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New Year, New Me! - Brideshead Revisited and finding the new in the old

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

As the new year approaches we all begin to cringe as the same old phrases are brought out. "New Year, New me" is a personal favourite of mine since for me it has gained traction among memes with gyms being filled in January and then empty again by February. There isn't anything particularly wrong with the phrase and it certainly is coming from a place of good intention. I instead want to draw upon something else more serious about this phrase. Normally when we hear this we think about how we need to start going to the gym or start doing something else that is deemed positive by the world at the time. At one stage it was giving up cigarettes, then eating healthy, now staying sober seems to be having its time. These of course can all be positive things to give up but after recently finishing the book Brideshead Revisited I was intrigued by the books perspective on finding the new in the old.

Brideshead Revisited is one of the great masterpieces of english writing in the 20th century. There is also a fantastic and incredibly faithful adaptation of the book to TV by ITV with Jeremy Irons playing Charles Ryder which I highly recommend. Set in the interwar period going into the 2nd world war. It explores the worlds of Oxford and Aristocracy. The main character Charles Ryder befriends the Marchmain family who own the great english home of Brideshead which Charles Ryder is found returning to at the beginning of the book before he recounts the memories he has of the house and the family that inhabited it.

At the beginning Charles is captivated by the rambunctious and extravagant Sebastien Flyte. He befriends him and through him is introduced to the Flyte family. In many respects Charles feels very close to Sebastien but one aspect of him eludes his grasp, his faith. Charles finds out that the Flyte's are Catholic and is perplexed about how Sebastien could believe in that "nonsense" and then be so bold as to identify himself as one despite his debaucherous behaviour.

Charles similarly becomes drawn in by Sebastien's sisters, Cordelia and most importantly Julia but again their faith remains an enigma to him. As the book progresses we see this crack between Ryder and the Flyte's grow into a gaping precipice which he can see no way of overcoming. Difficulties in the lives of the Marchmain's delicately pull them back to their faith "like a twitch upon a thread". A line quoted from the Fr Brown series written by another famous catholic author of the time, GK Chesterton. While this happens, though, Charles finds himself standing motionless. Unable to understand what it is that allows the Marchmains to find something new born out of the old habits of their lives and faith.

When the Flyte's try to explain to Charles about what it is that is the source of that still small voice which is leading them back to their Faith. Charles is perplexed. Whether it be the conversation between Charles and Sebastien on the porch in his first summer stay at Brideshead. Or his conversation with Julia in the moonlight by the fountain where she laments the death of her God upon that Cross. Or his conversation with Cordelia where she recounts her sadness at the closing of the chapel at Brideshead. In all of these conversations Charles is left unaware at how something so stale and old could be to these people re presented as something new which could have any influence on them and change the course of their lives.

That is until the culmination of the book. When Charles, finished recollecting his memories of Brideshead and instead now experiencing the place as a Captain during world war 2, is offered up the image of these ancient things a new. In this moment of grace he experiences the same God working in his life as the member's of the Flyte's did before. We find that those old conversations he had before with each of the Flyte's is brought forth before him a new. He recognises the role of God's providence in erecting the Chapel at Brideshead and we find that at this moment of conversion for Charles, that the world that had become old and stale before him is made fresh and new for his God speaks life to him through it.

St. Augustine of Hippo captures in his own words this magnificent moment in which the world is radically transfigured by the grace of God and the old becomes new again.

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace." - St Augustine

These incredible words of the great father of the church capture so wonderfully the story that Charles has gone through. From being captivated by Sebastien's extravagance and engrossed in the decadence of the aristocracy. To later the dulling of his senses to God and all that is good in the world that is calling out to him. To that final moment so beautifully described in the final pages of the book as a melancholy and lethargic captain who by the grace of God is opened to his goodness and life giving spirit.

So what does this have to do with the annoying phrase "new year, new me"? Well everything really. That is everything if what we are really searching for in the new year is truly a new me. The old me that we so often want to shake off is that lethargic body weighed down by sin and dulled by gluttony from the greatness of God's grace. What we want is that new me which is filled with life and as St. John Henry Newman says: “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”. Therefore what we truly desire is to change but change must be founded on something. Otherwise what is it we are actually changing. We wish to find the new life in the old body. It is the old body and old life we currently live which we desire to change and it is here that Brideshead Revisited unlocks the path ahead.

We aren't to go back to our old life and throw it away and start a fresh because in reality we throw nothing away but only the superficial circumstances of our lives. As Charles sees with each of the Flyte's when they change without returning to what was first found in them they instead return away from themselves and end up in the same sad situation. Grace builds upon nature and it is in coming back to our nature, but now seeing the supernatural at work in it, that we are able to create real and meaningful change. It is then that we can see the life giving force of God's grace at work in our lives.

So like Charles, this year we should revisit our metaphorical Brideshead. It may not be the places that we now enjoy but it will be a place where we once were happy and filled with energy. It will be that place that is quietly calling out to our hearts in prayer and speaking to us through the concrete reality of our lives. This new year I hope we can all find the new me being reborn out of the old me. The hobby that we know once captivated us, those friends we have fond memories with and most importantly the God who ever loves us more than we can imagine and is calling out to us again through the sacraments. The new me is probably not going to be found in some mad and extravagant action but instead will be found in those quiet moments in which we humbly open our ears to God and recognise how he is calling out a new to us in the those things that currently seem old.

Deo Gratias!

(If you enjoyed this post you might also find our post about Flannery O'Connor of interest. Similarly she explores the way in which God speaks to us through his creation)

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