Visiting “Greeneland”

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.

The bureaucrats, priests, accidental spies, career diplomats, criminals and writers who dwell in Greeneland harbor secrets, contemplate loyalty and betrayals and, in resigned and knowing guilt, embrace the brief comfort of passion in the shadow of mortal decay. The landscape of Greeneland, then, is not so much physical as it is spiritual — an expression of the inner lives of its inhabitants, and the imagination of its creator, British author Graham Greene.

Graham Green (1904-1990) wrote 24 novels, eight plays and scores of short stories. He worked on films (The Third Man — one of the greatest films ever made — and The Fallen Idol — not far behind). He penned essays and a variety of criticism, including some of the finest film criticism to see print, for the London Spectator from 1935-1940.

(By the way, that film criticism won Greene a libel lawsuit by none other than Shirley Temple and her studio. In a review of one of Temple's films, Green implied that at least a bit of her popularity could be laid at the feet of her appeal to pedophiles. After that, it was determined that Greene should leave the country for a while.)

Greene himself divided his novels into categories: the “entertainments,” usually espionage or crime thrillers like The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, and the more serious works, three of which are referred to as his “Catholic novels”: The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair.

(Actually the first novel in which Greene employed “Catholic” themes of sin and redemption was Brighton Rock, but I haven't read that one yet, so we'll save it for some other time.)

It is entirely appropriate to refer to these books as “Catholic,” although Greene himself, also appropriately, chafed at any categorization as a “Catholic novelist,” with all of its artistically constrictive connotations and theological expectations. A few churchmen agreed — in 1953, one Cardinal Bernard Griffin of Westminster wrote a pastoral letter condemning the three Catholic novels, taking his cue from a certain Vatican official's view of Greene's work. Cardinal Giuseppi Pizzardo had condemned The Power and the Glory for being “paradoxical,” and the British churchman actually demanded that Greene make changes in the text. Greene politely refused, and the eminently orthodox Evelyn Waugh offered support to his lifelong friend, saying of Cardinal Griffin's demand: “It was as fatuous as unjust — a vile misreading of a noble book.”

Later, Greene met Pope Paul VI, who responded to the story of the cardinal's unfavorable reaction by assuring him, “Mr. Greene, some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”

May a “Catholic novel” not be paradoxical? Can, as Greene himself asked about the even more controversial The Heart of the Matter, books be written about the spiritual struggles of “moral cowards?”

Whatever the answer to the question in general, the answer in Greene's case is, of course, that a man who lived a life of paradox himself could write no other kind of book.

For whatever reason, Graham Greene's soul hovered constantly on the edge of despair. Suicide tempted him frequently, beginning in his teens (he played Russian Roulette several times in his young adulthood.) He fought this boredom with his own existence by any means: writing, of course, but also alcohol, opium and various types of relationships with women: long-term lovers, prostitutes and all that falls in between.

Faith offered a lifeline, but a deeply complex one. Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, at the time primarily to give his future wife another reason to accept his ardent marriage proposals. As superficial as that seems, and as idiosyncratic as Greene's faith was, it did deepen, and in one form or antoher, outlasted the relationship with his wife. (They never divorced, but formally separated in 1948.)

Greene's personal faith and moral struggles are not the issue here, though. We're not looking to him as a model of sanctity, but as the author of works of art detailing the struggles of human beings to find peace — creatures, like Greene himself, possessed of “the divided mind, the uneasy conscience, and the sense of personal failure” (from an essay, “The Last Pope”).

Greene's other means of keeping despair at bay was travel, through which he found release, freedom, financial support when a publisher paid his way, as well as rich subjects for his prolific pen.

After an arduous adventure in West Africa in 1935 (recorded in A Journey Without Maps), Greene traveled to Mexico in 1938 to observe firsthand the effects of the persecution of the Church, a terror that resulted in oppressive laws against religious practice, destructin of religious objects, and countless deaths — Blessed Miguel Pro among them.

He recorded a nonfiction account of his experiences in The Lawless Roads. But it is the resultant novel, that once-condemned The Power and the Glory, in which Greene synthesized his deepest concerns and interests: the fascination with foreign lands, moral conflict, and matters of spiritual life and death.

The Power and the Glory, surely one of the finest novels of the 20th century, is about a Mexican priest fleeing persecution and certain execution. He is never named, but is known simply as a “whiskey priest.” Weak and sinful — alchoholic, the father of a child — he runs from death, yet serves in doubt. At any juncture he could reveal himself, marry and live safely. He does not, but he is keenly aware that his persistence in secretly administering the sacraments is grudging and less than ideally noble.

But — and here is Greene's paradoxical mind at work — we discern through hints about the priest's past that perhaps, despite his weakness, he is indeed holier than he would have been without persecution, and even without violating his vows. For it is only in those experiences that he has learned how to suffer and to love, respectively. How else can we reach holiness, the novel challenges us to ponder, except from the place where we are?

The whiskey priest is one of the many “virtuous sinners” one finds in Greeneland. Another is Lieutenant Scobie of The Heart of the Matter. This novel is also rooted in Greene's travels — the 1935 trip to West Africa and a second sojourn in 1942, when he worked for the British espionage office, M16.

A police officer in West Africa, Scobie is immersed in knotty, conflicting relationships with his invalid wife and a mistress. He cannot bear to break off either relationship, because he does not want to bring unhappiness to either woman.

Scobie's error is that he has confused pity with love, and has, as a result, put himself in the position of God in the women's lives. This hubris leads Scobie to a terrible dilemma — centered, as it happens on the sacrament of Eucharist.

The final book in the Catholic trilogy, The End of the Affair, is set closer to home: postwar London. Two years before the novel begins, Bendix's married lover, Catherine, had ended their relationsip without explanation. A chance encounter with Catherine's husband leads him to pursue the mystery, and the answer challenges him to his core.

You might have seen the recent film version of The End of the Affair, starring Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Rea and Julianne Moore, but please, please don't confuse it with the book. Director Neil Jordan apparently could only go with Greene's difficult, complex view of faith so far before he sabotages it with a quick fix that almost (but not quite) completely misses the point Greene was trying to make.

The inhabitants of Greeneland are not paradigms of idealistic holiness, but they are, in heightened, dramatic ways, all of us. We all sin. We all seek God, despite and even through our sinning. And we all, as Catholic essayist Baron von Hugel said in a quote that Greene liked very much, face one undeniable truth:

“If we will not own it as a means, it will grip us as our End.”

From The Power and The Glory:

What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought and how useless…. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted — to be a saint.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage