Graham Greene’s not-so-Green Pastures

For years I’ve heard that I should read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and I finally picked it up this week. The previous week I had the pleasure of watching the BBC miniseries version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” which left me profoundly moved yet quite unsatisfied. Waugh was a great admirer of Greene, a fellow Roman Catholic novelist, and at one time defended three of Greene’s novels (including The Power and the Glory) from a bishop’s condemnation.

The Power and The Glory is much like Brideshead in its incessant bleakness, but in an greatly dissimilar setting. As opposed to the height of British civilization, the novel is set in a barren and sun-scorched part of Mexico. The book circles like a vulture around the exile of an unnamed whiskey priest  – with an illegitimate child whom we get to meet for the few precious moments the priest gets to spend with her.

Our unnamed priest is stuck in a Mexican state that has banned both the Roman Catholic Church and alcohol, so our poor protagonist is unable to participate in both his vice and his sacred duty. He’s the last priest in the region other than a cowardly priest who capitulated to the demands of the state, and as such has married and refuses even to offer up even the most necessary of public prayers, or hear confessions.

In the tenth year of the priests’ fugitive state the governor, discovering that a priest is still in his province,  offers a 700 peso reward for the priests’ capture (as opposed to the 500 pesos offered for an American bank robber and murderer). The most attractive character of the book, an ordered and cleanly lieutenant, is determined to catch the “treasonous” priest who epitomizes everything he despises about life. Of all the characters in the book, only the lieutenant seems to have any purpose or direction.  The majority of the book is spent as the priest moves from impoverished town to impoverished town; partly wanting to escape across the border – or die – but feeling compelled to offer what only a priest can offer. As he hauls his confused and haggard carcass around the police take hostages from the villages he’s been to; shooting those who have helped him. The pious despise him because of his sins, and the rest for all the trouble he brings. He wishes he could turn himself in, but he’s bound by a sense of divine duty: “It’s not about what you want, or what I want…”

While the book maintains a cool sort of distance from the priest, the real meat of the book is the intimate spiritual struggle that accompanies his ceaseless scramble from place to place. It’s as if the only thing that keeps him from settling into despair is the movement from place to place: peace and home might still be somewhere, and the process of elimination just keeps moving along.

He has no illusions of being a saint or a martyr, but his own sin and poverty have broken through enough of his pride to allow him to love in some way everyone he meets – though they are not saints either. Even the miserable fang-like half breed that continually plays the part of his Judas he holds in high regard, and when the times come when he wants to be captured, he refrains because he wouldn’t want to encourage someone to sin by betraying him.

There are really only two things that the priest thinks he is good for (even his prayers he thinks useless): the absolution he offers people at the end of confession, and serving the Eucharist. These graces are totally unmerited, “putting God in someone’s mouth” is a tremendous gift, and for this reason his identity as a priest is never compromised. The good life, decency, peace, and piety, in this world are all illusions, but the Eucharist… well that’s the center of reality, or at least the center of this man’s meaning.

It would be wrong to say that I didn’t like the book – I appreciate it tremendously – but I have some trouble agreeing to the reality that Graham Greene spins. First of all, I have to agree with RCC theologian Hans urs von Balthazar that the pervasiveness of sin in Greene’s world is misleading. Saints are real, but they are not the sort that Greene has ever met.  Though I appreciate the heavy theme of the glory of suffering, there’s a sickness to this thread, due to the immoderation of the theme. The victorious Christian life is not either the pietisitic pride of Greene’s Mexican spinsters, or the collapsing despair of his fugitive priest. And these are the only options available in this world.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is certainly true, but “Thou preparest a table for me in presence of mine enemies” is also true.  I found Greene’s depiction of the worthlessness of a purely pietistic faith convicting, and some true beauty in the weeping, sweating, and suffering priest.  But there is more purpose to the Christian life than suffering. There are walks in the cool of the day with God; the are green pastures that He makes us lie down in.

The sacramental life cannot be overemphasized, but the sacraments can be mistakenly pulled from their context.  They Holy Mysteries are nothing if not life-giving.  True they are the greatest instance of our unmerited relationship with Christ, but how can one separate them from the life of prayer? I think of the Russians – they know pain – but there is a joy in Dostoevsky and a mirth to Tolstoy that Greene cannot seem to take seriously. As blessed Chesterton would say, mirth is perhaps the one thing that we should always take seriously.

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