Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

When I first saw a copy of The Power and Glory by Graham Greene at the bookstore, I only knew that it was considered Greene's magnum opus. I had no idea that the book contained strong religious themes, particularly about Roman Catholicism. I tend to stay away from books about Christianity, being a Roman Catholic myself, because I don't think I would be able to examine them objectively.

With that disclaimer out of the way, The Power and the Glory is about a "whisky priest" in Mexico during the anti-clerical purge in the 1920s. The nameless priest is in a particularly brutal state where all priests are being hunted down and executed. Not knowing why he stayed while most of his brothers fled, The Priest flees from village to village, performing baptisms, saying masses, and succumbing to alcoholism along the way.

The Priest is one of the most real characters I have ever encountered. In John Updike's introduction to the novel, he shares an anecdote about a Mexican woman who found herself praying for the priest, despite knowing that he was a fictional character. I couldn't agree more, because, like the Mexican woman, I was holding my breath, willing him to survive.

I think we have something of the whisky priest in all of us--with varying moments of weakness and glory. The Priest is too brave to escape, but too cowardly to surrender. He listens to confessions, but judges the sins of other people, turning them over in his hands like a Rubik's cube that he needs to figure out. The tug-of-war inside the priest is clearly depicted in this excerpt:
One mustn't have human affections—or rather one must love every soul as if it were one's own child. The passion to protect must extend itself over a world—but he felt it tethered and aching like a hobbling animal to the tree trunk. He turned his mule south.
This book definitely reaffirmed my belief that there is always a gray area. In my opinion, Roman Catholicism tends to be very black and white about the sins of its people, but we all have human failings. There will always be situations where you can't just stand back and say that a person is a sinner or a saint. The Priest is definitely both.

After I finished the book, I took a deep breath, and started reexamining my religious beliefs. I am what most people would call a lapsed Catholic. I believe in God, but I don't attend mass and I don't agree with some of the tenets of the Catholic church. All my life, I've gone to Catholic schools, and certain teachings have been ingrained so deep into my being that I don't even know if I believe them personally or if I believe them because I'm supposed to. My point is this: I'm still trying to figure things out for myself, sorting out the things I trust in and the things I don't. Maybe that's why this book had such a huge impact on me.

9 comments:

Amanda said...

I found this one a little difficult because I don't have a Catholic background, so a lot of the terminology went over my head. Would love to find an annotated edition that explains them all.

mooderino said...

Have this one in my TBR. Sounds like how I expect it to sound, which is putting me off from reading it a bit.

mood

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

I've only read a couple of Greene's novels, one of which I liked very much and the other of which I didn't quite finish. This one sounds very interesting, but despite being on speaking terms with Roman Catholicism, I don't think I've encountered the phrase "whiskey priest" before.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Books that really make you think like that can only be a good thing. I haven't read any Greene, but think this one would be hard for me as I don't have a Catholic background either.

Ben said...

aaah that gap in between the human and the divine huh? Takes a man like Graham Greene to try and talk about it.

Cassandra said...

While I haven't read any Greene yet I can sympathise with your thoughts on Roman-Catholicism a lot and this book is now definitely on my TBR pile.
Like you I have been brought up catholic and my faith used to be very strong throughout my childhood, but then my doubts grew stronger and stronger until I came to the conclusion that I cannot believe in God about a year ago.
But although I am not religious anymore I can't help praying when I am afraid or drawing a cross with holy water on my forehead whenever I enter a church: it's an instinct.

I wish I could believe in God and I am still very interested in books which discuss theological themes so The Power and the Glory is definitely on my reading list for 2012 along with Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy.

Caro said...

It sounds terrific. I am a Roman Catholic as well and I believe in God, but there are many things I don't agree with in the standard Catholicism views.
The Priest sounds like a fascinating character. I'm definitely adding this book to my TBR pile.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I read my first Greene last year, The End of the Affair, and was so impressed with it. It also had strong religious themes, but it was beautifully written. I'm planning on reading another one of his next year.

Zibilee said...

When a book makes you think, like this one obviously did, and makes you reexamine your beliefs, it mans that it is a very powerful read. I need to read this one and see what I think. This was a great review and really made an impression on me, Darlyn. Thank you.

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