoslavia, while other British officers are advancing their careers or simply surviving.

He seeks clothes for the refugees, which riles the Communist partisans. A British officer asks rhetorically, “how are we to explain that these old people who are doing nothing for our cause, should have such things.” Guy responds, “perhaps by saying they are old and have no cause. Their need is greater than a young enthusiast’s.”

Guy later visits the Jewish refugees at a makeshift camp in Italy, where a British officer tells him, “no one wants them. The Zionists are only interested in the young. I suppose they’ll just sit here till they die. . . .aren’t you asking rather heavy weather of it?” Indeed, an office representing Zionist interests later tells Guy, “we must first set up a State. . . .then it will be a refuge for all. First things first.”

In contrast to Zionist and British utilitarianism, Guy possesses a Christian sense of duty and love, even if it will have little effect on geostrategic goals, which stems from an earlier debate with his elderly father, Gervase, about decisions by the Catholic hierarchy: “My dear boy, you’re really making the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t at all what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”

A later letter from his father expounds on his meaning:

When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty [with Mussolini] did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

This has its desired effect, seeping deep into Guy’s conscience. This seemingly illogical Christian duty to the poor and useless leads to another decision confronting Guy. Towards the end of the trilogy, his estranged wife discovers she has been impregnated by one of Guy’s fellow officers. Unable to procure an abortion, she humbly begs Guy to take her – and the offspring of a man Guy detests – under his protection.

These kinds of choices invite ridicule and social alienation. Guy notes that saying yes was “not the normal behaviour of an officer and a gentleman.” Without Christ, the world simply cannot understand a choice of quiet humility, suffering, and self-gift, with little worldly gain. Waugh writes: “in a world of hate and waste, he was being offered the chance of doing a single small act to redeem the times.”

In a letter Waugh wrote when he finished the trilogy, he explained one of its principle themes: “the idea that God creates no man without a special purpose.” Such purposes may be obscure, unheralded. Yet they enable us to find a life of virtue and meaning that brings grace into an otherwise grim, anti-human world at war.

We Christians place the victims of that war on a pedestal, knowing that we ourselves are also orphans and refugees, lost were it not for a God who chooses us, not as the world chooses, but according to an unrelenting love.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.