Sacraments in Brideshead Revisited

Castle Howard, location of Brideshead Revisited

Years ago, a priest told me that he considered that the best thing ever written about the sacrament of anointing of the sick was Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. Although not a theological treatise, the book contains an arresting presentation of the power of the sacraments. When I teach a course on the sacraments I usually devote part of one class period to a dramatic reading of the death-bed scene in Brideshead. We do the reading in the final weeks of class, immediately following discussion of penance and anointing of the sick. In this place, it serves as a capstone to the discussion of the sacraments of healing and also fleshes out several key themes of sacramental theology. In particular, it highlights the kindness of Christ in giving us tangible sacraments to bridge the gap between this fallen world and the glory of God.

Lord Marchmain, with whose death the book draws to a close, converted to the Catholic faith at the time of his marriage. He subsequently abandoned his wife and family in England, going to live in Italy with his Italian mistress, Cara. The precise motivation for his flight is one of the unfolding questions of the book. It is gradually clarified as a search for freedom from his wife who is a good and devout woman, but is imperfect. With her stoical brothers as an ideal, she can be insensitive human weakness and out-of-touch with the culture of the time. She represents the ties of human affection, family and faith in an imperfect world. Her youngest daughter Cordelia describes this reaction to her:

I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated Mummy . . .You see, she was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.1

By abandoning Lady Marchmain, Lord Marchmain fled from facing the gap between his own imperfection and his Christian vocation. By equating his wife’s sincere but imperfect love with that of God himself, Lord Marchmain was able to justify fleeing from love’s restraints. His choice is at the root of the various levels of brokenness and struggle that his various children experience, particularly those of Sebastian, who succumbs to alcoholism in a search for freedom parallel to that of his father.

By abandoning his wife, Lord Marchmain implicitly rejected God’s sacramental presence in his life. In marriage, husband and wife are supposed to image God’s faithful love to each other. The Catechism says: “their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.”2 In sacramental marriage it becomes an image which is also a channel of God’s love, but this is the crucified Christ’s love for the Church. It is an enriching love, but also a demanding one. It is a grace that offers to “close the gap” between imperfect human love and the infinite desires of the heart, but only through a purification that allows the spouses to gradually give themselves more and more to each other and to God.

The encounter with the “gap” between human love and the ultimate satisfaction found only in the divine is a central problem in the book. It turns some characters to avoidance and addiction (Sebastian, Lord Marchmain). Others run the danger of being seduced by the merely humanly beautiful (Charles, Julia). Others love God, but seem blunted to the loveliness of his world (Brideshead, to a lesser extent Lady Marchmain). Only Cordelia seems fully to grasp that the answer to the “gap” is the sacramental nature of creation which is good, but points to the presence of a greater goodness.

The Sacraments Aid the Human Will
In the final chapter of the book Lady Marchmain has died. Lord Marchmain, suffering serious heart trouble, returns to England to die in his ancestral seat. The drama of his illness gradually opens his eyes to the self-deception of his life. At this point, questions of sacramental theology, implied throughout, become openly discussed.

There is an ongoing family debate on the question of bringing a priest to the sick man. The only non-Catholic in the family group is Charles, the narrator, a divorced man. He is engaged to marry Julia, one of the daughters of the family.   After being given a description of the purpose of the last sacraments (the description is not recounted in the text), Charles asks:

Let’s get this clear. . . he has to make an act of will; he has to be contrite and wish to be reconciled; is that right? But only God knows whether he has  really made an  act of will;  the priest can’t tell; and  if there isn’t  a  priest there, and  he makes the act of will alone, that’s as good as if  there were  a priest. And it’s quite possible that the will may still be working when a man is too weak to make any outward sign of it; is that right?  He may be lying, as though for dead, and willing all the time, and being reconciled, and God understands that; is that right?. . .Well, for heaven’s sake. . . what is the priest for?3

Charles is raising an important question about the sacraments. If they are really about the human will and God, two invisible, spiritual realities, why do we need them?

