Tuesday, January 05, 2010

monsignor quixote

Recently my son did a school project on Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote. So, to keep in step with what he was up to, I read Greene's novel for the first time.

Greene has an ability few people of faith, any faith, have - and that is the ability to see the weak spots in one's faith as clearly as the strong points. He also has the ability to see the weak spots and strong points of faiths, religious or otherwise, that stand in opposition to his personal beliefs.

In Monsignor Quixote, two friends, one a Communist ex-mayor, the other a Catholic priest who has been promoted out of his parish, take to the roads of Spain to tilt at various windmills that are all around them.

Greene is equally at home pointing out issues with Communism as he is taking issue with Catholic Christianity. So the conversation from both main characters rings true as they rattle along in the small car. Though we know Greene is seen as something of a Catholic writer, and we may sense a slight tilt - often very slight - in that direction, he allows the Communist to score telling points against inconsistencies and hypocrisies in Christianity. He also takes the trouble to show some of the strengths of the Communist "faith." There is an even-handed approach here we are not used to seeing from writers of any stripe - someone usually has a one-sided axe to grind about something.

The only way Greene can do this sort of thing effectively, I maintain, is because he is able to slip into the skin of the Communist or the Catholic in his story, without pretense or guile, and be sympathetic to their point of view. In this back and forth fashion he creates his own contemporary catechism that permits himself, and his readers, to arrive at a better and deeper truth than if he had simply mounted his horse and charged single-mindedly at one opposing target. Unquestionably, he is interested in taking us closer to God and the spiritual, the denouement of the novel shows that, but he is interested in doing it in a more roundabout "give and take" sort of way that shows truth exists in more places than just the few where one might expect to find it, depending on who you are (such as during Mass or in a church setting or at a Communist Party meeting). Truth is in all sorts of places, Greene tells us in Monsignor Quixote, including some very odd locations, and God things happen in those odd places as much, or more, as they do in the expected places.

This makes the novel an excellent read for just about anybody: those asking questions, those who think they have no more questions to ask, those with doubts and struggles, those who feel complacent, those who seek and those who are sure they have stopped seeking. Greene does not write unkindly, and he certainly does not write polemically - with the exception of a kind of Christlike cleansing-the-temple polemic on occasion - so readers can feel safe in the sense they have placed themselves in the hands and imagination of someone who cares.

The novel is quickly read, and there is a movie as well, but it is the sort of novel you read and then think about. A good book for this week of Orthodox Christmas or, as we call it here in my home, Ukrainian Christmas. Or, as Greene would undoubtedly like, a good book for any time of year, not only a standard set of days delineated as godly and holy ones. For the godly and the holy, he would maintain, are to be found everywhere.

If we look and listen, Christ is obvious in what is not obvious.

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