The Power and the Glory
Genre: Religious Life
Date Published: February 25, 2003 (Originally published in 1940)
Number of Pages: 240
Print Price: $10.14
eBook Price: $
The last priest in Mexico is on the run. The Church has gone underground, outlawed by the incumbent Powers-that-Be. Owning a rosary or a prayer book will land you in jail. Faithful Catholics thirst for the Mass, for the Eucharist, for God, but must content themselves with sporadic celebrations. There is only one priest left, the Whiskey Priest.
"He was a bad priest, he knew it: they had a word for his kind—a whiskey priest—but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret—the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace.”
The mysterious source of grace is the angel Graham Greene wrestles with in The Power and the Glory, the lauded author’s justifiably most famous work and acknowledged masterpiece. Greene admitted that he wrote “to a thesis”—a fact he felt might count against the novel aesthetically—yet in grappling with questions of grace, salvation, justice, and mercy a simple “thesis” becomes the material of eternal drama. Greene’s thesis is simply this: “at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint."
The Whiskey Priest is no saint. He is, in his own words, a “bad priest”: alcoholic, battered by hardship, and weighed down by the guilt of a mortal sin committed long ago. There is no one to hear his confession, no other priest in the entire country he can turn to. He knows himself to be damned, but keeps going. He can give God to people, and in his mind that is all he is good for anymore. His sense of inadequacy inspires an ulcerous guilt within him: “He prayed silently: O God, send them someone more worthwhile to suffer for.”
The Whiskey Priest does not doubt his faith; his inner dialogue with God is ongoing. Indeed, he believes in Christ to the point of despair: knowing himself to be damned, he thinks himself past redeeming. Beyond saving, he seeks only to save others:
He was a man who was supposed to save souls: it had seemed quite simple once, preaching at Benediction, organizing the guilds, having coffee with elderly ladies behind barred windows, blessing new houses with a little incense, wearing black gloves…it was as easy as saving money: now it was a mystery. He was aware of his own desperate inadequacy.”
I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s thick-skulled, arrogant Grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, a woman who only at gunpoint, with the yawning mouth of Eternity before her, recognizes the overpowering mystery of Good and Evil in the world. Her killer, bleakly humorous, comments, “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Stripped of all the trappings of his once-comfortable clerical life, the Whiskey Priest is reduced to a hunted animal. But even animals have an advantage over him: “Hope was an instinct only the reasoning human mind could kill. An animal never knew despair.” The Whiskey Priest, in his despair, must confront the true nature of his belief in God. It is an irony not lost on him (or the reader) that the main reason he is able to elude the Police is that he so little resembles the fat, glossy, and self-satisfied priest he once was. Time and suffering have filed his features down, like his soul, until only one question remains: Would he die for his faith? The Whiskey Priest can’t picture himself as a martyr; he is a self-confessed coward, terrified of the damnation he assumes awaits on the other side of death, and even more afraid of the physical pain that will bring him to that threshold. Greene’s story is less about whether or not the Priest will be caught than it is about whether or not he will be saved. As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, “There is no story without the fall.”
This is the story Greene was born to tell. Himself a man more haunted than blessed by his belief in Christ, Greene’s legacy as one of the twentieth centuries’ premier novelists (not to say simply “Catholic novelists”) would have been secure if The Power and the Gloryhad been his only work. With this novel, Greene brings all his considerable talent, craft, and gift for suspense to bear on a story that penetrates the heart of one tortured man’s mystery. For all its darkness and intensity, it’s a thrilling, page-turning read: the story is structured essentially as an extended chase across the barren landscape of Mexico—mirroring the even vaster desert spaces in the heart of the pursued Priest. Greene evokes the heat and dust and sweat of the country and its inhabitants with cinematic immediacy. The atmosphere is stifling, almost unbearably intense, and Greene’s capacity for storytelling invention never flags.
The novel is full of seeming contradictions and paradoxes, like Christ’s parables. For example, the Lieutenant chasing the Priest (with a Javert-like singe-mindedness) would have made a far better priest than our alcoholic, despairing antihero. The Lieutenant lives an ascetic life devoted solely to the capture and execution of the last living, professional witness to the faith. He has all the qualities of an excellent cleric; he is fastidious, fair-minded, and just. “He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy—a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.” Yet the Lieutenant’s desire is negation: to blot out the memory of the Church and all those associated with it. He is pure in his pursuit of destruction. “The lieutenant, lying on his hard bed, in the damp hot dark, felt no sympathy at all with the weakness of the flesh.”
The same could not be said for the Whiskey Priest, who in his weakness comes to love the oppressed, the suffering, and the sinners as Christ once did. The journey the Whiskey Priest takes in The Power and the Glory is spiritual as well as physical—his own Way of the Cross—a journey that tests his faith and purifies him in repeated baptisms of fire. At one point, he spends his last scrap of money on a bottle of wine to use for mass. It was hard enough to resist the impulse to buy brandy instead. Even worse, the purchase puts him in immediate danger, as wine had become a black-market item since the suppression of the Church. Obligated to disguise his identity from the authorities (who double as black-market dealers, making more money on the side), the Whiskey Priest cannot refuse when one offers a toast of the wine. Soon, another joins them, and another glass of wine is poured. Then another, including the corrupt Chief of Police. The Whiskey Priest is in the Lion’s Den, and is forced to watch the wine passed around, the wine meant to be transubstantiated into the blood of Christ. Greene wrings unbearable suspense with casually tossed-off moments like “a little of it splashed over onto the sheets.” The Priest watches helplessly as the quantity of wine diminishes, “all the hope of the world draining away.”
The sequence is a tour-de-force—an arrestingly strange but effective alchemy of Catholic theology, character study, and Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense. It is a sequence that delivers on a visceral and philosophical level at once, serving in many ways as a microcosm for the novel’s impact as a whole. It also highlights Greene’s incomparable gift for expressing profound theological mysteries (such as transubstantiation) through gripping storytelling. Imagine thirsting for Christ, and not finding him. How easy it is to take for granted the blessing of the mass every Sunday. Worse, imagine watching—stricken, powerless—as the wine vanishes before your eyes. Greene uses fiction to express the inseparable connection between man and the divine, and man’s crippled state, his utter dependence on God’s presence and mercy.
The Whiskey Priest is an indelibly haunting character—a convincing, fully dimensional flesh-and-blood creation in his own right, yet simultaneously representing the ongoing battle between good and evil, justice and mercy, sin and salvation that rages within each living soul. We all die. When we do, will we approach God “empty-handed,” as the Whiskey Priest fears? Locked for a night in a cell full of hardened criminals, it is the outwardly pious woman (jailed “probably for having a holy picture in her house”) who is to the priest the most contemptible: secure in her own piety through force of habit instead of faith, she is harsh, judgmental, and devoid of sympathy for others. A mystery is revealed to the Whiskey Priest: “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 corrupt.”Publisher: Penguin Classics
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7.7 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches
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