Here, Charles has put his finger directly on the key question of the book: how does the physical relate to the spiritual? He has grasped two truths about the sacraments: They are not understood to be merely external “magical” rituals. The ultimate purpose of the sacraments that forgive sins is to bring about reconciliation with God through the re-orientation of the human will to a sharing in the life of God’s grace.4 He is also right that God is not bound by the sacraments. In talking about Baptism the Catechism notes “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”5 He could give salvific repentance without the aid of the sacrament.

What Charles has not grasped is the kindness of God in giving his grace through physical sacraments. When Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, asks whether the sacraments are necessary for human salvation, his answer is framed in terms of the radical appropriateness of physical sacraments for human persons.6 Charles’s question shows an underestimation of the impossibility for the human will to attain to God by itself.  It is not any act of the will that will justify Lord Marchmain, but an act of perfect contrition. This involves the will being moved to sorrow by a true love of God. It is not an action that Lord Marchmain can make on his own. It is, however, a grace that will be surely given to him in the sacraments. Further, if God were to offer grace to Lord Marchmain in an intangible way apart from the sacraments, there is the question of whether he would recognize it. Human thought is often tied to physical realities. Self-deception and distraction so easily hold sway over the human heart and mind.

The difficulties of the human will in attaining repentance are shown by Lord Marchmain’s deathbed musings. Although the approach of death is a tremendous existential moment, Lord Marchmain stays in denial of it as long as possible. “Better today…better tomorrow…”becomes his mantra, even as he sinks towards death.7  His evasion of the demands of love has trapped him in an evasion of the reality of the condition of his own body. His flight from God’s love means that death is a fearful and lonely thing to him. He comes to dislike “darkness and loneliness” because “they are like death.”8 In this instinct, Lord Marchmain is right—dying in his state, he greatly risks an eternity of darkness and loneliness.

Lord Marchmain’s sickbed mutterings illustrate his interior state.  When the news is read to him, his comments are uncharitable, “Irwin…I knew him—a mediocre fellow…Czechs make good coachmen; nothing else.”9 His “free” life abroad has not resulted in any embracing love for his fellow men. He does not really care for conversation with those around him. He prefers to speak to himself because his own voice tells him the only truth that still matters to him—he is still alive.

When his thoughts range a little distance from his own self, they dwell on the history of his family, their work as builders and their rise to nobility. Although these musings principally reveal Lord Marchmain’s pride, a few sentences poignantly show more: “Those were our roots in the waste hollows of Castle Hill, in the brier and the nettle; among the tombs in the old church and the chantrey where no clerk sings.”10 Lord Marchmain symbolically evokes the human condition, England, and his soul. Does not the whole human race find its roots among the “brier and nettles” of original sin, tracing its origins back to the ruined castle of original innocence? The empty church in which prayers no longer echo points to the ruination of the faith wrought in England by the Reformation and the desecration of the temple of Lord Marchmain’s own soul. It is against this background of human brokenness and personal sin that the sacraments shine forth as healing remedies desperately needed.

Lord Marchmain’s illness not only reveals his spiritual emptiness but becomes a metaphor for it. The constriction of his breath mirrors his spiritual narrowness. As his sin has involved denial of the reality of God’s good love, so his desperate desire to get better leaves him in denial of the blossoming summer outside of his window. He gasps for breath and talks about how he will breathe easier during summer, while outside his window summer flowers. Lord Marchmain cannot admit the fullness of nature, since it would involve recognizing that the lack he feels is situated completely within himself. Waugh describes the summer as rich and fruitful, filled with “deep corn and swelling fruit and…surfeited bees who slowly sought their hives in the heavy afternoon sunlight.”11 This description evokes the sacramental richness which Lord Marchmain rejects. Corn and fruit suggest the Eucharist; the bees the Paschal candle. The Catechism discusses the natural sign-value of the things of the natural world as a first layer which builds the meaning of the sacraments. “Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both his greatness and his nearness.”12 Sadly, Lord Marchmain, bound by physical and spiritual illness, is unable to move freely in the wider world of divine bounty.

