Greene, Graham, Literary Fiction

Review of The Power and the Glory

Image result for the power and the gloryWhat was it about?

A cleric known as the “whisky priest” is the last surviving priest in Mexico. Despite his reputation, the “whisky priest” secretly hears confessions and administers the Sacrament to the faithful in Mexico. The Lieutenant, an inquisitor for the socialist state, considers the Church to be the greatest threat to the revolution. What has the Church ever done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Priests seem to serve the poor only so that the Church looks good; they have no desire to abolish the social hierarchy. As long as the poor remain poor, the Church is needed. And look at the priests’ lifestyles!

The “whisky priest”, on his end, doesn’t really know why anybody would waste their time pursuing him. He is comforted by the idea that, despite his sins, he can administer the sacraments, but the “whisky priest” is not martyr material. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene explores the lines that divide saint from sinner and liberator from oppressor.

What did I think of it?

I read this book more than six months ago, but it had such a great impression on me that I think about it nearly every day. The questions Greene deals with in The Power and the Glory are questions that come up a lot in public discourse. How should poverty be addressed? Is religion the opium of the people as Karl Marx claimed, or can it play a role in social justice? The book also explores sainthood and martyrdom. Should a person as sinful as the “whisky priest” be considered a martyr? What cause is he dying for if he is? If you like character studies, you will enjoy The Power and the Glory. The prose is gorgeous. I am not surprised that it is included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Favorite Quotes

“It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

“How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

 

Bernanos, Georges, Literary Fiction, Religious

Review of Diary of a Country Priest

What was it about?

An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.

What did I think of it?

The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.

Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.

Favorite Quotes

“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”

[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.

“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”

[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Claudel, Paul, Plays, Religious

Review of L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary)

2253660What was it about?

L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) is a 1912 play in four acts by Paul Claudel. The drama is centered around a young woman named Violaine who contracts leprosy from a friend (Pierre de Craon) and is banished from her family by her jealous sister Mara. At the start of the play, Violaine learns that Pierre, who is a stonemason and a builder of cathedrals, is suffering from leprosy. As a show of compassion, Violaine kisses Pierre. But Violaine is engaged to be married to Jacques Hury, the same man whom Mara loves. Mara conspires with her mother to break up the relationship between Violaine and Jacques. Mara approaches Violaine and informs her sister that she knows the truth about her condition. Without a warning, Violaine leaves home to live alone in a cave outside of the village. Shortly afterward, Anne Vercors, the father of the household, sets off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Everything seems to be going in Mara’s favor, but her luck soon runs dry. She is not as “in control” of her life as she thinks. Written in the style of a medieval mystery play, L’Annonce Faite A Marie has more than just an earthly dimension; it has a pronounced cosmic dimension. There are miracles in the play of Biblical magnitude. Violaine is not merely a pitiful character. Her suffering has a spiritual significance, one that the characters discover over the course of this lengthy play.

What did I think of it?

Although the play is a little over three hundred pages long, I got through it in the space of two days. This is a play unlike any other written in the last century. As I mentioned above, it is written in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays. Therefore, the audience is expected to know something about the Christian faith. The Mass and the Angelus feature prominently as well as a few earth-shattering miracles. Like much of Claudel’s works, there is no real frontier between the earthly and the spiritual. God’s hand guides the action. L’Annonce Faite A Marie really caught my attention as I have a great interest in medieval French hagiography particularly in the context of performance. I welcomed the blending of the sacred and the profane, and (for the most part) appreciated what Claudel was trying to accomplish through his play. However, I was shocked by the ending. The whole play was an emotional roller coaster ride. There was one life-changing event after another. And I enjoyed it. I raced toward the end hoping that there would be a neat conclusion, but there wasn’t one. Mara’s character continues to baffle me. I wanted her to develop as a person, and evidently she does, but her development is so subtile that I missed it the first time I read Act IV. I have since reread the last act along with the alternative ending. Although I understand the endings more than the first time I read them, I can’t honestly say that I’m satisfied. L’Annonce Faite A Marie definitely challenged my expectations. I have a tendency to expect a certain kind of ending from stories. I hope to reread the play sometime soon because I was so emotionally involved throughout most of it. In fact, I have never experienced such emotions whilst reading a play. If you like reading plays, I highly recommend this one despite my reservations about the ending because it is different than anything you’ve probably ever encountered.