Within the year I have finished two of Greene’s Catholic novels. The commonality is call and what we do with it. And what most of us do with it should cause a little embarrassment, at least in comparing The End of the Affair’s Maurice Bendix with the protagonist of The Power and the Glory, a man so broken he is not even given a name. Truth is the broken man is more admirable, for he is willingly consigned to his destiny, whereas Maurice Bendix is not, though he is the one we can more easily relate to.Like most people, or at least most men, I am more like Bendix throwing punches in the air and ready to take on all of life up to and including God than I am like the whisky priest. That I can see this is embarrassing indeed as well as a credit to Greene’s storytelling.
The whisky priest marches off willingly to Calvary. But how often do we do such a thing even when we are called? Like Bendix, we most often have to be pulled into our suffering for which we see neither purpose nor redemption. (And this was true even of Greene whose account of Maurice Bendix is his only writing in the first person.) Still when reading both The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, it is easier to admire the priest and as he is the one to which most of us find we cannot relate to, it pushes the question as to why.
Why should any of us not aspire to be like urban, sophisticated, passion drenched Bendix? What is wrong with his strong “love” and so admirable about the frightened small rural backwater priest? And the answer simply becomes the willingness to listen to the larger voice.
The problem with Bendix is he needs the “why” before he is willing to succumb to the will of God. The priest aspires to that answer as well, but he does not need it to begin his journey. And though Bendix, not willing to listen to the voice of God, never receives an answer, he is inevitably led to his destiny. I am not sure the priest gets an answer either, but in the end he does not need it for he knows there is one. What the priest knows that Bendrix does not is that at the end of the day, it is better to go down the path of one’s destiny and accept its pain than it is to ignore its redemptive purpose and see no point to it whatsoever. And though this is not to say that we should not be questioning or fighting what seems to be fate; it is quite true what is meant to be will be in spite of ourselves. It is best to see that meaning as not devoid of purpose.
Greene ultimately knew this. He gave us two men to show us this. In doing so he was sometimes accused of quietism, the heresy of despair, but he was vindicated of the charge. This is especially true in The Power and the Glory, where the priest never seems to be a creature of despair despite the fact his suffering would lead to the cost of his life.
What the whisky priest does not know is what his death would bring. Martyrs such as he and the young boy would lead others, those possessed with the fight we see in Bendix, to rise up and wage war on an unjust system. The priest cannot also know that another would arrive to take his place and the sacramental life of the church would go on. What he does know however is nothing overcomes the will of God. In this way I can see him as more admirable than the likes of Bendix whom I, like many others, can so more readily relate.