Eventually, Lord Marchmain comes to make a connection between his illness and sin. In a perverse, Flannery O’Connor-esque way, created brokenness speaks more loudly to him of the reality of sin than the beauty of creation tells of God’s glory. Lord Marchmain comes to see the restrictions of his illness as a punishment for the great sin of his life—abandonment of his wife and family. He says, “I was free once. I committed a crime in the name of freedom. Now they bring me my air in an iron barrel.” Pondering on the chapel which he had built for his wife, he recalls going away and leaving her there. “Was it a crime? . . . Crying to heaven for vengeance? Is that why they’ve locked me in this cave?”13

According to the Catechism, one reason why Christ gave the sacrament of anointing is because “in illness, man experiences his powerless, his limitations and his finitude.”14 While this can be occasion for despair, it can also be a moment of conversion. It seems very unlikely that were it not for his illness, Lord Marchmain’s self-deception would have been shaken to the extent to which he would consider his choice of life-style as a crime. Recognizing the general character of sickness as a punishment for sin he begins to be moved to regret his sins.

Lord Marchmain’s illness is not a direct cause of his sin. He is correct, though, in making a connection between the two. All human illness, as a result of the Fall, is in some way caused by human sin, if only that of our first parents. Further, all illness can also be borne in union with Christ’s suffering as reparation for personal sins and those of others. The effects of the sacrament of anointing of the sick are meant to grant “union with the passion of Christ” so that this “consequence of original sin acquires a new meaning” in Christ.15

It is significant that Lord Marchmain’s recognition of his “crime” is connected to memories of the chapel he built. Even this moment of partial conversion is not unanchored in holy things: the memory of marriage, the blessed chapel, the Eucharist and many sacramental objects it contained.  Yet the glimpse is fleeting. Lord Marchmain experiences classic attrition or “imperfect contrition,” that is, sorrow for sin because of hatred of the sin or the punishment which follows upon it.16 This attrition, although not salvific in itself would be enough to dispose Lord Marchmain to receive grace through the sacrament of penance and of anointing of the sick.17 Here is the answer to Charles’s question, “What is the priest for?” At this moment, the sacraments would grant what Lord Marchmain could not attain by himself.

Attitudes Towards the Sacraments
Unfortunately, the moment is not grasped. Lord Marchmain turns back to his mantra of “Better tomorrow. . .” It is in this state—false hope for future recovery overlaying, perhaps, hidden thoughts of sorrow—in which he remains as he sinks further and further into illness. He does not ask for a priest. The responsibility for this decision falls on his family. They are divided about what they should do, showcasing various inadequate attitudes towards the sacraments. Charles, as an atheist, dismisses the sacraments as “a lot of witchcraft and hypocrisy.”18 He despises religious ritual, ostensibly out of a rationalistic view of the world, but he also knows that Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage endangers his impending marriage with Julia.

The doctor takes a perspective founded on the physical. He alludes to the healing powers of the sacrament, albeit from an agnostic perspective, “I have known cases where it has had a wonderfully soothing effect on a patient; I’ve even known it to act as a positive stimulant.” When Lord Marchmain suffers a turn for the worse the doctor maintains his concern for the physical. “My business is with the body. It’s not my business to argue whether people are better alive or dead or what happens to them after death…the shock of seeing a priest might well kill him…As his medical man I must protest against anything being done to disturb him.”19 His determined concentration on the physical alone might be appropriate to his professional role, but is humanly inadequate.

Cara, the Italian mistress, has a sentimental fondness for the sacraments, trappings of the Catholic culture in which she was raised. She wants them offered, but only if they will cause no disturbance. She puts emotional calm above peace with God. In Lord Marchmain’s last illness she says: “I don’t want him made unhappy. That is all there is to hope for now; that he’ll die without knowing it. But I should like the priest there, all the same.”20 Her preference would be for Lord Marchmain to be anointed after he is unconscious. She defends her position with an appeal to Lord Marchmain’s diginity. “He scoffed always. We mustn’t take advantage of him, now he’s weak, to comfort our own consciences.”21 She is right that the sacraments should only be given to the willing. Yet what is her understanding of human dignity if Lord Marchmain’s conversion back to God could hurt it?

