It is often said of writers that they must first read, and that if you want any hope of being a great writer, you must be a great reader. I don’t know if that’s true – I have known very gifted writers who read very little, and voracious readers who could not string a sentence together. One thing, though, I can say: certain books are so brilliant that they inspire me to want to be a better writer. There is no particular genre, or subject or period in history that these books belong to. What they all have in common is that they touch upon some ‘essential truth’, something that the writer himself knows to be true, and the force of his conviction leads me to be intrigued by his truth, to accept it into my own canon.
Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’ reeks of exactly this kind of essential truth. A devout Catholic, Greene naturally questioned the shortcomings of his own Church. Like all thinking members of the Church of Rome, he must have been deeply frustrated with its contradictions, pettiness and displays of pomp and pride. In ‘The Power and the Glory’ he lays bare this frustration, by showing the Catholic Church at its most essential.
No, this essence has nothing to do with the Pope in Rome, or any great bishops, or the inner machinations of Opus Dei. Rather, it is a disgraced Mexican cleric of low rank – the ‘Whiskey Priest’ – on the run from the communists who control that state. These communists have a fiercely atheistic zealotry; one that is deliberately reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.
The priest’s persecution is set up to be deliberately Christ-like, in that he must endure hardship, insults and deprivation. And yet, just as deliberately, we are given ample reminders of the fact that the Whiskey Priest is no Christ figure. He is a grievous sinner, guilty of all seven of the deadly variety. His life before the Communist revolution was one of pride; of lust leading to the fathering and abandonment of a bastard child; the sins of gluttony and sloth; and all of this seasoned with an unhealthy dose of envy of those of his peers who had risen higher in the Church than he.
Now a fugitive, every policeman in the state hunts him. Yet he manages to elude justice for weeks. The pious peasants respect his office even if he no longer does, and they pay a huge price to hide him from the Communists. His fugitive status is not even a form of martyrdom, because he fails to uphold even the most basic offices of the Church with any remaining shred of dignity, despite the people’s need for his spiritual guidance. Rather, he flees because he is a coward.
The story is made gripping by the detailed, gritty descriptions of the scenery (beetles exploding against the walls, swamping hot rivers with lazy, rusted boats anchored) and the people (the odd-ball ex-pats, the corrupt police lieutenant, the indolent villagers). But its true appeal lies deeper. We want to know the Whiskey-Priest’s faith precisely because his whole persecution amounts to a deeply religious confession – a path to God and the religion he had never truly known, all through the glory days of his priestly reign. His path to God only opened up the day he was tested.
Yet Greene is too good an author to allow his Whiskey-Priest moral redemption on earth. In the brief moment in which he achieves safety and a degree of comfort, we see our anti-hero quickly revert to his old, sinful habits. The message from Greene is clear: there is no path out of sin except the unconditional acceptance of God and belief in His divine mercy.
As a religious person, I relate to this story on many levels. But though its essential truth resonates with me, I cannot say how it would strike someone with different philosophical leanings.
Would the power of Greene’s faith, exposed through this wonderfully crafted tale, ring as true in the ears of a 21st Century atheist, an adherent of the cult of The Science? I somehow believe it would.
But then again, I’m the sort who believes lots of things – like the only son of God dying on a cross outside Jerusalem, two thousand years ago.
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