CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #30
LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARK
Few novelists have managed to capture the spirit of Catholicism with the genius of Graham Greene. Like Oscar Wilde before him, he knew from personal experience that we generally get a better view of the heavens when we are in a hole. Wilde himself had commented that we are probably at our finest when we are kneeling in the dust and confessing our sins. God is sometimes better seen, for some perverse reason, in the dark. Shadows could not happen if there were no light, and they happen precisely because there is light. Light often reveals itself most powerfully by its absence.
In his novel, The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene portrays a man – a "whisky priest" – who has come to see the light because his own life has become so dark. This "whisky priest" had earlier exemplified "the good priest" of his time and place, a man who fitted easily into a false self. Priesthood was a role he played rather than an expression of the truth of who he really was as a human being:
A well-shaved, well-powdered jowl much too developed for his age. The good things of life had come to him much too early – the respect of his contemporaries, a safe livelihood. The trite religious word upon the tongue, the joke to ease the way, the ready acceptance of other people’s homage ... a happy man.
In the face of his impending death, the "whisky priest" explains to the Lieutenant who has arrested him and is about to execute him, that his life fell apart when all those external factors supporting his false self were taken away. The "success" of his illusions prevented him from facing the truth of himself. The disintegration of those same illusions – amidst much scandal and irresponsible behaviour – was in fact the greatest blessing of his life. Ironically, he was more the priest, more of a man, in the depths of his misery than he had ever been as "a happy man".
The night before his execution the priest talks with the Lieutenant:
They lay quiet for a while in the hut. The priest thought the lieutenant was asleep until he spoke again. ‘You never talk straight. You say one thing to me -- but to another man, or a woman, you say, "God is love". But you think that stuff won’t go down with me so you say different things. Things you’ll know I’ll agree with.’ ‘Oh,’ the priest said, ‘that’s another thing altogether -- God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead to walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’
A modern commentator, Maurice Friedman, observes:
One of the singular aspects of the Modern ‘Saint’ is the contrast, of which he (ie "the whisky priest") himself is aware, between the time before the persecution of the priests, when he was innocent of any but the most venial sins and yet felt no love for anyone, and now, when in his corruption he has learned to love. This is the central paradox of the book. Saintliness is not identified with moral perfection here. Man is sinful as such. It is identified with humility and with that genuine love and concern for others that enables one to forget even one’s own salvation and damnation. Grace consorts more easily with evil than with good. (To Deny Our Nothingness)
DYING – LIFE’S BEST GIFT
It is a truism that we do not appreciate things until they are taken from us. Familiarity breeds contempt. Death and the nearness of death can make us appreciate life like nothing else. Death and the nearness of death can also help us to shed illusions and become more real. It is characteristic of those who know they are about to die – literally or metaphorically – that they begin to see life differently. Priorities change. Life finds a new focus, a more honest focus.
"Lord, let us know the shortness of our days that we may gain wisdom of heart" we pray in the Psalms (90:12). Contemporary novelist Walker Percy addresses the role of death in being true to oneself. The main character in his novel, The Second Coming, reflects:
"How did it happen that now for the first time in his life he could see everything so clearly? Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he ever been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way that one misses a plane? And how is it that death, the nearness of death, can restore a missed life? Why is it that without death one misses his life?"
Yes, it is possible "to miss your life". We can become so absorbed in trying to be "someone" that we do violence to the person we are; we can be so busy about life’s "necessary" projects that we never have time for relationships; we can create so much noise and activity that we are never still enough or quiet enough to hear what is happening; we can be so busy about the "right thing" that we miss the "real thing".
And so the thicket of illusions finds fertile ground and flourishes. Our lives can become more a matter of seeming than being. We can become more interested in what is "right" or "necessary" or simply "expected" or "expedient" than what is actually true and good.
Religion and spirituality, honestly and effectively engaged, are an antidote to such unreality. Tragically, however, these too can become instruments of self-deception. Idolatry is as much a part of religion and spirituality as it is part of the general marketplace of existence. Herein lies the gift of darkness and the awareness of our sinfulness, the stripping of death and the incomprehensibility of dying. We find it difficult to maintain our illusions under such circumstances. This is why we are generally at our most honest when we have been exposed in our nakedness and vulnerability, when we have got no power, no leverage to deceive ourselves and others. The other’s look cannot successfully seduce us into lies any more.
Through the darkness we see the light, in our brokenness we become whole, in dying we live. The journey towards the Real and the True – the Living God – is not one of mastery and conquest. It is not even one of knowledge in the normal sense of that word. It is rather a journey of emptying and letting go, of honest and often painful submission to the truth about ourselves and about other people, events and things, a journey of abandonment to the mercy and love of God.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Name some of "the cracks" in life through which the light might shine. Reflect.
- Are you at ease in acknowledging yourself as "sinful"? Reflect.
- What is your reaction to the description of the priest early in his life (see paragraph 3)?
- Do you know the experience of "falling apart"? What is it like? What happens?
- Reflect on the whisky priest’s appreciation for the love of God.
- What might Maurice Friedman mean when he says "grace consorts more easily with evil than good"?
- Do you think it is possible to "miss your life" as the Walker Percy character suggests?
- Reflect on Psalm 90:12.
- How might illusions and idolatry emerge in our own religious life and spirituality? Reflect.
- Reflect on the last sentence – "It is a journey of emptying and letting go …..".