THE POWER AND THE GLORY by Graham Greene (First published, 1940).

In 1926, aged 22, Graham Greene converted from Atheism to Catholicism.

In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, he explained that  “I became aware of the probable existence of something we call God, though I now dislike the word with all its anthropomorphic associations……….there was no joy at all, only a sombre apprehension”.  

This hardly sounds as if  ‘seeing the light’ was an altogether  pleasurable experience.

I always thought the big advantage of belief was that it is supposed to bring serenity rather than doubt.

Greene’s un-joyful conversion goes some way to explaining the mood of sobriety that pervades this novel. Not that sobriety is a quality of its protagonist, an unnamed Mexican ‘whisky priest’ on the run from communists (“red shirts”) carrying out an anti-clerical purge.

A lieutenant of the Calvary claims to have the  interests of the people in mind. He reminds them that food and education, not prayer,  is what keeps you alive and healthy. He is part of a crusade to  “eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious and corrupt”.  Despite these noble principles, no-one seems too eager to claim the reward for turning the priest  in, which suggests that the destruction of the Church, and all it stands for, is not something ordinary citizens endorse.

Greene’s doomed priest may be destined for martyrdom but he is not represented as a saintly figure. He is all too aware of “his own desperate inadequacy”.  He accumulates sins, chief among them being to break the vow of chastity which leads to him fathering a daughter.  The implication is that it is more honest to be a sinner than as saint : “a virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell”. It is his un-holiness which makes him human and invites our sympathy.

The inability to atone for such transgressions leaves the priest feeling isolated and abandoned.  However, even if he had another man of God to confide in, you don’t feel that he has a deep repentance for  his misdemeanours:  “What was the good of confession when you loved the result of your crime?”.

For the most part, Graham Greene shows that he’s a worldly man who is aware that however willing the spirit, the flesh is infinitely weaker. Though this novel is on the side of Catholicism, he has little time for  religious platitudes and the novel presents the preservation of faith as a constant struggle – a battle against demons within and without.

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