Guest post by Ramón Rodriguez.
Paradox. Graham Greene was littered with them. A novelist grappling with the oldest realities of the faith—sin, love, prayer, God—who never stooped to reuse worn-out expressions of tinsel piety, a well-known Catholic whose lifestyle contradicted the morality his faith proclaimed, and a writer whose (arguably) greatest work turns around the chief paradox of Christianity. G. K. Chesterton might have approved. In Orthodoxy, he writes, “Because [Christianity] has a paradox in its center, it can grow without changing.” The Power and the Glory has, if anything, grown to a greater relevance and incisive energy its prophetic paradox.
The Power and the Glory brings us to 1920’s Mexico, to the life—and death—of an unnamed “whiskey priest”: “the Padre,” as he is called. As if the persecuted faithful didn’t have trials enough, they must also suffer a priest who is, in his own admission, far from faithful: a drunk, a coward, and the father of a little girl; but his one great flaw, contrary to expectation, is not one of these. It is what Greene calls his habit of piety. Enter the first paradox, couched in Greene’s clean, cut-and-dry prose,
The brandy was musty on the tongue with his own corruption. God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? He drank the brandy down like damnation: …salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hand.
The Padre’s fundamental sin was not the intoxication of lust or of alcohol, but the intoxicating routine that makes mockery of God. If alcoholism and impurity are often fruit of overweighing the burden of the paradox, the habit of piety makes light of it, replacing the divine paradox with one’s own little pretensions at playing God in the smallest of ways.
The paradox is not God. It is merely his work in man. But it is his work. In other times he worked through Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Jeremiah, David. Men, like any other. But men who had been chosen, touched, hand-picked for something bigger by someone bigger, who worked in them, who caused them fear and trembling. Only in that were they unlike other men.
And that his work, present as the central paradox of the priesthood, of every priest, is only magnified in the Padre’s life. The hunted Padre, last priest in his state, brings the sacraments to his people at a price: his soul. It’s a catch-22. The only one able give them the bread and wine, to pull them out of the darkness of their sin—and yet by that very act of giving life he slips farther into spiritual death; in bringing hope, he falls deeper into despair. He knows himself, and is painfully aware of the price. In a prayer—one of the few—he says, “O God, forgive me—I am a proud, lustful, greedy man. I have loved authority too much. These people are martyrs—protecting me with their own lives. They deserve a martyr to care for them—not a fool like me, who loves all the wrong things.” There is no justification. There are only facts. In so many ways, his life seems a lie. His daughter gives witness to it. His love for the bottle gives witness to it. And so it is, but it is also more than a lie. It is a paradox, and thus it can grow without changing.
There’s a dialogue between the Padre and the lieutenant who hunted him through the story that seems to express the core of the book. The Padre has just been caught, having chosen to trade the safety of a neighbouring state—and perhaps the opportunity to confess his sins to the priest who ministers there—for the chance to give the sacraments to a dying criminal. The lieutenant sits with his quarry in a squalid hut, waiting out the rain, and they begin to talk. As their conversation winds down, the Padre says,
“That’s another difference between us. It’s no good your working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward—and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same—and I can give him God’s pardon.”
And then, to finish it off, “It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.”
Again, there’s no justification here. No sugarcoating. No cheap accolades or tasteless poems about the greatness of the priest. Just unadulterated simplicity. Earlier, after his first capture, he said, “You see I am a bad priest and a bad man. To die in a state of mortal sin”—he gave an uneasy chuckle—“it makes you think.”
As well it should. But it’s not about what the Padre has done. It’s not about who he is. It’s about something much more than him. Because, as he admits, alone he’s nothing more than what any of us are: “a fool who loves all the wrong things.” But yet, this fool is a priest, and that makes all the difference. He can put God into a man’s mouth despite who he is, because he is only the hand that places it there. That is the paradox of the priest.
