Monday, June 25, 2012

"The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene

I'd never heard of The Power and the Glory before it was given to me by a friend. Written in 1940, the novel takes place in Mexico during a time in which Catholicism has been outlawed and priests are being hunted and killed. The book follows one priest as he attempts to escape while trying to reconcile his failures as a man of God.

In The Power and the Glory, the setting is elaborately rendered, with the heat, stench, and oppressiveness of the Mexican rainy season weighing down constantly (oddly, the atmosphere reminded me of The Great Gatsby). The unnamed "whiskey priest" is fully described, particularly his ambivalent attitude toward his vocation. The reader can feel his pain, fear, and fleeting hope through each plodding (not in a "boring plot" way but in an "inexorable march towards a dreaded fate" kind of way) moment of the novel.

The whiskey priest is tortured by the knowledge that his only solace is in duties (praying, serving the sacrament) he can no longer perform, both because they are outlawed and because the priest is unable to repent of his sins. There's of course something very human in a man who hates and yet cannot abandon his transgressions (his child; his drinking), which perhaps is what makes the whiskey priest so relatable.

After reading the novel, I was left with one central issue. (but first, a related tangent) I don't believe in God, and my husband does. For him, there's comfort in knowing that there's something greater than himself and that there's a purpose to existence. On the other hand, I find a lack of God far more reassuring. If there's no Plan and Purpose in life, then we can live life more fully and freely, unconstrained by arbitrary rules of what we "should" do. The novel, to me, seems to describe the danger and pain of (a certain type of) religious belief. In The Power and the Glory, the whiskey priest is tormented by his failure. He's failed to perform his duties as a priest; he's failed to abide by religious rules. Then what's the point of his Catholicism? He's miserable with his unworthiness, which gets him no where.

This point is made especially clear in the end when the whiskey priest is executed after finally (willingly) being caught by the police. His death is juxtaposed with a woman reading an obviously mythologized story of Juan, a saint who contently prays the night before he's executed and exclaims, "Hail, Christ the King" as he's killed. In contrast, the whiskey priest stays up that night in fear, drinking, and when he wakes, it is "with a huge feeling of hope which suddenly and completely left him at the first sight of the prison yard.... He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all" (210). What is the point of a religion which only highlights and reinforces humans' unavoidable inadequacies?

On the other hand, the priest's greatest sense of comfort comes when he spends the night in filthy jail, pushed up close to all kinds of people. He's repelled by the pious and judgmental Catholic woman and instead sees beauty in the world around him. Damning the people with him, even the couple having sex, for their sins seems pointless. Compassion, instead, is the only obvious answer. Even in such a place, none of the "brutes" turns him in for reward money once they learn he is a priest.

Though to me the novel is a call for a care for human life and possibilities over dogma, perhaps Green is instead advocating for religion focused not on damnation but on love (something many denominations today certainly do).

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