Graham Green’s book first flagged my attention because Terry Glaspey of Great Books of the Christian Tradition–And Other Books Which Have Shaped Our World lists it as one of his Top Ten Favorite Novels of all time. When I noted my own favorites–Anna Karenina and Les Miserables and The Brothers K (by James Duncan) also on that list, I knew this was one I needed to read! It’s been on my mental list for many years and on my bookshelf for at least two. But this week, lured by its small size, I plucked it off my shelf and polished off its 222 pages without further delay. What it lacks in size it more than makes up in solid piercing thoughts about the true nature of man and the struggles of both the pious and the debauched to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
For me it is a parable of Paul’s distressed words: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
I found myself startled in the searchlights of Graham Greene’s profound conversations via the ‘whiskey priest’ with both saints and sinners. Discerning the difference became the real conundrum. I’m at a loss to supply a quote that captures the depth of soul-searching that is accomplished through the words, the introspections and the actions of this tragic priest.
His thoughts reveal the challenge of true repentance, the alarming fate of the ‘pious’ (self-righteous), the corrosive effects of honor and wealth, and above all the helpless human condition apart from the mercy of God.
Like a parable, Greene’s story pierces through any human smugness and points at our true condition as fallen humankind. The scene that sticks with me most depicts the haggard, penniless priest in disguise thrown into a squalid prison cell jam-packed with offenders of every sort. Here he unwittingly finds a confessional of sorts for himself. Fearfully facing his own impending death he acknowledges his sinful unworthiness to be a priest. But at the same time his heart is moved with the reality that ‘God so loved the world…’ and he listens to and reasons with various occupants of the cell, trying to point them to truth…One woman in particular concerns him.
He had always been worried by the fate of pious women. As much as politicians, they fed on illusion. He was frightened for them: they came to death so often in a state of invincible complacency, full of uncharity. It was one’s duty, if one could, to rob them of their sentimental notions of what was good…p127
She is not unlike the Pharisee who stood piously thanking God: “I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican….” Lk.18:10
“No, no. Thieves, murderers…oh, well, my child, if you had more experience you would know there are worse things to be.” p129
Unmercifully, having listened to the priest’s admission of his sinful state, she condemned him and when he poignantly requested that rather than be angry with him, she might pray for him, her response was: ‘The sooner you are dead the better.”
The shocking contrast between her self-satisfied sense of goodness and her complete lack of compassion is a potent warning to me! Her character serves as a sort of check-point for me to confess my own incorrigible tendency to revel in a ‘goodness’ that consists more of things I haven’t done than in true humility at the wonder of God’s compassion toward me.
And this for me is the value of the best fiction. It showcases truth in a poignant unforgettable fashion. I highly commend to you Graham Greene’s: The Power and the Glory. And just a word of encouragement, don’t lay it aside till you get past the first eighty pages or so. The context is a sad and dreary one, but the main character is well worth seeing through to the end!
A sampling of quotes:
The mystery of salvation:
He was a man who was supposed to save souls. It had seemed quite simple once, preaching at Benediction, organizing the guilds, having coffee with elderly ladies behind barred windows, blessing new houses with a little incense, wearing black gloves…It was easy as saving money: now it was a mystery. He was aware of his own desperate inadequacy. p82
The insidiousness of self-sufficiency:
Jogging up and down on the mule he tried to bribe God with promises of firmness…The mule suddenly dug in its hoofs and stopped dead: a tiny green snake raised itself on the path and then hissed away into the grass like a match-flame. The mule went on.p83
The glory of what Christ has done:
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. p.97
He prayed silently, ‘God forgive me.’ Christ had died for this man too: how could he pretend with his pride and lust and cowardice to be any more worthy of that death than the half-caste? This man intended to betray him for money which he needed, and he had betrayed God for what? Not even for real lust…p.99
Blessings on your summer reading!