As before, our group discussion was wide-ranging and open-ended rather than conclusive, but also as before, the process of hearing a range of ideas and trying out my own helped me sort my preliminary impressions. I am left with a number of uncertainties about the novel, some quite literal (what happened to the girl Coral, for instance? I thought she had died, perhaps from whatever caused her sharp stomach pains, but it turned out other people had not inferred that, and we couldn’t find any specific information), some more abstract (what is the place of women in the moral and religious universe of this novel, for one? except for Coral, they seem mostly very limited in their roles and their agency and are generally peripheral to the novel’s central dramatic conflict–is it a misimpression that in the priest’s struggle between material and spiritual needs, women are sidelined because they belong to the world of the flesh?). But I am also left feeling I appreciate at least some aspects of it, particularly about how its very dreariness–its immersion in corruption, failure, sin, inadequacy, disappointment, dirt, and death–helps us make the same journey the whiskey priest makes towards a particular idea of God and salvation. Listening at one point to the confession of the mestizo who ultimately will betray him, the priest reflects on the unoriginality of his sins, on the mestizo‘s inability to understand that he is “only a typical part” of “a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant.” But the moral ugliness of the world illuminates rather than obscures the greatness of God:
It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay in death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.
This is the world–these are the people–for whom the whiskey priest, too, ultimately dies, as, unable to turn away from his duty to a dying Christian, he knowingly allows the mestizo to lead him into a trap. Even before then, he has risked his life repeatedly by hearing confession and performing mass for the motely assortment of variously ugly, corrupt, ignorant, even evil people he encounters on his grim travels. And there is a kind of glory in the fleeting moments of grace he achieves, as well as a kind of heroism in the ruthlessness with which he admits his own inadequacies and failures even as he doggedly serves the God he believes may damn his soul to Hell. He is no saint, if being saintly means transcending the needs and temptations and vulnerabilities of ordinary human life. But if a saint is someone who is fully human and yet who, despite sharing those needs and temptations and flaws, still persists in honoring the ideal he may never reach–then, perhaps, the whiskey priest is closer than he thinks to being “the only thing that counted.” The mother’s story of Juan the Martyr provides an ironic commentary on this perspective on sainthood: our priest, too, may become the subject of such legends and be given in death the purity of heart, the courage, the heroism he lacked in life. But Greene lets us see the superficiality of that simplistic version, which is no more than a story for children. His imperfect man is, I think the lesson is, a perfect priest, truly a man of God.
I found Greene’s prose very effective, especially the unexpected similes which I learned he called “leopards” (because they “leap” at you): “She carried her responsibilities carefully like crockery across the hot yard”; “The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit”; “the watch-tower gaped over their path like an upper jaw”; or, most poignant of all, “He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place”–that’s the line, I think, that will stay with me. For all the spiritual beauty that oozes out, though, from dark scenes such as the priest’s nights in prison or the remarkable mass he performs in the darkness in his home village even as the soldiers draw near–for all that, I found myself repelled by the vision Greene presents, of humanity as well as of religion. I found myself thinking of Swinburne’s lines (in the “Hymn to Proserpine”) expressing horror at the replacement of pagan joy with Christian suffering. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;” says his speaker, “the world has grown gray from thy breath”: “O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods; / “O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!” I don’t usually align myself with Swinburne, but Greene’s world is certainly gray and ghastly. I was also reminded of Cardinal Newman (like Greene, of course, a convert to Catholicism) and his eloquent rant about the fallen world he saw around him: “the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary, hopeless irreligion …all this is a vision to dizzy and appal,” from which he draws the conclusion that “if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible calamity.” You don’t need to be a cock-eyed optimist to consider this a very partial account of the world and man’s nature, one that drives us towards hatred and suspicion of ourselves and legitimizes suffering and misery. “I hate your reasons,” the lieutenant says in exasperation to the cornered priest; “If you see somebody in pain, people like you reason and reason. You say — pain’s a good thing, perhaps he’ll be better for it one day. I want to let my heart speak.” Though Greene doesn’t vilify the lieutenant, he makes him the priest’s antagonist and thus implies, I think, that his principles serve only worldly or material, not moral or religious, interests. But I think in this one thing I’m with the lieutenant, though clearly that goes against the grain of the novel itself. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me or reads my blog that I greatly prefer a moral vision that (rather than offering us a get-out-of-Hell-free card if we repent for our wrongdoing at the last minute, or that expects us to be good under threat of punishment or promise of reward, or in service to the glory of some hypothetical deity) is based on the human capacity for sympathy and the intrinsic value of reducing suffering and increasing joy.
The book we chose for March is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Graham Greene once called Brian Moore his “favourite living novelist,” and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne apparently contains both excess drinking and a priest, so the two reads are connected in several ways!