I've just finished reading Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, one of the finer novels I've read in a long while, maybe ever.
It explores a pair of mysteries inherent in religion: first, that supposedly saintly men and women also may happen to be frightened, feeble sinners; and second, that none of us can measure accurately the impact, good or evil, we've had on others.
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Greene, who was British, is among my favorite writers, but I'd never gotten to The Power and the Glory, even though critics consider it his masterpiece. The novel was originally published in 1940.
Greene was a Roman Catholic, yet hated the label ”Catholic writer.“ He considered himself instead a writer who just happened to be a Catholic.
The Power and the Glory evolved from his travels in Mexico in the 1930s, when the Mexican government had undertaken a campaign against the Catholic Church.
The persecution was especially severe in Tabasco, where the governor encouraged paramilitary groups called Red Shirts to shut down churches and drive priests into exile, kill them or force them to marry.
The novel's central character is a fictional, unnamed priest who believes himself to be the last active cleric in his state. He has stayed behind voluntarily to conduct Masses and administer other sacraments, but after several years is trying to escape.
The paradox is that the priest is by no discernable standard holy. He's known among the peasants as ”the whiskey priest“ — an alcoholic. He routinely neglects fasts and other duties. He has fathered a child. He has remained behind not out of a humble obedience to God, but from his own arrogance.
The whiskey priest is pursued by a single-minded lieutenant bent on capturing him. The priest's condition goes from bad to wretched. He's hounded, hungry, exhausted and ragged.
Villagers refuse to tell the lieutenant where the priest is, so the lieutenant takes several as hostages and starts executing them; the priest knows they've died in his place.
By the time he's caught, the whiskey priest is convinced he's damned beyond hope, that God can never forgive his multitude of sins. He believes his whole ministry has been a sham and a failure. Shot by a firing squad, he collapses in a tattered, ignominious heap.
But in the novel's final pages, we also find, through the eyes of minor characters, that the whiskey priest has had a profound effect on those who met him as he fled, including a young boy who regards him as a true martyr of the church.
Therein lies the power and glory of The Power and the Glory. The whiskey priest is not unlike all of us — smelly and stupid and selfish and self-loathing. And not unlike us, he's also mystic and wise and generous and righteous.
I wouldn't say Greene's story is directly autobiographical. He wasn't a priest. He wasn't driven from pillar to post by a violent enemy. He wasn't poor.
Still, I imagine he knew firsthand many of his whiskey priest's interior struggles. Like the priest, Greene was a Christian. In a broad sense, he held a public and important religious trust; few writers were able to plumb the depths of faith as effectively for a 20th-century audience as Greene could.
Simultaneously, he was a troubled and perhaps even loathsome man. He's been described as a cad, a chronic and superficial adulterer, an anti-Semite, a political rabble rouser. He might have been bipolar.
He had issues. Major issues.
But then, don't we all?
For that matter, haven't history's spiritual exemplars, the saints and seers, all been messy, multi-layered characters?
Abraham, the father of three monotheistic religions, conceived a son with his wife's maid, told lies and twice gave his wife to other men in efforts to save his own hide. Mother Teresa, the most prominent nun of her day, confessed privately that she doubted there was a God at all. Both of them changed the world.
You and I won't accomplish what Abraham or Mother Teresa did, but we might favorably influence a person or two in some lasting way.
It's always seemed to me that God goes about every day performing his works, great and small, through liars, cheats, egomaniacs and cowards. He uses sinners to his glory because, if he's to use humans at all, sinners are the only variety available.