Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Grace of a Whiskey Priest: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a riveting tale about a “whiskey priest” in a Mexican police state that has outlawed the Roman Catholic Church. The nameless padre is effectively trapped within a relatively small region of Mexico because, though he is constantly traveling towards the safety across the border, he is frequently waylaid by run-ins with either the militant police or desperate Catholics who haven’t seen a man of the cloth or received the sacraments in years. The little priest is embroiled in a game of subterfuge, stealth, and sacrament with his life and the faith of his countrymen at stake.

(Wow. That was both succinct and intriguing, wasn’t it? I totally should write for the back covers of books.)

The character of the anonymous priest is fascinating. He is a drunk, has had a child while on the run, and has been without any sort of spiritual food for so long that he has all but lost his own faith—or so he claims. He experiences such lucid awareness and deep shame over his own failings as a priest that he is loathe to perform his priestly duties, but always does so anyway. He is a slave to drink, doubt, and cowardice, but knows it and is humbled by this knowledge. In short, as the back cover of my book (where this guy did a pretty good job, too) puts it, he is “too human for heroism, too humble for martyrdom.” He is terrified of being found and executed, but is also so exhausted after almost ten years of being an undercover priest that he longs for that same end. He views it as his duty to protect his life, however, because of his service to the Lord and to his people, and therefore perseveres despite his absolute conviction that he is a terrible priest and the knowledge that he is living as a hypocrite.

He is a study in contrasts and—if only he had known it!—is a figure of grace because he strives to follow the contrast in conjunction with his vocation. However, this is not his most admirable quality, in my opinion. His (often) humility and (often) purity of motivation are what really strike me as I read it. He has been so trampled by his sins and is so humble because of it that his actions are almost completely without desire for vainglory or reward. He thinks of himself as damned (he has celebrated Mass and therefore received the Eucharist in the state of mortal sin, and, what is more important, thinks that because he loves his daughter he has not repented of his sin in conceiving her) and therefore acts according to his obligations to his vocation even though he is in constant danger of being caught and executed by the lieutenant who is hot on his trail.

Another interesting aspect of the book (really, there are so many—I HIGHLY recommend it for multiple readings) is that the priest’s sins cause him to have a heightened sense of pity and empathy for his fellow men. For example, when confronted with a revolting man whom he knows wants to turn him in to the police for a considerable reward,
“He prayed silently, ‘God forgive me.’ Christ had dies 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 real lust.”

And again, his compassion is revealed in another passage:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the liens at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

The priest’s state of misery, self-disgust, near-despair, longing for grace, and insight into the nature of sin combine to make him a multi-faceted and fascinating character. The novel offers an interesting perspective on sin and holiness that I might just continue expounding upon later…

1 comment:

Emily Byers said...

Oh, The Power and the Glory! My favorite novel, hands down. We read it in my senior English class at Lafayette High(surprising, I know!), and I couldn't believe how well Greene captured Mexico and the impact of the persecution on the Church there. Every time I go on mission, I expect to see the "whiskey priest" walking out of the chapel, or through the plaza, or down by the highway...