Eight months ago, I hadn't even heard of The Power and the Glory. For me, the book first cropped up on the Prague school shelves, when I was poking through our collection for extra copies of The Lord of the Flies. It stayed on the shelves for another few weeks, until I discovered that Augustine's theological tomes made horrible bedtime reading and absconded with the novel. Every night I curled up in my bed at Bubenečská flat with Graham Greene's tale, set in 1930s Mexico, of a Catholic priest on the run from a hostile government. As the priest tries to keep up the semblance of his religious duties, he struggles to overcome his fear of death and his deep sense of sin and damnation - a story which proves, in the end, emotionally and spiritually moving.
So moving is this novel that I will be teaching it next semester (Spring 2012) in my Literature course. In evangelical (and fundamentalist) Christian circles there exists an tendency to shun anything related to Catholicism as doctrinally contaminated and therefore irrelevant. Ironically, I have found the opposite to be true, especially in this novel: the Catholic priest's spiritual journey has great relevance for problems that plague the church, for problems that plague me.
Last night I discovered the following passage about halfway through The Power and the Glory. The priest arrived at a town of relative safety, stops to listen to the confessions of the devout. In the sins confessed, the priest discovers a difference between those which are not truly sins and those which are truly damning. An elderly woman confesses the first type (not-truly-sins) to the priest, and he responds:
"Why don't you confess properly to me? I'm not interested in your fish supply or in how sleepy you are at night . . . remember your real sins."
"But I'm a good woman, father," she squeaked at him with astonishment.
"Then what are you doing here, keeping away the bad people?" He said: "Have you any love for anyone but yourself?"
"I love God, father," she said haughtily. He took a quick look at her in the light of the candle burning on the floor--the hard old raisin eyes under the black shawl--another of the pious--like himself.
"How do you know? Loving God isn't any different from loving a man--or a child. It's wanting to be with Him, to be near Him."
At the heart of this passage is the woman's shocked response to the priest: "I am a good woman, father." A good person, to her, is clearly someone who follows religiously the laws of Mother Church: fish on Fridays, clear-headed prayers before bed. It is this, and nothing more, that makes her "a good woman" and indeed makes her so astonished that anybody could question this. How could people not notice how carefully she followed every rule?
Her self-defense echoes (I believe deliberately on author Greene's part, since he was no idiot) a better-known self-defense from Luke's gospel. Recounting Jesus's parable, Luke tells of a Pharisee who "stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess." Like the woman, the Pharisee names as evidence of his goodness public examples of his rule-abiding: his justice indicates that he follows the Jewish legal code; his regular measured fasting and tithes (weighed out, we imagine, ounce by ounce so that he does not pay too much), that he follows the religious code. Surely this is a religious man.
And yet there is something missing. It is the Catholic priest that puts his finger on the problem: this woman has no "love for anyone" besides herself.
At last the Catholic priest has brought us back to the root of the matter. Just as the woman freaked out about her "sin" when she ran out of fish or fell asleep at her prayers, so we freak out, with very little reason, if we miss one Sunday at church, if we wear jeans to church, if we miss a month or two of tithing, or a morning or two of our devotions. Like the woman, I have confessed missing devotions as though this were my biggest sin.
All these petty concerns, the priest reminds us, ought to be swept away so we can focus on the sin which is truly damning: a lack of love. It is not just the priest that believes this; it is St Paul himself. In Galatians he tells us that the Law "avails us nothing"; what is valuable is "faith working through love" (5:6).
Are we loving other people? Are we loving God? Am I?
Or are we only, as the priest says, "another of the pious"?