Saturday, August 8, 2009

168. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

History: Published in 1940, the title is an allusion to the doxology often added to the end of the Lord's Prayer: "For thine is the kingdom, (and) the power, and the glory, now and forever (or forever and ever), amen."
Plot: The main character in the story is a nameless "whiskey priest", who combines a great power for self-destruction with pitiful cravenness, an almost painful penitence and a desperate quest for dignity. The other main character is a lieutenant of the police who is given the task of hunting down this priest. This Lieutenant—also nameless but thought to be based upon Tomás Garrido Canabal[8][9]— is a committed socialist who despises everything that the church stands for.
The story starts with the arrival of the priest in a country town in an area where Catholicism is outlawed, and then follows him on his trip through Mexico, where he is trying to minister to the people as well as he can. He is also haunted by his personal demons, especially by the fact that he had fathered a child in his parish some years before. He meets the child, but is unable to feel repentant about what happened. Rather, he feels a deep love for the evil-looking and awkward little girl and decides to do everything in his power to save her from damnation. The priest's opposite player among the clericals is Padre José, a priest who has been forced to renounce his faith and marry a woman (by order of the government) and lives as a state pensioner.
During his journey the priest also encounters a mestizo who later reveals himself to be a Judas figure. The lieutenant, on the other hand, is morally irreproachable, yet he is cold and inhumane. While he is supposedly "living for the people", he puts into practice a diabolic plan of taking hostages from villages and shooting them, if it proves that the priest has sojourned in a village but is not denounced. The lieutenant has also had bad experiences with the church in his youth, and as a result there is a personal element in his search for the whiskey priest. The lieutenant thinks that all members of the clergy are fundamentally evil, and believes that the church is corrupt, and does nothing but provide delusion to the people.
In his flight from the lieutenant and his posse, the priest escapes into a neighboring province, only to re-connect with the mestizo, who persuades the priest to return in order to hear the confession of a dying man. Though the priest suspects that it is a trap, he feels compelled to fulfill his priestly duty. Although he finds the dying man, it is a trap and the lieutenant captures the priest. The lieutenant admits he has nothing against the priest as a man, but he must be shot “as a danger”. On the eve of the execution, the lieutenant shows mercy and attempts to enlist a former priest to hear the condemned man's confession. The lieutenant is convinced that he has "cleared the province of priests". In the final scene, however, another priest arrives in the town - which, among other possible readings, suggests that the Catholic Church cannot be destroyed.
Review: Despite the fact that the priest is being chased, the action in the book is pretty dull. What makes The Power and the Glory so remarkable is Greene's complex and compelling treatment of the priest's faith. The priest wants to believe despite the religious aridity of the world around him, but he doubts his own authority, his own ability to honestly represent the beauty of Catholicism. His chase and his inevitable capture should be the stuff from which martyrs are made, but the priest knows that he doesn't measure up to the martyrs of the past--his soul is sullied by his own repeated sins, and he is afraid that in his final moments he will think not of God but of fear, and death. And in the priest's repeated avocations against becoming too proud, Greene powerfully showcases the conflicting pulls of a good religion on a bad man.
Opening Line: “Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.”
Closing Line: “Yes,” he said gently. “My name is Father –“ But the boy had already swung the door open and put his lips to his hand before the other could give himself a name.”
Quotes: "And when we love our sin then we are damned indeed."
Rating: Very Good.

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