Friday, July 15, 2016

Gritty Martyrdom: The Power and the Glory

by Graham Greene

I only took two books on our big camping trip: The Man Who Was Thursday and The Power and the Glory. I'm not sure they are the most appropriate books for a camping trip, but they were both enthralling.

Graham Greene's book follows the last priest in a beleaguered state of Mexico during a recent persecution, a priest not of courage but one of fear and failure. Pursued by a lieutenant determined to rid his state of misleading Catholic priests and their lies, this priest becomes like an animal and yet is always something more by virtue of his priesthood. To the priest's dismay, villagers accept arrest and even execution rather than revealing him to the lieutenant.

The power of Reconciliation is a recurring theme of the book. Though the priest hears confessions wherever he goes, there is no priest to hear his.
Now that he no longer despaired it didn't mean, of course, that he wasn't damned -- it was simply that after a time the mystery became too great, a damned man putting God into the mouths of men: an odd sort of servant, that, for the devil. His mind was full of a simplified mythology: Michael dressed in armour slew a dragon, and the angels fell through space like comets with beautiful streaming hair because they were jealous, so one of the Fathers had said, of what God intended for men -- the enormous privilege of life -- this life.
During his wanderings and ill-fated attempts to leave the state, he encounters a poor filthy scheming man who discovers his secret and follows him in the hopes of a reward for leading authorities to him. He's not Catholic, but attempts a confession to lead the priest to reveal himself.
How often the priest had heard the same confession -- Man was so limited he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization -- it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt. 
One of his greatest sins lead to the birth of a daughter, one who scorns him and yet has his steady love. Her very existence brings him joy, a secret warmth in his heart.
He couldn't say to himself that he wished his sin has never exited, because the sin seemed to him now so unimportant and he loved the fruit of it. He needed a confessor to draw his mind slowly down the drab passages which led to grief and repentance.
As the book progresses, the priest appears to fall farther and farther from his previous life. He becomes dirty, disheveled, losing all of his Mass articles. At one point, he is arrested on a minor charge and believes he will be executed as soon as they figure out who he really is.
Once he glanced quickly and nervously up at the old crumpled newspaper cutting and thought, It's not very like me now. What an unbearable creature he must have been in those days -- and yet in those days he had been comparatively innocent. That was another mystery: it sometimes seemed to him that venial sins -- impatience, an unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity -- cut you off from grace more completely than the worst sins of all. Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt...[His thoughts are interrupted here by the lieutenant.]
In the end, he is captured. He had traveled to a lonely spot, a trap, but there was a hardened criminal who wanted to confess. Even he seems unsure whether it was courage or pride that led him to the trap. As they journey back to the city, the lieutenant and the priest talk, of the people.
The lieutenant said, 'Those men I shot. They were my own people. I wanted to give them the whole world.'
'Well, who knows? Perhaps that's what you did.'
They talk of love. The priest says:
God is love. I don't say the heart doesn't feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn't recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us -- God's love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn't it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.
Confused, the lieutenant can't understand why the priest feels he is damned. If he were his "boss" (as God is), he'd give him a promotion or honor him for the sacrifice he is making.
'I'm not as dishonest as you think I am. Why do you think I tell people out of the pulpit that they're in danger of damnation if death catches them unawares? I'm not telling them fairy stories I don't believe myself. I don't know a thing about the mercy of God: I don't know how awful the human heart looks to Him. But I do know this -- that if there's ever been a single man in this state damned, then I'll be damned too.' He said slowly, 'I wouldn't want it to be any different. I just want justice, that's all.'
In the end, he feels himself a failure, a failure as a person, a failure as a priest. His end is ignominious, not a glorious martyr's death.
What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead -- soon he wouldn't even be a memory -- perhaps after all he was not at the moment afraid of damnation -- even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint.
Though perhaps it is a martyr's death. A young boy is the city, one who mostly scorned the saint stories his mother reads, is intrigued by the whiskey priest's execution. His mother, discomfited by the priest when he was alive, acknowledges him as a martyr. The idea of faith grows in the boy's eyes and he is emboldened and proud when a new priest arrives at their door.

Unlike books on saints or biographies of saints, this fictionalized account of the situation in Mexico (with which the author was familiar as journalist) provides a gritty reality of a sinful man who happens to be a priest. His pride and his despair, his courage and his cowardice, intermingle throughout the book.

The figure of Coral Fellows seems minor but is fascinating. She's a young American girl living with her disillusioned parents (a father who fails to manage the business well and a mother who fails to manage life well). She's an atheist, but instinctively knows it is right to protect the priest from the authorities. The reader can only guess at the events that transpire outside of the book that lead to her presumed death, but it seems clear the American criminal to whom the priest travels for his final confession was involved. Perhaps she sheltered him as well, and suffered death at his hands. Or perhaps she was sheltering the criminal and was killed by Mexican authorities in the crossfire. What does it mean that this young girl was willing to risk her own life for the priest? What does it mean that her life was taken? I wonder.

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