There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.
—Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
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I’m rereading The Power and the Glory, one of my favorites. Graham Greene’s characters have the spiritual subtlety of real life, something that many good authors don’t achieve. (Michael O’Brien comes close in Father Elijah, but even there the good and bad characters are, just a little, too simple: they come across as photorealistic portraits more than fully enfleshed people.)
Thinking of Mexican anticlerical laws is always strange to me—you grow up with this cartoonish picture of everything south of the Rio Grande as mass of Guadalupe statuettes and gory, sentimental paintings of the Savior … In 1926, the Cristeros rebelled in reaction to an abrupt, severe anticlerical shift in the administration; at that time there were about forty-five hundred priests in Mexico. Eight years later, a little more than three hundred were left, to serve a nation of fifteen million. Not all the priests were killed—some were merely chased out of the country or forced to marry. Of the thirty-one Mexican states, seventeen had no clergy at all.
Members of a Cristero regiment with their banner, a modified form of the Mexican flag, with
an image of the Virgin and the legend Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The central character of The Power and the Glory (nameless, referred to only as the priest) is the last active priest in his state,1 operating in secret and always on the move. But he is a ‘whiskey priest,’ one whose moral flaws are aggressively clear to anyone who meets him,2 despite the higher standard he preaches: he is a raging alcoholic, or as raging as he can be under the circumstances, and has an illegitimate daughter. His holiness is totally invisible to him, or at any rate he can always explain it away. Partly because he is, truly, sinful.
He fell uneasily asleep, and the old man crouched on the floor, fanning the fire with his breath. Somebody tapped on the door and the priest jerked upright. ‘It is all right,’ the old man said. ‘Just your coffee, father.’ He brought it to him—grey maize coffee smoking in a tin mug, but the priest was too tired to drink. He lay on his side perfectly still: a rat watched him from the maize.
‘The soldiers were here yesterday,’ the old man said. He blew on the fire. The smoke poured up and filled the hut. The priest began to cough, and the rat moved quickly like the shadow of a hand into the stack.
‘The boy, father, has not been baptized. The last priest who was here wanted two pesos. I had only one peso. Now I have only fifty centavos.’
‘Tomorrow,’ the priest said wearily.
‘Will you say Mass, father, in the morning?’
‘And confession, father, will you hear our confessions?’
‘Yes, but let me sleep first.’ He turned on his back and closed his eyes to keep out the smoke.
‘We have no money, father, to give you. The other priest, Padre José …’
‘Give me some clothes instead,’ he said impatiently.
‘But we have only what we wear.’
‘Take mine in exchange.’
The old man hummed dubiously to himself, glancing sideways at what the fire showed of the black torn cloth. ‘If I must, father,’ he said. He blew quietly at the fire for a few minutes. The priest’s eyes closed again.
‘After five years there is so much to confess.’
The priest sat up quickly. ‘What was that?’ he said.
‘You were dreaming, father. The boy will warn us if the soldiers come. I was only saying—’
‘Can’t you let me sleep for five minutes?’ He lay down again. Somewhere, in one of the women’s huts, someone was singing—‘I went down to my field and there I found a rose.’
The old man said softly, ‘It would be a pity if the soldiers came before we had time … such a burden on poor souls, father …’ The priest shouldered himself upright against the wall and said furiously, ‘Very well. Begin. I will hear your confession.’ The rats scuffled in the maize. ‘Go on then,’ he said. ‘Don’t waste time. Hurry. When did you last … ?’ The old man knelt beside the fire, and across the clearing the woman sang: ‘I went down to my field and the rose was withered.’
‘Five years ago.’ He paused and blew at the fire. ‘It’s hard to remember, father.’
‘Have you sinned against purity?’
The priest leaned against the wall with his legs drawn up beneath him, and the rats accustomed to the voices moved again in the maize. The old man picked out his sins with difficulty, blowing at the fire. ‘Make a good act of contrition,’ the priest said, ‘and say—say—have you a rosary?—then say the Joyful Mysteries.’ His eyes closed, his lips and tongue stumbled over the absolution, failed to finish … he sprang awake again.
