The first time those words appear in Brideshead Revisited they are used by Cordelia in a conversation with Charles. She quotes the beginning of the book of Jeremiah in order to express her thoughts after the chapel in Brideshead was left empty. The phrase quomodo sedet sola civitas -how lonely the city stands- is taken from the beginning of book of Lamentations, when the prophet cries over the destroyed Jerusalem; they are also used by the Liturgy of the Church in the office of Tenebrae to lament over the death of Christ.
Surely Cordelia could have explained in her own words her feelings. But using that quote she manages to charge them with extra meaning by putting her personal feelings in relation to others: her sorrow, her desolation at the loss of the Eucharist, is similar to the feelings that made Jeremiah shed tears over her loved one -Jerusalem-, and her tears similar to the ones the Church sheds every year remembering the death of Christ.
But the phrase pops up two more times along the novel. The second time we hear them is when Ryder tells the reader he attended Tenebrae in Guatemala. The third time it is again Ryder -this time in the epilogue of the book- explaining the desolation he feels at the dawn of what he calls the “age of Hooper”, which for him represents the total loss of culture. The formerly joyful and lively Brideshead, has been conquered by Hooper hordes and now the place looks like a Waste Land. No wonder images from that poem come to the mind of Waugh in order to describe this situation: the fountain of the house -a clear symbol of life- stands empty and wired while “all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there” (Compare with the empty bottles, sandwich papers and cigarette ends of Eliot in The Waste Land, 177-178).
It seems to me that the repeated use of that phrase is better understood by looking at the love Evelyn Waugh had for the liturgy of the Church. For him the liturgical offices and specially the Mass were like firm land. Man, modern man, could be adrift in a tempest, but the liturgy would always be there to provide him shelter. The fact that Ryder attends Tenebrae in a country like Guatemala can be seen as a typical trace of Waugh’s humor, but I don’t think it is just that: Tenebrae could be attended in Guatemala, London, Rome or Buenos Aires. The liturgy, specially thanks to the use of Latin, was universal. Two more examples show this more clearly:
- In a little known story by Waugh the protagonist called Rip, if I remember correctly, finds himself lost in London 500 years in the future. The city is ruled by savages and the poor man is totally lost till he goes into a Church and sees the same Mass in Latin celebrated by a black priest.
- In the trilogy sword of honor we find Guy Crouchback somewhere in the Balkans talking to a priest in a rather funny Latin asking him to offer the Mass for his deceased wife Virginia.
In the first case we see the Mass is not subject to change over time; while in the second one, as in the case of Guatemala, the message is that it is same everywhere. Guatemala, London or even Hooper’s Brideshead, might be ruled by savages, but the Liturgy is the same one. No wonder Waugh suffered greatly when as a consequence of the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council, he saw this two characteristic of the liturgy damaged. The Mass he loved was changed -not in 500 years time- but during his own life time, while loosing the Latin brought as a consequence that you were not able to be part of the same liturgy everywhere.
However, the lamentation of Ryder over Brideshead at the end of the book ends with him feeling “particularly cheerful”. The reason for the change of mood is discovering that the lamp of the Tabernacle of the Chapel is lit again. True, the artistic glory of the place might be lost, Hopper’s side can win the battle today, but that lamp, that horrible art nouveau lamp, is lit again; and contrary to what might be expected, people actually visit the place often. The city can be destroyed, savages might rule, but that light refuses to die. I think Cordelia would also have been particularly cheerful seeing the timid dance of that little flame.