And the priest, in the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, is not his own. You see, the book, the priesthood, our entire faith, turns on a single hinge: that the God of the Padre, of Catholics, is characterized by something that sets him totally apart. He can pull from destruction and sin new life and goodness. The mystery of faith, that the horrible death of an innocent becomes the life that makes innocent the guilty. Despair and a few minutes of lust give birth to a child who breaks the chokehold of this his habit of piety.
There’s a passage that sums up the Padre’s experience, “he had given way to despair and out of that had emerged a soul and love—not the best love, but love all the same.” He had fallen. His frailty had been too much for him and he had fallen—the potter’s vessel, fallen and shattered, it seems, to a million pieces, “he had given way to despair.” But that despair was not the end, as it so often is. Something had been born with his child: love (“not the best love, but love all the same”).
“O God, help her. Damn me, I deserve it, but let her live for ever.” This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear and the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child… He thought: This is what I should feel all the time for everyone, and he tried to turn his brain away towards the half-caste, the lieutenant, even a dentist he had once sat with for a few minutes, the child at the banana station, calling up a long succession of faces, pushing at his attention as if it were a heavy door which wouldn’t budge. For those were all in danger too.
If anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water. I am not trying to justify him. Greene certainly didn’t. In the end, there is only one who can. But what Greene did, and what I hope to do, is put the faith into perspective, the perspective of paradox.
A priest is a cup, a window; a chalice, stained glass. A knife, a word; a scalpel, a blessing. A sign of contradiction—or maybe simply a contradiction. A paradox.
If it were with souls, with clear water that she made her springs.
From clear water that she made clear water.
If it were from pure souls that she made pure souls,
Heavens, that would be nothing. Anyone could do as much. And there wouldn’t be any secret to it.
But it’s from sullied water, old water, stale water.
But it’s from an impure soul that she makes a pure soul and that’s the most beautiful secret in the whole garden of the world.
The priesthood is the faith writ small, just as the Padre is. He is a “padre”; that is, a father, a priest—any priest and, somehow, all priests. It’s not he who transubstantiates bread and wine, it is not he who absolves sin. They are not his hands in those moments, but God’s. He is not his own in that moment, but God’s, despite what else he may belong to in other moments. Because that is how God is, how God works. If there is anything beautiful in the ugly, any innocence in the corruption, he will find it. Or better, he will enter into the ugly and the corrupt to rescue the beauty and innocence hidden within them.
The mystery of faith. Can God work more through a sinner that a saint, should he choose? Perhaps the very thought is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the question is, would he choose? Perhaps it’s not worth thinking about. Certainly I don’t wish to be accused of spiritually “leveling the field” or of relativism in the theological sense. There is much more to sanctity than one’s fundamental orientation. For all our immense smallness before God, personal decision is paramount. But God gives the fruit. And sometimes that fruit grows in the most unexpected of places. Greene believes, as do I, in the horror of sin. But perhaps there’s something worse. “Lust is not the worst thing. It is because any day, any time, lust may turn into love that we have to avoid it. And when we love our sin then we are damned indeed.” Because the moment the habit of piety takes hold, we love our sin. We love ourselves. We love our littleness, and thus keep God from bringing beauty into the ugliness we make.
What, then, is the priest? What are we all? Perhaps they—perhaps all of us—are only frail men, called to something beautiful. Greene, in The Power and the Glory, lets us see both sides of the coin: the frailty of a sinful priest, and at the same time the beauty that God can pull even from his mistakes, the power in his hands. But only because they really aren’t his hands, not his power, and thus neither his glory. Old, stale water that becomes a clear spring, an impure soul that becomes a pure soul. The power that is “the most beautiful secret in the whole garden of the world” and the glory that it brings. But not to us.
The Padre, in his musings over his own sin and that of others, says, “It needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.” Yet in the end he does, and the half-hearted and corrupt become whole-hearted and beautiful too. Paradox: the mystery of faith. Not our power, so neither our glory.
 Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. D. L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), pp. 107–109.
Ramón Rodriguez, LC, is a religious brother who aspires to the priesthood. He has a degree in the classical humanities and is currently studying philosophy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, Italy. His poetry has been published by The Society of Classical Poets.