does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Whiskey Priest

“He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a name for his kind—whiskey priest … one day [his failings] would choke up … the source of grace … [but] until then he carried on.”

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

John Updike called this novel Graham Greene’s masterpiece. It is the story of an anonymous fugitive priest at a time when Mexico outlawed Catholicism. While he flees the authorities who want him to recant his vocation or be killed, the priest struggles with defining what is nonnegotiable in the clash between personal survival and faith. By his own admission, he is not a worthy individual. He has fought with a dog for meat left on a discarded bone, fathered a bastard child, and used sacramental wine to drink himself into a stupor.

My fiction frequently focuses on people struggling with religious faith, including ministers and priests. Graham Greene has set the bar high for me, exhorting me to shun easy stereotypes and instead depict characters who beyond their title and occupation are human beings first. By portraying authentically the humanity of a whiskey priest, Greene transmuted the priest’s struggle into that of the universal person who asks, How do I achieve redemption given how terribly flawed I am?

It is a dilemma faced by at least two of my characters:

- Bishop Aldo, whose powerful family smoothes his rise in the Peruvian Catholic hierarchy, asks, “What was left of that priest who asked for forgiveness and absolution? Had he been a fluke, never seen before, never to be experienced again? In truth, I was not sure I had ever really been a priest. I may simply have been the vacuous construct of my family’s wish to ensure unbroken access to power.”

- Rev. Brian Dolatowski struggles to understand why, “Try as he might, he just could never ease into Regina’s seemingly effortless spirituality. … All Brian ever felt with any real conviction was abysmal self-doubt. Then how could someone like him purport to be a minister, unless it was to bond with other similarly cynical, flawed people? If so, what was the point? ”

Neither of my characters leaves the priesthood or ministry. Greene’s whiskey priest, acutely self aware of his shortcomings, repeatedly tries to flee his priestly duties. Throughout The Power and the Glory, he finds himself pulled back from the brink of dissolution and despair by the entreaty of the poorest and most unworthy among him — vomit-and-feces-covered fellow prisoners in a crowded prison cell, a gap-toothed treacherous mestizo, a debased policeman. Though he no longer wears priestly garments and is himself guilty of lust, envy, cowardice, ingratitude, and above all pride, desperately poor Indians save him from descent into his baser self when they appeal to him to celebrate mass and the sacrament of confession. While doing so, he sheds his facile descriptions of morality, faith, and God; rediscovering the numinous in the Communion Host.

Perhaps that is why I like to write and read about flawed characters such as these. Despite their human failings and misgivings, they search for The Mystery that underlies existence. In so doing, I suspect they represent many among us.


Kathryn Magendie said...

I tweeted this on your 'tweet this' did you get that there by the way?

I love a flawed character who is both sympathetic, but also "unlikeable" - interesting stuff here....

Judith Mercado said...

Kathryn, I had to retrace steps LOL the whole time because I find it ironic that someone would ask me, the consummate noncomputernerd, how to do something. I'm going to post this on your blog as well, but here are the steps: Hit Customize once you're signed on, On Layout, hit Add a Gadget, then click on Featured as opposed to basic options and scroll down to the fourth option which brings up the Twitter this and add to Facebook gadget. I hope this is helpful.

A Cuban In London said...

'Graham Greene has set the bar high for me, exhorting me to shun easy stereotypes and instead depict characters who beyond their title and occupation are human beings first.'

This is a key strand in your post. To me sometimes people want to be seen through the prism of one of their identity markers. And religion is a powerful one. So, even if you, as a writer, want to give us a nuanced character, I, as a reader, might take away with me just the one trait that calls to a part of me, or my identity.

I hope I am making sense. When Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses' was burned, those people only saw the book through the prism of their own religious beliefs. That's why writing is such a selfless but at the same time risky activity, unless you're Jackie Collins. She only offends husbands and wives in Hollywood (if).

Neither of your characters leaves the ministry and for that you ought to be commended. It would have been almost a cop-out had you, somehow, made them give up on their belief (and I write as an atheist).

Cracking column as usual. Thanks for your comments on my blog.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

"I hope I am making sense."

Cuban from London, you absolutely make sense. In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about writing is hearing readers' interpretations of what I wrote. I am often surprised at interpretations which would never have occurred to me but which enhance my understanding of something I wrote. Indeed, if my writing cannot have that multi-layered meaning, it's disappointing to me.

Thanks once again for an insightful comment.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Flawed characters may seek redemption in the bottle, in material wealth or any other way, but whatever their flaw, it's the common search for the Divine Source (the Mystery) which talks to me as a reader. Your characters sound very, very real in their doubt.

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Ann. Indeed, I wonder if there is such a thing as a non-flawed character. That might be the "unreal" version.