Friday, December 5, 2014

The one thing that counts

I recently finished reading Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. It was recommended to me by one of my professors after I had mentioned to him that I read Shusaku Endo, Silence. The former is a great read, a very fascinating story of the last Catholic priest in a southern Mexican state during a time of intense governmental persecution and anticlericalism. The Catholic Church was being suppressed, and this priest was on the run for his life, being followed by a godless socialist lieutenant of the Mexican army. (Spoilers ahead.)

The priest was not a very good one: he was ambitious, selfish, a drunk, he had committed fornication with a woman and left her pregnant, and he sought to make a profit from his priestly duties. He was a "whisky priest," a wonderful phrase coined by Graham Greene himself in this book. When he is finally caught and spends the last night of his life in a jail cell, he has the following realization:

What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody, I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead -- soon he wouldn't even be a memory -- perhaps after all he was not at the moment afraid of damnation -- even the fear of pain was in the background. 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 has 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 (Penguin Books 1990, p. 210).

I really love that final line, because it embodies a kind of moralism that really resonates with me, even if I rarely live up to it. This is one of the repeated motives of the book: the inevitability of death, and the uncertainty of what comes hereafter. This priest had spent his life in pursuit of personal gain, enjoying alcohol and on one occasion a woman from his village. He felt a miserable guilt and heaviness about his vices and slip-ups throughout the final period of his life. Was it worth it? How difficult could it have been to say no to a drink of alcohol? How difficult could it have been to keep control of oneself in a moment of impassioned loneliness? During his last night on earth, he realizes: it would have been quiet easy to have been a saint.

Because death is inevitable and because there is no avoiding the judgment, we would all do well to share the attitude of the Apostle Paul: For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5.10). As Stăniloae says in one of his works, the inevitability of the inescapable judgment makes every decision meaningful and important; because I will have to answer for everything, therefore every word counts, every action counts, everything I do is significant and worth taking seriously. If I only I would learn this lesson!