What words, what phrases of mine can possibly begin to do justice to this masterpiece: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory?
For this is true literature, in which one finds the most acute observation of the human condition, in all its frailty and fallen-ness.
Fallen-ness: it is a word one may draw from Christianity and Catholicism, and this is a book that is very, very Catholic.
By this, I mean to say that this is not merely a book whose subject matter is explicitly to do with Catholicism. Although it is, in fact, about the plight of an alcoholic Mexican priest being hunted for his life. He is being hunted for his life in a wretchedly poor 1930′s Mexican state, which has outlawed the Church with the decree: “Kill all the priests” …
But no, by calling this book Catholic, I mean to say far more than that its subject matter concerns the clergy or Church-State relations. I mean that this is a book possessed of a deeply Catholic sensibility and vision.
Now some have called this “The Catholic Imagination”, implying that the practice of the Catholic and Christian religion – with its Sacraments – bestow a unique way of envisioning the world.
“A unique way of envisioning the world”: it is not easy to name all which that imagination entails. But it is relatively easier to recognise it, when one sees it. And I certainly recognise it in Greene.
Yes I recognise it, as Greene bears witness to the tragedy of the human condition.
And I recognise it as he observes the human heart in all its ever shifting tinctures. Tinctures spanning a wide spectrum of malevolence, hatred, contempt, fear, tenderness, heroism, frailty, love, compassion, as well as sublime faith in and dedication to God …
All the little ways we human beings hurt each other are soberly realised indeed in this novel. A little lack of courage here; a little bit of autistic incomprehension and insensitivity there … and a little dash of sheer malice over there. I found the result to be an achingly poignant, honest confrontation with the fallen-ness of our condition.
Now if these human failures were all there was to this book, it might collapse under a weight of despair. It is the joy of the novel that it is so, so much more, as well. For if there are countless vignettes of fallenness, there are also also countless glimpses of heroism, compassion and love – the latter paradoxically intermeshed with the former. As in life …
There is then, the image of the famished, alcoholic priest, who spends his last remaining few pesos on wine – not to drink, but to consecrate: to bring God sacramentally present in a world where the Sacraments have all but been eliminated.
Then there is the haunting image of the priest-hunting lieutenant. This priest hunter who will stop at nothing to find his prey, including killing innocent hostages. Yet a priest hunter, who then, mistaking his prey for nothing but a poor wretch, hands him a few more pesos out of mercy …
Now idiosyncratic it may be, but I will pause for a digression in the midst of this review. For I would like to note that whilst in the course of reading this novel, I was asked to watch a very short film, Help Wanted, which lasted perhaps all of twelve minutes.
It was offered by something called the Spiritual Cinema Circle (http://www.spiritualcinemacircle.com) which is a DVD club offering films, which, as one can see by clinking on the link, promise to:
- Awaken your sense of joy and wonder!
- Inspire love and compassion!
- Evoke a deeper sense of connection with the universe around you!
Yes the Spiritual Cinema Circle offers very New Age fare, it seems to me. And in comparison to what I had just been reading, Help Wanted seemed rather trite. Its message was that of a bright and exuberant mechanic, who had recently lost his wife and child at a single stroke, but had learned to be “upbeat”. There were also commentators on the video disc who praised the film, for reminding us to keep appreciating life in the midst of adversity.
If anyone feels drawn, brief clips indicating what I refer to can be found at http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid901130167 ( then click on Volume 4, Films 2009).
Now I agree with the commentators on this New Age disc. There is a glory in a life, which must never be forgotten. And Graham Greene´s book – as its title suggests – is all about glory.
Yet to remember glory is not to forget tragedy! It is not to close our heart, and in Graham Greene’s masterpiece, one will find indeed that such a loss – the loss of lover and child – is handled very, very differently than in Help Wanted.
Yes the glory in The Power and Glory seems so very, very different than New Age glory – which is so often the glorification of apparent human mastery and imagined omnipotence, or at very least, imagined control of one’s emotions. At least this is what decades of direct experience with the New Age subculture have served to indicate to me …
And now nearly a decade after entering the Catholic Church, my Imagination has been honed to perceive a very different glory. A glory which Graham Greenes’s masterpiece also serves to render transparent …
Of Related Interest:
From Amazon USA:
These titles can also be found in our Amazon UK Store here. Each title is reviewed at these links: (Windswept House) (The New Faithful) (The Ratzinger Report ) (The Rise of Pope Benedict XVI) (The Splendor of Faith) (Salt of the Earth) (All the Pope’s Men) (Mother Angelica) (Ugly as Sin)