Graham Greene. Wikimedia Commons

Total Painful Sympathy

This is what one feels reading the novels by this English writer, a convert to Catholicism at the age of 23 because of a woman whom he later married. During his life, he was a journalist, traveler, writer, spy for British intelligence, and film critic.
Giancarlo Giojelli

It was hard to hold up there, in his father’s school with the boys teasing him while he tried to be accepted–if not loved, at least accepted.

It was hard because every game, even the most innocent, always has in it something that should not be there, should not be there according to the adults at least. And disobeying, and even betraying a little, is part of growing up, growing up together with friends–boys and girls: stifled laughter in class, complicit passing of notes under the desk, and … And he couldn’t; the pain came from the fact that this boy couldn’t because the headmaster was his father, the person he loved and feared–he didn’t even know if he loved him or feared him more. He could not make fun of that headmaster, and his classmates didn’t trust him.

This is how it was for young Graham in the school not far from home, where the serious, measured boy lived that subtle ill which divides the soul. Good and evil were not clear cut. Everything was terribly mixed up together, and it was not possible to be faithful to his father and his friends. It was simply not possible, and already, at that young age, morality, behavior, and good manners ran together and became unbearable.

The period of peace and security was over early among his brothers and sisters (he was the fourth of six children) and nannies, aunts and uncles and, cousins, in the tribal and undivided Eden of the English countryside from which he was ripped as though out of a warm, damp womb to go board in his father’s school.

Split Loyalties
He would call those lacerations that mark the conscience “split loyalties.” Loyal to schoolmates and friendships, and loyal to the family and his father: a torment.

It was thus that the boy’s nerves gave out, at only 13 years of age, but like the boys peopling his novels he was well aware, an expert, about the ill of living. He tried to kill himself, but naturally he was only a boy and it went badly, or rather, it went well, because he was saved and probably did not really want to die but only to tell them something–to tell it seriously to his parents, his father above all, and his friends.

He would end up really telling it only to a psychoanalyst, and would discover that you have to learn to live with that ill which divides the conscience, and that pain is not a condition to be eliminated at any cost; it is a condition, that’s all. The matter is even ironic, just as everything that followed is ironic and English: it would always be the story of someone who does not want to but does belong; who wants to be left in peace but his task, or rather his destiny, presses in on him, and he cannot go away, he cannot escape it. Whether it be a spy; an unworthy, fornicating priest; an absent–minded, confused monsignor; an atheistic, angry revolutionary; a little girl who does what she has to do and no one else can do, there in the festering swamp, because her father forgets about her and her mother is hysterical and sick. It would be a wife no longer in love, a husband who is sad and listless; each one of us could add a bit of story and some characters to the people of Graham Greene’s novels-maybe even put in a bit of oneself.

Double Standards
All this happened when Greene was only 13 years old and was sent to the school where his father was headmaster. We could say this was one of the most classic pedagogical errors that can be imagined, and certainly it is useful to know about in order to understand something of what is called his “double standard.”

That juvenile depression, scarcely mentioned in official biographies–underestimated by critics, considered as no more than a crisis, after all, and what is more, the crisis of a young boy–tells a great deal more to those who read his books.

It tells about a man who is well familiar with the pain that is life, and who became familiar with it at an early age.

It tells of a man who knew success and was equally aware of the sadness of being alone.

It tells of a man who very early chose to look darkness in the face, or found himself forced to look at it. And it tells of a man who knows that it is not right to speak of young people and youth superficially; in his novels, the children have the same awareness, the same suffering, and the same sense of responsibility as the adults.

Earthen Vessels
But children are more curious and, above all, they have an acute and intelligent gift: they know that good and evil are not separate, and together they inhabit the heart and the body and history.

And adults are great wretches who carry precious treasures within the earthen vessels of their very selves.

Each of the characters created by Greene is, in the end, this: an earthen vessel full of an immense treasure, infused with a divine light.

It is as though each one knew one thing, and one thing only, which is that no one can be proud of himself, can consider himself just, if the Son of God had to die on the cross to save him. And no one can truly despair or be scandalized by his sin, if he is so precious as to be worth the death of God.

Each one is so precious that he was bought at the highest price the Universe has known. Each one is so great a sinner that God was forced to die on the cross for him.

This is the consciousness of the people of Greene’s novels.

He has always been called a Catholic writer. Greene is truly Catholic, and not because he sometimes talks about priests, nor because his characters talk about God. But Greene is truly Catholic because he is not a moralist.

He became Catholic by choice when he was 23 years old, after he had run away from home, had been a communist for a year, working as a journalist, curious about people’s stories and intrigued by what went through the heads of those in the news. (More often than not, he worked on crime news.)

Without Moralism
He came to conversion because of a woman, whom he married; they had two children. Destiny, he then understood, is free of dual loyalties. God is not jealous and does not manifest Himself in thunder and storm. Instead, He chooses through one of his creatures. Whether a wife or a priest, He has the flesh, the voice, the arms, and the hands of a human being so as to encounter, speak, embrace, caress.

