More power, less glory
I came across Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory at a vulnerable time. I was one and a half years into a two year stint of National Service, and was based at the armoured corps depot in Dorset. We were training to become experts on wirelesses. I got as far as changing fuses and knowing when a valve had blown – the light went out. We dashed about the countryside in small trucks, fighting imaginary wars and throwing thunder-flashes into the gardens of unsuspecting villagers.
I was trying to make up my mind about whether to train as a priest or not. It was not the ideal location for making such decisions. We were often out all day on exercises. At night there was the officers’ Mess, and too often Mess games, which involved playing football with bread rolls, much noise, a lot of drinking, and extended efforts to be as hearty as anyone else.
Into the middle of this confusion came a small, shy Catholic priest: the RC chaplain. He was not one to play football with bread rolls. In fact he got away from such dinners as soon as he decently could. He had a chapel in half a Nissan hut, and I used to serve his Mass there on Sundays whenever I could. We, his flock, were a funny freemasonry. Me, pink-faced and a brand new second lieutenant, a corporal from the radio room, a couple of ATS women, a major from the admin office, and occasionally a junior cook. It was the one place in the whole barracks where we met more or less as equals. I used to chat to Fr Murphy, or Moriarty, or McCarthy or whatever his name was. Not my sort of priest. I had really only known public school Jesuits and this one was a very different kettle of fish. Unlike another chaplain, who loved dressing up in military garb, our priest always stayed in black, with a big white collar.
One day he lent me The Power and the Glory. The phrase comes at the end of the full-length Protestant “Our Father”: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory…” I knew little enough about the early twentieth century Mexican regime that had done its best to rid the country of Catholicism. That persecution had involved the execution of the Jesuit Fr Pro, as pious a martyr as anyone could want. Naturally the saints I had heard about at school were all people of astonishing courage and heroic virtue. Apparently they made encouraging signs of the cross while being disembowelled at Tyburn. They were stretched inches longer on the rack, but kept their secrets to themselves. Never a shadow of a doubt affected their faith. We boys at school confidently sang “Faith of our Fathers” and declared that there was nothing better that we wanted than “dungeon, fire and sword”. In fact martyrdom would be a positive pleasure.
So Graham Greene’s whisky priest was a bit of a shock: smelly, fornicating, begging for drink, and a million miles away from the Edmund Campions of my pious upbringing. Far from wanting martyrdom, he did his best to avoid it. Escape was his main preoccupation, but he came back unwillingly to his death when he was needed as a priest.
The novel had a great affect on me. I can’t say it was the only reason why I ended up in the seminary, but it played a major part. According to Greene you didn’t have to be especially nice, respectable, or even holy to be able to do something worthwhile for the kingdom of God. In a way it helped me to get out of the straight-jacket of Catholic exclusiveness. God can use anyone. Clerical collars and baptismal certificates aren’t essential. In fact they can sometimes be obstacles.
I never met Greene, though I think I have read most of his novels. Many are played out against the big screen of conscience and the world of God. There is much of Greene personally in them. His life was a split one, divided between moral absolutes and fallible human nature.
The Power and the Glory is a straight challenge to accepted norms. The brave man is officially morally deplorable. Yet his sense of duty and commitment to others brought him into conflict with the State. Greene was always fascinated by the outsider who refuses to follow trends. When he got his honorary degree at the University of Hamburg in 1969 he stressed the value of disloyalty amongst writers. “If only writers could maintain that one virtue of disloyalty – so much more important than chastity – unspotted from the world. Honours, even this prize-giving, state patronage, success, the praise of their fellows, all tend to sap their disloyalty. If we enlarge the bounds of sympathy in our readers we succeed in making the work of the state a degree more difficult. That is a genuine duty we owe society, to be a piece of grit in the state machinery.”
The whisky priest, despite himself, was just that sort of grit. He got in the way of the steamroller of conformity.
We don’t have to be saints to say that peace based on the threat of mutual incineration is no peace at all, that selling weapons in a sin, not a pathway to the honours list, that treating asylum-seekers like criminals is a national disgrace, that shareholder profit without shareholder responsibility is morally corrupt, or that leading a country to war on false pretences is a crime. Those who say such disloyal things will not in our society be punished, but they will always be marginal. Bits of grit are on the whole not appreciated. The real power of writers lies in their dissent rather than in how many honours they receive. More power, less glory.