On reading The Power and the Glory

Strictly speaking, my title is not accurate.

I’ve actually found myself reflecting on Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Power and the Glory not through rereading, but through reading my students’ final written responses to it.

It might be ironic that I’ve found this novel so moving, and have found new value in it by reading the thoughts of students who, by and large, don’t seem to have been moved by it themselves. After all, Greene’s Catholicism is central to the novel’s themes and purpose, and I am a lowly unbeliever.

Yet really, I think the work transcends the pigeon hole many place Greene into. He himself famously objected to critics characterizing him as a “Catholic novelist,” countering that he though of himself as a novelist who happened to be Catholic.

Many of my students have (quite rightly) focused on the protagonist, aka The Whisky Priest, and the sense of “uselessness” he feels in the hour of his execution. But, in the shadow of his death, which was undeserved to be sure but which the Priest does not feel makes him a martyr as he is fundamentally unworthy in so many ways, Greene shows the impact the Priest has had on others around him, the subtle significance of a life lived poorly, yet still bound to a duty outside the self.

Just the other day I was on a short flight. I know many people who are paranoid about flight in a way that they never are about climbing into an automobile, but even I sometimes think while sitting and staring out the little portals on the plane about those “what if’s” that terrorize some people.

We all should from time to time, I think.

How useful would I feel if, as could happen at almost any moment, I found myself facing death?

Greene deserves more than the simplistic label tied to his religious background because his novel offers some really nuanced structure for thinking about this all-too-common question.

His Whisky Priest is a deeply flawed person, but he does not offer platitudes about some etheric grace from above as consolation. Mortality is inevitable, Greene reminds us, but the balm for this fact is not simple religious affection. No, Greene offers us something else. The Priest dies without understanding his impact and only we, the readers, learn about it through scenes that follow his execution.

It’s not grace, but duty that redeems the character. Purpose gives his harried life meaning. He was, ultimately, useful–in ways he could not understand himself.

So, in a further stroke of irony, I wonder if I can fathom out my own usefulness, if I can guess what scenes would follow my untimely death to justify my stint her on this earth–the very thing the Priest could not fully appreciate.

I’ve tried, in as many ways as I know how and with no discernible measure of success, to illuminate the truth as I’ve understood it. I’ve tried to tell the world, or at least a few people in it, what I see. Anyone who fancies himself a writer wants to see his words live after him. If I died tomorrow, though, that seems unlikely. Who knows, though; many great authors like Melville and Kafka were out of print at the time of their deaths, so maybe…

I’d have to look elsewhere, then, to be sure of some usefulness. As the Priest with his flock, I think of my students over the years. I don’t know how well I’ve served them. I’ve tried. Tried to model the kind of thinking, exploring, and questioning mind I think the world needs. But who knows. Like the Whisky Priest, I’m far from perfect and I know I have served these hundreds and hundreds of young minds briefly remanded to my care quite imperfectly. Who knows…

So in the end, this reflection becomes yet another love letter to my own children. If nothing else, I feel useful through them. I see my daughter’s drive and ambition and passion. I see my son’s good nature–his humor, his curiosity, and his unassailable optimism. It’s quite a thing to witness, progeny. The Whisky Priest missed out on this. Perhaps his greatest failing was in not taking responsibility for his own offspring, to be a father. I have surely served my children imperfectly, too, but by luck or good fortune (or my wife’s better nature) I am confident that at the very least, I have helped give the world two souls better than mine.