There is no moralism, rule, law, super-ego, dark fear of hellfire and punishment when Greene tells his stories, but something that hurts even more, a profound painful sympathy.

If he had a brilliant career, wrote books, traveled, met people, and told and set his stories and then the screenplays of his films in the exotic locales he loved to visit, it was because he knew the mind of the reader well, because he is sympathetic to the reader, just as he is sympathetic to his characters.

He knew that he had to take the reader along a road where the marvel at and expectation of what might happen, of the plot and the story, are the opportunity to get to know the protagonists of the novels. He had to draw the reader in, to be irresistibly involved with them.

Greene did everything that life gave him the chance to do, he traveled all the roads without dual fidelities or split loyalties, because there was no ambiguity, but a passion for man who may be ambiguous and contradictory, but is unique, precious, unrepeatable, and worthy of being an instrument of glory.

Greene was a journalist, a traveler, a writer, a spy for British intelligence, and a film critic. Sometimes he exaggerated in his eclecticism, because it was the only antidote to boredom and the manic depression that never ceased assailing him. Thus, his life alternated between periods in which he wrote novels, stories, and articles like a madman–escape routes, he called them–and days and months of indolence.

The Power and the Glory
He traveled to Mexico, where he discovered what anti-Catholic persecution really was, as priests were being shot and tortured or forced to marry, while hardly anyone in Europe and North America was talking about it. But he did not get indignant about the silence and did not write triumphal novels about the martyrs. He wrote The Power and the Glory, telling the story of a priest who may be unworthy, but who remains and dies in order to take the sacraments to the Indios; and of a priest who has betrayed and yielded and bears within him the pain of this and knows the hell of desperation; and of an atheist Marxist revolutionary who loves children and slaughters their fathers to make the new man worthy of the earth. There is only one difference between the desperate priest who after 40 years of priesthood took a wife and the drunken priest who would like to run away, but something always happens to make him take again the path toward the mountains, to travel full of fear and brandy on the back of a mule to go say Mass and hear confessions without ever finding a place to lay his head, not even in the town where his parents are buried, and not even in the village where many years before he made love with a woman and his daughter was born. The difference is not personal heroic courage or even the purity of their behavior. The difference is a man who, without knowing how and why, is chosen and destined, and his courage lies in accepting the sacrament that he carries with him and to celebrate it, at the price of losing himself and the others around him. He would like to die, but it is not granted him to seek martyrdom. It cannot be pride that will bring him to give his life for Christ. He will give it as something inevitable and yet accepted, at a time he will not establish, in that destiny embraced by his freedom.

Sunset falling on a Mexican Desert. Photo by Tomas Castelazo via Wikimedia Commons

Stories of Men
The other priest is certainly not heroic or courageous. In fact, he is what one could call cowardly and desperate. He does not even have the courage to exercise his power to change the bread into the Body and the wine into the Blood. Terror keeps him from confessing and forbids him the charity of a prayer on the tomb of the dead little girl and a visit to his confrère who is about to be shot. He would like to die because of this, but he cannot because that life, mocked and battered, is nonetheless still life. It is better to live like this, in the mockery of the children who ring around his hut. There is a martyrdom for him, too: the martyrdom of ridicule and despising himself, which cannot even let him feel sorry for himself.

It is not a question of being good or bad, because there are no good guys and bad guys in a story in which good triumphs and evil is defeated and everyone is happy, or vice versa evil wins but then there will be justice… In short, there is none of this because life is not a cartoon.

Life is not made up of good guys and bad guys, but of stories and men and panic and boredom and lights which Destiny kindles, and moments when everything is clearer. Whoever is rich in these moments should thank God and above all should not judge those who are walking in the fog.

The Sweat of the Soul
Life is Grace, and there are no rules for its manifestation nor obstacles to Glory who chooses whom He wishes so that they may reflect His splendor.

There are no rules and laws, but only infinite history and infinite Glory who manifests Himself in a story choosing some great wretches as His mirror.
A story is a sacrament and even if he doesn’t really say it openly (but he does suggest it, albeit with reserve and discretion), at the center of Greene’s stories there is always a sacrament. In each story, this is a point where the banal and unruly history of a man intersects in a clearer, more luminous way with the Divine. These are the moments when the conscience is not cool, but instead is burning, feverish. Fever clears the mind.
Just like real sweat, which sheathes the muscles, making them gleam, in Greene there is the sweat of the soul, which sheathes the conscience and makes it gleam and leap at perceiving the Presence which in that moment, that precise moment, is manifesting Itself.

After the execution of the last priest, there is still one man who gets off the rickety boat and knocks on a door in the village, and he too has a suitcase in his hand and he too is a priest, who will go back to traveling those mountain paths to carry the Body of Christ and His forgiveness to the flock to whom he has been sent.

A frightened priest, unworthy, full of anguish and of Glory.