Even though it happened almost 55 years ago, the event is still clear in my mind. I was a senior at Xavier, a Jesuit high school in New York City, when Father Vincent Taylor, S.J., assigned a novel to the English class he taught. It was Brighton Rock (1938) by Graham Greene, whom I had never heard of. That assignment began my lifelong love affair with the literary works of an author who was arguably the finest British novelist of the 20th century.
I had never read a novel like Brighton Rock. It might be described as a gangster story that is profoundly Catholic. In reading it I entered the terrain that some literary critics called Greeneland, a strange milieu created by Graham. It is a world that is a dark, sleazy place populated by unattractive characters in flight — sometimes physical flight, sometimes spiritual, often both — but a place in which God is always present.
Having been hooked by Brighton Rock, within the next two or three years I read Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), which though about a “whiskey priest” is the finest novel about the priesthood I have ever read; The Heart of the Matter (1948), about Scobie, whose suicide might be an act of despair or an act of heroic charity; and The End of the Affair (1951), which is about a promiscuous wife who may be a saint performing miracles from beyond the grave. Eventually I read all 26 of the novels that Greene wrote from 1938 to his death in 1991.
Reflecting on Greene’s work, what especially interests me is not his extraordinary talent as a writer but the effect the novels have had on me spiritually. The publisher-author Frank Sheed once said that Graham Greene wrote as though the headline on the morning newspaper was “Son of God Died for Us.” That is what excites me the most about Greene’s writing. Reading the best of his work is exhilarating not merely because the story may be exciting or suspenseful but because God seems to leap off the pages. Often a Greene story is about the Hound of Heaven pursuing some sinner. What has amazed me and deeply influenced my life is that, reading a Greene story, I feel the Hound of Heaven is lovingly pursuing me as well. And I add to that blessing the education and elevation of my taste in literature through reading a master stylist such as Greene.
Though I can recall being initially shocked by the sexual references that appeared in Brighton Rock, they eventually paled in interest and importance in comparison to the main character’s journey toward either salvation or damnation. In reading Greene I am deeply moved, but not so much because I identify with the characters, not even when those characters are Catholics or even priests. It’s more that the God whom Greene presents, the Lover relentlessly but mercifully pursuing sinners, is the God who becomes more real to me through Greene’s stories, and I am a little overwhelmed by this God’s love for people, including me. For me, reading a Greene story is never merely an academic exercise and certainly not merely entertainment. The experience is more like a spiritual adventure, an adventure in grace.
When I was a student in a major seminary in the 1950s, the reading of novels during the academic year was discouraged. The faculty, I believe, wanted the seminarians to confine their reading to theology and what was often called “spiritual reading.” The latter term usually referred to classics about the spiritual life, such as Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and Abbot Marmion’s Christ in His Mysteries. No one I knew thought that reading a novel would qualify as spiritual reading and definitely no one would have dared to read a novel in chapel. Of course reading the spiritual classics was extremely valuable and I suspect all of us attending seminaries in the 1950s were helped through such reading.
My guess is that in seminaries today the view of novels is a bit less narrow. Whether it is or isn’t, I believe I have profited enormously from reading Greene’s work and the Catholic novels of writers such as Evelyn Waugh, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Shusaku Endo, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott. Some of this reading was done before my ordination and some during the 46 years that I have been a priest.
Catholics believe that the Risen Christ is everywhere, inviting people to enter into a love relationship with his Father. The Risen Lord can be met in sacraments and sacred Scripture, in prayer both private and public, in other persons, and perhaps in a special way in those who are poor, suffering or being deprived of their rights. The Risen Christ can also be met in literature. Frank Sheed was right on target in his description of Greene’s writing. The God who seems to be the main character in The Power and the Glory, probably Greene’s masterpiece, and The End of the Affair, my personal favorite among his works, can be encountered in the pages of these books.
Some Catholic theologians describe God as Agape, that is, pure self-gift. We don’t have to win or earn or merit God’s love. It is a free gift. We are loved by God not because we are lovable but, rather, we are lovable because God loves us. Divine Love is creative. It makes us lovable. It brings from nothingness the lovable dimension of each of us. I find the depiction of God in some of Greene’s novels absolutely beautiful.
There are many passages in Greene’s works that might be used to illustrate the attractive image of God, but quoting them out of context can diminish their power. In order to be fully appreciated they should be read within the flow of the entire story. But a section from The End of the Affair — which is a passage from the diary of Sarah, the formerly promiscuous woman, written after she has fallen in love with God and left her human lover, Maurice — can suggest something of Greene’s portrait of God as Relentless Lover:
I have no need to write to You or talk to You — that’s how I began a letter to You a little time ago, and I was ashamed of myself and I tore it up because it seemed such a silly thing to write a letter to You, who know everything before it comes into my mind. Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time?...But was it me he loved, or You? For he hated in me the things You hate. He was on Your side all the time without knowing it. You willed our separation, but he willed it too. He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love. For he gave me so much love and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn’t anything left when we’d finished but You. For either of us. …You were there, teaching us to squander, like You taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You. But You are too good to me. When I ask You for pain, You give me peace.
A high school assignment had a profound impact on my life!
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