On Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory

Set in Mexic during Plutarco Elias Calles’s reign as president of the country in the years leading up to the Cristero war, Graham Greene’s controversial and thought-provoking novel, The Power and the Glory, tells the story of an unnamed ‘whisky priest’ and the self-chosen exile he took to escape the clutches of the nefarious Red Shirts who were ordered by the government to kill any priest on sight and destroy the catholic church. Originally published in 1940, hailed by the novelist and critic John Updike as “Graham Greene’s masterpiece,” the novel is also a record of his attempts to reconcile the  sensual, pleasure-seeking nature of the body with that of the spiritual mind that has the inherent need to subscribe to morality and ethics.

Besides the rather morbid aesthetic, the clear-cut and evocative language and the very astute plotting of the narrative, one of the things which I truly appreciated with the novel is the elaborate and intricate manner in which Greene depicts the fragility and tumultuous conflict that resides within a man of God. Here is a priest who fulfills his duties, who celebrates the Eucharist, hears out confession and continues to baptize children despite weariness, hunger and the risk that the Red Shirts, his enemies, men who have already abandoned religion and chose a life of malice and power, will finally find and shoot him on sight. By any reason, this is a powerful sign that suggests that he is the ideal man of god. It conveys to the readers that he is more than prepared to lay his life down on the ground for his unbreakable and irrevocable faith. It seems that only the finality of death is the single force that may be able to stop him from pursuing his sacred and honorable duties. But at the same time, he acknowledges the beauty and the possible pleasures that could be discovered and realized in the sensual world he resides in. He is very much aware of the temptation that the world is filled with. Moreover, he knows the uncertainty and hopelessness of the times, of being human. In the novel, these two are highlighted by his attraction and addiction with alcohol and sex, and the pity, even anger and sheer frustration, that he shows to the number of people who still firmly believes that he is a savior and a beacon of all that is good and just in the world. The thought that everything is futile, his possession of this nihilistic point-of-view, had begun to settle comfortably in his mind. He felt “no meaning any longer in prayers,” which to him was nothing more than a “pious aspiration.” The prayers, the threads of hope, the streak of dreams and the promises of betterment began to “weigh him down like undigested food” (151). The “blurring of lines” between a binary the likes of John Donne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and St. John of the Cross has also explored and examined in their works, humanizes the men and women who choose a life of servitude to any religion.

As someone who studied in a strict and conservative academic institution such as Manresa, a school that values spirituality, virginity and stifling moral measures worthy of martyrdom more than academics (In my mind, I could still hear those religious sessions inside our well-ventilated classroom that smelled of chalk, sour sweat and the aroma of moist packed lunches reeking out of Tupperware containers, where our teacher would force us to choose whether we would choose to hunt an animal for food or die for hunger, wherein he would present to us again that moral dilemma and ask us what we would choose until he finds satisfaction in our answers), a place where its administration and educators would much rather prefer a Eucharistic celebration in lieu of two or three one-hour classes, I grew up with a rather stifled view of the world, of morality and of ethics, which was thankfully remedied by reading Sartre, Freud, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard during my the first two years of my half-decade stay in college. This stifled view consisted of the stance where I assumed that priests are beyond human since they have the will and conviction to lead a life devoid of entertainment, pleasure and passion. It has just been in the past few years that I have come to realize that choosing that “righteous” path is in fact a merging of the two binaries. I grew up thinking that there are no gray areas, to fully function and to be truly effective in applying the teachings found in each religion’s sacred scripture, one must be aware and one must have already come to grips with sin, with ethical transgressions, with the susceptibility of humanity to immorality.  This exploration on the life of a fictional “man of God” which Graham Greene pursued in the novel is much-appreciated, as it further shed clarity on their lives that consists of providing the population with salvation while keeping their inner demons at bay It’s for this reason why The Power and The Glory, when it was initially published, faced so much scrutiny and was almost banned. To normal people, like this reader right here, they are supposed to be beyond humanity. They are stewards, only by choice, by profession. In the end, they are like us, bastards, damned, decrepit individuals, shackled by the mortal coil, bound to push Sisyphus’  gigantic boulder eternally.

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