Article by Seminarian Scott Coleman
“There but for the grace of God go I…”
I have read and enjoyed plenty of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited most notably among them. There one finds a certain vision of Catholicism, of priesthood, and the world; that vision is not without its challenges, and the Catholicism which attracts Ryder in Brideshead is not an easy or a straightforward thing. Still, there is something irresistible about the faith as presented; suffering and hardship there may be, but there is a certain dignity in the action of grace in the lives of human beings.
I recently read, for the first time, a novel by one of Waugh’s near contemporaries, Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, and how great a contrast there is. My first reaction to Greene’s whisky-priest was “there but for the grace of God go I”, but this seems an inadequately trite response to the drama of faith and humanity in this novel. Whenever I thought I had grasped the message, or was confident that I had understood the character of the priest, there was something more to learn, something more to experience - and generally something which I struggled to pigeonhole as either positive or negative.
The opening scene introduces us to the nameless main character, who, unbeknown to us, is attempting to escape anti-clerical persecution in Mexico. He misses his chance (for the sake of a drink and some hospitality from an unwitting English dentist) and almost shuffles off, back into the interior of the country, back into his ministry. The lack of drama, the resignation of this long-suffering man was, to me, almost unbearably tense. Right from the start, and throughout the story, I found myself longing for him simply to pick himself up and run for it.
But simple answers are emphatically not on the table for Graham Greene. For every community and individual whom the whisky-priest meets there is a mixed blessing, the blessing of God’s presence vouchsafed by a fragile and wounded human being. He retains throughout a deep faith in the reality of what he is doing for people when he celebrates the sacraments. He continues to minister to people at enormous personal cost, even if it is a cost that he bears almost unwillingly; he certainly has no plan to minister to them other than that which providence presents to himself.
There is deep insight into human vulnerability, woundedness, and sin. The priest’s knowledge of his unworthiness is profoundly affecting; however much I wish to make excuses for him, he will not let me; he retains the deepest sense of his sin in the sight of God. The passages in which he contemplates his own damnation are hard to read, and again the temptation I felt was constantly to explain away his misdemeanours, to try to work out a way of explaining his situation. But he simply depends on God. He knows he can do nothing without Him and consequently does nothing without Him. He is all too aware of the inadequacy of his own contrition and love for God; he longs for the assurance of sacramental absolution that is not forthcoming (there being no other priests available).
The hardest point on this journey is when, having escaped into a neighbouring state without such persecution, he allows himself to be led back. He knows he is going towards a trap, but goes willingly to attempt to reconcile and hear the confession of a murderer; it ends with his being shot.
What am I to think in response to this? Thanks be to God, I do not live in such a state of persecution, and have the comfort of knowing that the sacraments and the support of friends and family are never far away. Would I have the courage to admit my faults, to carry on, to resign myself to any fate, simply because providence so guided me? These are questions, inevitably, that one cannot answer in advance. And perhaps rightly so: each of us can only respond to the present situation, to the challenges and opportunities that God in fact gives.
But I am not sure that that is an entirely adequate response. The whisky-priest certainly has his failings, and does not always act for quite the right motives, but he has love. He has a deep love for the real human beings around him. He does not love simply because he is commanded to do so; he loves because he sees something of value in each person; he sees each person as at least as lovable as himself. His love is not blind and he does not pretend that people are better than they are, but his self-knowledge and self-awareness opens himself up to the other.
This article might read like rather a stream-of-consciousness (and it is), but that is perhaps because this novel defies easy answers and neat categorisation, at least to my mind. Is the priest a martyr, hero, and saint, or is he a scoundrel who scrapes through life by luck, ultimately condemned by his own fecklessness? The answer is undoubtedly a little of both - but these are hard ideas to reconcile. It will continue to be a source of provocation in my reflections on priesthood and vocation.