A new voice spoke, in the corner from which the sounds of pleasure had come. It said roughly and obstinately, "A man isn't afraid of a thing like that."
"No?" the priest asked.
"A bit of pain. What do you expect? It has to come."
"All the same," the priest said, "I am afraid."
"Toothache is worse."
"We can't all be brave men."
The voice said with contempt, "You believers are all the same. Christianity makes you cowards."
"Yes. Perhaps you are right. You see I am a bad priest and a bad man. To die in a state of mortal sin"—he gave an uneasy chuckle—"it makes you think."
"There. It's as I say. Believing in God makes cowards." The voice was triumphant, as if it had proved something.
Author: Graham Greene
From Goodreads: In a poor, remote section of southern Mexico, the Red Shirts have taken control. God has been outlawed, and the priests have been systematically hunted down and killed. Now, the last priest strives to overcome physical and moral cowardice in order to find redemption.
Notes: While we're talking cowardice, I've spent years being afraid to read this book. I'm picky about potentially depressing fiction; I try not to read it while I'm depressed myself, and if I'm going to invest my time and emotions in a tragic work, said tragic work had darn well better not end in existential angst and meaninglessness.
The story certainly begins depressingly enough. There's not a lot of bravery in the little state of Tabasco; not a lot of hope, and not a lot of love. The Church is nearly gone, and the one priest who remains is terrified of pain and death and doesn't feel repentant of his mortal sin. Timid and nameless, he flees the police through a landscape as bleak as his outlook, and the people he meets, disciples and betrayers alike, are often sun-baked and scraggly and desolate to match.
Greene narrates in slow, vivid, loosely connected scenes that function as pictures, as images: complacent piety and viciousness and lust and fatalism crammed together into a reeking prison cell in total darkness, tears over an empty bottle of wine, a pitiful confrontation between starving human and starving dog, and many more. Through the pictures, the author gives us a sense of the priest's struggle with his conscience and cravenness, of his compassion and his conviction that he's not the stuff martyrs are made of—and of what the sacraments mean to him that they drag him away from safety, again and again, because they are needed and there is no one else to provide them.
I had mixed reactions to the whisky priest's thoughts. It seemed to me that he missed distinctions when it came to comprehending things like love for sin versus love for a child who resulted from a sin. His empathy was outstanding, however, and his conflict with his own weakness was profoundly moving. Joyless as he and his story often were, even in the execution of duty, his dogged belief and determination to provide the sacraments were beautiful and, in their own unassuming way, alive. Greene portrayed that unseen life and beauty with such intensity that he almost made me want to write tragic fiction.
How any given reader will take the ending of this novel will depend in part upon perspective and in part upon which scenes and ideas stick particularly in the mind. There's too much to the conflict, too much even of ambiguity in the final scenes, to predict a response.
For myself, I finished this novel down at Larrabee Park, with the sun burning as hot as it ever does on the edge of the northern Pacific; with a languid, fishy bay lapping masses of kelp against the shore, and a handful of well-dressed, well-meaning parents scolding their youngsters for playing in the water. The heat and atmosphere gave me an extra moment's connection to dusty, uncharitable little Tabasco as I came up out of the last page, breathless and trying to scold myself into not crying on the beach. It was a sad story, after all, and the tragedy had its share of existential angst and meaninglessness.
But that wasn't where the tears came from. The final few scenes of the story brought some of the loosely connected images together with unexpected force, and the title of the book—drawn from the doxology that follows the Our Father—finally made sense. We humans are weak, and we are cowards, but Christ is strong. Whatever our individual lives may suffer, the Eucharist has been given to the world, and He will never leave us nor forsake us. He has built His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.