‘Can I bring the women?’ the old man was saying. ‘It is five years …’
‘Oh, let them come. Let them all come,’ the priest cried angrily. ‘I am your servant.’ He put his hand over his eyes and began to weep. The old man opened the door: it was not completely dark outside under the enormous arc of starry ill-lit sky. He went across to the women’s huts and knocked. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘You must say your confessions. It is only polite to the father.’ They wailed at him that they were tired … the morning would do. ‘Would you insult him?’ he said. ‘What do you think he has come here for? He is a very holy father. There he is in my hut now weeping for our sins.’ he hustled them out; one by one they picked their way across the clearing towards the hut, and the old man set off down the path towards the river to take the place of the boy who watched the ford for soldiers.
I love this passage. The irony is bitter and beautiful at the same time. The bitterness comes, not only in the priest’s exhaustion, which you can almost feel in the flat aching squalor of the descriptions, but in the totally unwitting double meaning of that remark, There he is in my hut now weeping for our sins. Weeping, because of the stupidity of the peasant who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the priest’s desperate need to sleep, and because of the sins that, by the villagers’ politeness, will keep him awake for hours more. The monotony of some pains is as bad as the pain itself, and it seeps out of the pages here.
But there’s beauty in it too, and not just the beauty that comes from seeing something painful and familiar depicted well. Is the priest weeping for himself?—certainly; and yet—he could have escaped, he could have abandoned these villagers with whom he can barely spend a single night, a single Mass; nobody could blame a man for running from ceaseless misery sure to end in death, when the alternative is to endure it for the sake of doing what seems to be almost no good. But he can’t do that. He can’t let himself; he tries, several times throughout the book, and cannot. In an unconscious way, deeper even than his selfishness,3 the priest is weeping for their sins.
I love the paradox of holiness the priest represents. It’s so common for us Catholics to think of holiness in sugary, pastel-colored images—the child at her First Communion in a miniature wedding gown, explaining the mysteries of virtue to astonished parents—or in terms of miracles or the stark heroism of martyrdom—the nun levitating in an ecstasy, the singing saint on the pyre. And that hateful phrase, ‘The point of life is to be a saint,’ with the unspoken understanding that the point of life is to make it into My First Book of Saints. Eliot knew better: The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason. ‘Be a saint’ is a bad circumlocution for ‘Be in love with God,’ because ‘Be a saint’ is, grammatically if not deliberately, about oneself, and the mind pulls very easily in the selfward direction. Greene’s shabby, drunken, giggling priest is a wonderful antidote to that poison: he has no virtues but love. Look to God, look to God, forget sanctity, its only purpose is to draw you to Him, so look to God.
Yet scares me a little, too. Because of course it’s an appealing idea, being holy and yet having all the self-indulgence I want. That’s the danger. Christianity can be almost as dangerous to Christians as it can to devils. Not least when the Christians can come up with profound, cleverly phrase, self-effacing epigrams. There’s no way out of the danger, I think; it must simply be endured. Or perhaps it’s the perfection of love that neutralizes the danger.
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1The novel is set in the state of Tabasco, on the southern coast of the Gulf. The persecution there was at its absolute worst.
2Not a hypocrite, that’s different. A hypocrite doesn’t believe in what he preaches, or else doesn’t admit that he falls short of it; the whiskey priest has a clear knowledge of his sinfulness, but, through the interior pressure of belief or the exterior pressure of having a job to do, still has to preach the virtue he doesn’t possess. A priest who’s an alcoholic is the archetypal version of the trope, hence the name. The guilty doubts harbored by Reverend Mightly Oats in Carpe Jugulum are a psychological example; Bethany, the semi-lapsed Catholic heroine of Dogma, might count as well.
3Such as it is: this passage shows his flaws at their most excusable. He has markedly lower points in the book, usually involving brandy.