Cara misunderstands the sacrament of anointing of the sick on several levels. Although anointing of the sick can be given to an unconscious person, it will only be spiritually effective to forgive sins (and canon law only allows it to be given) if the person at least implicitly desired it when cogent.22 Having a priest slip in to anoint Lord Marchmain after he has fallen, unrepentant, into a coma will not help him. The sacrament of anointing ought to be given not only to those in danger of death, but also to those seriously ill, since the sacrament is not merely for passing over into the next life but to strengthen the Christian in sickness and perhaps heal him as well.23

Brideshead and Cordelia, eldest son and youngest daughter, are out of town when the crisis finally hits. Julia is unpredictable, for a time not insisting on a priest, but reacting with anger at Charles’s interference. She is struggling with her own faith. For her to call a priest will be for her to admit that she does believe and will shake her resolve to cut herself off from the sacraments by marrying Charles. In the end, it is her choice that results in the priest being called.

Father Mackay, the Irish priest, is a foil to the other characters present. In a matter-of-fact way and the idiom of the less refined, he insists on the possibility of conversion and the gentle nature of the sacraments. He quotes Scripture, “Christ came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” He wheedles for his admittance, “how would I be a shock to anyone? . . . Do you know what I want to do? It is something so small, no show about it . . . I just want to ask him if he is sorry for his sins. . . then I want to give him God’s pardon. Then, I want to anoint him. It is nothing, a touch of the finger, just some oil from this little box.”24 Although his speech reveals him as less finely educated than the others, he speaks to them almost as though they are excitable children whom he needs to soothe. He has a wider perspective than the others. His quotations of Scripture cut through the stuffy atmosphere of convoluted discussion with the clean and simple truth.

The Moment of Conversion
There is a striking transformation in Fr. Mackay when he gives absolution and anointing to the sick man. Nothing of what the priest said proves false: he is gentle, the sacrament is given quietly and unobtrusively. Yet the immense power present is palpable. The paragraphs should be quoted in full. Charles narrates:

He began to speak in Latin. I recognized the words Ego te absolvo in nomine Patris . . . and saw the priest make the sign of the cross. Then I knelt, too, and prayed: “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,” and the man on the bed opened his eyes and gave a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only  of courtesy, if only for the sake of the  woman  I  loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a  sign. It seemed so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgment of a presence, a nod in the crowd. All over the world people were on their knees before innumerable crosses, and here the drama was being played again by two men—by one man, rather, and he nearer death than life; the universal drama in which there is only one actor.

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oily wad; he-finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. “O God,” I prayed, “don’t let him do that.” But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.25

Several of the details in this description are inaccurate: anointing of the sick is given with blessed oil of the sick, not chrism; priests anoint with their own hands, not cotton balls, but the power of the sacrament is described with consummate skill. Lord Marchmain is moved by the sacrament to accept salvific sealing with the cross of Christ. His life finds its reconciliation by being finally blessed by the power of the cross which he had been fleeing for years. The image of the rending of the veil (cf. Matt 27:51) evokes the power of Christ’s death which is present, the unveiling of the merciful presence of God, and the tremendous change that the sacrament brings to Lord Marchmain’s soul. Lord Marchmain dies soon afterwards—his desperate fear of death is no more. In embracing the reality of Christ’s cross, in accepting his own sinfulness as forgivable, he has entered the freedom he has always sought.

Fr. Mackay takes on a tremendous dignity as the instrument of Christ’s mercy in this sacrament, truly acting in the person of Christ the head of the Church. His return to his jocular, simple personality in the subsequent paragraphs is so striking as to almost be funny. This contrast says something very true and also very comforting about the priestly vocation. The priest bears Christ, it is true, and images Christ, but the power on which he ultimately relies is the power of Christ himself. No matter how holy and good a priest is, there will always be a “gap” between his human limitations and Christ’s perfection, but it is a gap which Christ’s power will always bridge in the sacraments.

