I’ve been a member of a Well-Read Mom group outside Washington, DC for three years. During that time, I’ve discovered some new gems and reread some old favorites. I was thrilled when The Power and The Glory, one of my all-time favorite novels, was on the Well-Read Mom list last year, the ‘Year of the Contemplative.’ It’s fitting that The Power and The Glory was a ‘Year of the Contemplative’ selection since I’m still thinking about it now.
Greene’s whiskey priest haunts me, and I think it’s because of the way Christ haunts him. The whiskey priest is weak and compromised. He has fathered and then abandoned an illegitimate child. He drinks too much. He fails even to pray the daily office. But for all that, he is not Padre Jose, living with a common-law wife and too terrified of the government even to offer a prayer for a grieving mother. The whiskey priest, at least, is on the run, offering Mass and hearing confessions from villagers in remote outposts of the Mexican mountains.
What makes the whiskey priest different from Padre Jose? It isn’t great personal moral fiber. It isn’t natural courage or piety. The whiskey priest possesses none of these. It is because the whiskey priest is haunted, even tormented, by the image of Christ. Because Christ went to Jerusalem, even though he knew, because he both welcomed Judas to the upper room and then let him leave, even though he knew, the whiskey priest—who is so close to escaping—can turn around, and follow the treacherous mestizo back to the village to minister to a dying woman whom the priest knows does not really exist. He knows this is how he will die. He goes anyway. For all his failure, Christ is real to the whiskey priest, and his haunting presence can’t be shaken. The whiskey priest knows what story he is in; the story of Christ and his passion. He knows who he is; he is an alter Christus.
As a reader, I find myself haunted and even tormented by the image of the whiskey priest. Would I go back? For my children, yes, maybe not for anyone else. But then, these people are the priest’s children. But without maternal, biological impulses, would I go back? For a person I’d never met, and didn’t believe existed? I hope so, but I don’t know. I do know that the image of the whiskey priest would be at the front of my mind.
That’s the power of the moral imagination. The images and metaphors that live in our mind form our worldview and inform our choices. When we are faced with a moment of moral crisis, it’s rare for us to reflect on the principles laid out in an ethics text. It’s much more likely that the moral imagination, for better or worse, inspires our actions. This is why it’s so crucial that our imaginations are formed and filled with good stories, like The Power and The Glory.
The stories we hear in childhood teach us what is good and what is evil, and who we are. In my own book on the virtues, How to Be a Hero: Train with the Saints, I provide some exposition on each virtue, but I focus on illustrating and illuminating what each virtue really looks like by telling compelling stories from the lives of the saints. It is one thing for a young reader to read the definition of prudence, but a very different thing for that young reader to imagine herself sneaking through the dark streets of Krakow beside St. John Paul II, to meet friends in the underground resistance movement. Definitions are important, but stories are critical. Stories tell us who we are and what story we’re in.
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