Haunting, poignant, tragic, noble, heroic, tender, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Human, so very, very human and yet also about the power of God …
What words, what phrases of mine can possibly render justice to this masterpiece: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory?
For here is true literature, in which one finds the most acute observation of the human condition, in all its frailty and fallen-ness.
Fallen-ness: One may draw the word 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 Catholic.
Although it certainly is that.
For it concerns the plight of an alcoholic Mexican priest being hunted for his life. He is being hunted to the death in a wretchedly poor 1930s’ 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 the fact that its subject matter concerns the clergy or Church-State relations. I mean to say 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 – bestows 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 Graham 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 from malevolence, hatred, contempt and fear to tenderness, heroism, frailty, love and 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.
The result is 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 Greene offers countless vignettes of fallenness, he also includes 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 …
And now I shall take a rather idiosyncratic digression in the midst of this review. For I would note that, whilst in the course of reading Greene’s masterpiece, 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 concerned a bright and exuberant mechanic, who had recently lost his wife and child – at a single stroke. However, the young mechanic had learned to be ’upbeat‘.
Hearing of the young mechanic’s tragedy, his boss stares at him in wonder: ‘And every day you turn up to work with a smile on your face’ …
And New Age commentators on the video disc praised the film, for reminding us to keep appreciating life in the midst of adversity.
(If anyone feels drawn, brief clips of Help Wanted can be found at YouTube here.)
Now, one may 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 one’s 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.
For the glory in The Power and Glory is very, very different than New Age glory.
It is different from the glory 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 – that this kind of ‘glory’ is so often at the root of New Age things.
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’ masterpiece serves to render transparent …
Foreword for Monarchy by Roger Buck
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