Even the prayer of Charles is significant. Describing the anointing of the sick the Catechism says: “By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, through the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church.”26 Although the intercession of the Church for the sick is primarily expressed through the prayers of the priest, Charles and Julia, as baptized Christians, contribute by their prayers. In turn, Lord Marchmain’s acceptance of grace also impacts his family. Participating in the deathbed scene leads Julia to abandon her intentions to marrying Charles, and eventually brings Charles to the faith.

Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion points to a wider truth, one necessary, to some extent, to every human life and to human history. Since Christ has conquered through his death, victory in him can always be found despite, or sometimes because of, defeat. Lord Marchmain’s body is broken; his earthly life is over. Yet the light of Christ has been re-lit among the ruins of his life. It will burn again in his body at the resurrection. The sacraments, even when their power to bless the spring-time of life has been rejected, always bring God’s eternally-present love.

In the final scene of the book, Charles returns to a ravaged Brideshead Manor. The house has been requisitioned by the army. It has lost its former splendor and suffered significant damage. Charles also, has damaged his life beyond complete repair. He is living alone, still estranged from his first wife and his children. His career in the army has lost its luster. In a moment of sorrow he describes himself to a subordinate officer as, “homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless.”27 His confidant, an example of the cultural degeneration of England, laughs. It seems as though Brideshead, England, and Charles are destined to go down to utter ruin. Yet it is not so. The sacraments again bridge the gap, making God tangibly present among human misery. Charles makes his way to the chapel which Lord Marchmain built so many years ago. Here he finds that the tabernacle lamp has been relit, “burning anew among the old stones.”28 A surprising number of soldiers come here to pray, still drawing comfort from the ancient faith. Although much has been lost, all hope has not. The beacon of Christ’s sacramental presence continues to give meaning to the varied human history unfolded in the sight of the ancient stones of the house.  Charles’s life also is enfolded in this light. Before he leaves the chapel he prays the “an ancient, newly learned form of words”—the prayer of a convert—and returns to his barracks “cheerful.”29

  1. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, (Little, Brown and Co., Boston: 1945), 22
  2. Catechism of the Catholic  Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 1604.
  3. Brideshead, 329.
  4. Catechism, 1123, 1129, 1131.
  5. Catechism, 1257 This principle is quoted in the context of the discussion of Baptism, but is true for the other sacraments as well.
  6. Summa Theologiae, III. q. 61. a. 1. co.
  7. Brideshead, 332.
  8. Brideshead, 331.
  9. Brideshead, 331.
  10. Brideshead, 332.
  11. Brideshead, 333.
  12. Catechism, 1147.
  13. Brideshead, 334.
  14. Catechism, 1500.
  15. Catechism, 1521.
  16. Catechism, 1453.
  17. Catechism, 1453.
  18. Brideshead, 325.
  19. Brideshead, 335.
  20. Brideshead, 335.
  21. Brideshead, 336.
  22. 1983 Code of Canon Law, 1006, 1007. Of course, the Code of Canon Law in force at the time of the writing of Brideshead would have been the 1917 Code.
  23. Catechism, 1514, 1520.
  24. Brideshead, 337.
  25. Brideshead, 338-339.
  26. Catechism, 1522.
  27. Brideshead, 350.
  28. Brideshead, 351.
  29. Brideshead, 350, 351.
Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P. About Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P.

Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O. P., is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She holds a Ph.D. in theology from Ave Maria University, and teaches there.


  1. Avatar Fr. Ramil E. Fajardo says:

    Sr. Albert Marie – WOW! What a wonderful essay. I’ve always loved Brideshead, and the thoroughly descriptive,evocative Catholic experience throughout the novel. The splendor and the glory, the agony and the ecstasy. Even after all these years, I’m still enjoying rereading and studying it. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful essay. I am not a Catholic, but I am a Christian malgre lui (a bit like Haze Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood). Your explication of Waugh’s novel will be very helpful to me in my quest for answers to too many questions. Alas, I am also a bit like Job: I ask the questions but am uncomfortable with the answers. Again, thank you.


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