The pious woman was whispering to him. She must have somehow edged her way nearer. She was saying, ‘Father, will you hear my confession?’
‘My dear child, here! It’s quite impossible. Where would be the secrecy?’
‘It’s been so long …’
‘Say an Act of Contrition for your sins. You must trust God, my dear, to make allowances …’
… Somewhere against the far wall pleasure began again; it was unmistakeable: the movements, the breathlessness, and then the cry. The pious woman said aloud with fury, ‘Why won’t they stop it? The brutes, the animals!’
‘What’s the good of your saying an Act of Contrition now in this state of mind?’
‘But the ugliness …’
‘Don’t believe that. It’s dangerous. Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.’
‘Beauty,’ she said with disgust. ‘Here. In this cell. With strangers all round.’
‘Such a lot of beauty. Saints talk about the beauty of suffering. Well, we are not saints, you and I. Suffering to us is just ugly. Stench and crowding and pain. That is beautiful in that corner—to them. It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye: a saint gets a subtle taste for beauty and can look down on poor ignorant palates like theirs. But we can’t afford to.’
‘It’s mortal sin.’
‘We don’t know. It may be. But I’m a bad priest, you see. I know—from experience—how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones. … Try not to be angry. Pray for me instead.’
‘The sooner you are dead the better.’
He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he remembered from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. … Hate was just a failure of imagination.
—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
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It’s been kind of hard to write lately. I’m not altogether sure why, though I have been feeling that my moral life is even less up to snuff than usual, which tends to make me a little shy of writing.
But if writing is my vocation—and I think that it is—then worthiness has, in one sense, very little to do with it (provided I’m honest about my unworthiness).
I learned earlier this summer about St Mark Ji Tianxiang, one of the Chinese martyrs who perished during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Boxers, or, as they called themselves, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, were a group of ecstatic militants—a little like berserkers, in some ways—who wanted to purge China of foreign influence, which had expanded significantly after the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Viewing Christianity as an essentially foreign incursion,1 they aimed to compel all foreign missionaries to leave China and all Chinese converts to apostatize; those that didn’t comply, from either group, were murdered. St Mark Ji Tianxiang, a 66-year-old layman, was one of those martyred.
What’s fascinating about him is that he was an opium addict. He spent thirty years cut off from the sacraments because his addiction was considered a sin and a scandal.2 He prayed for deliverance: it did not come.
Or, if you prefer, it came after thirty years of waiting. Personally I don’t prefer, because that answer is both glib and totally discouraging. Nobody wants to wait until the very moment of death to be delivered from something that’s ruining their life and reputation, especially if (as seems likely) it also destroys their self-respect. The platitude is a non-answer.
On the other hand … Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And Jesus said to His Mother, How is it that ye sought me? Another non-answer—though, somehow, a more palatable one. Perhaps because (as our Lord’s habit was) it is, so to speak, frankly cryptic. But that cry of pain, and even of rebuke, came from a sinless mouth. The anguish of nature being assumed by grace (not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God) is not solely because of nature’s sins being ripped out. There’s something painful in being deified.
William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Savior in the Temple, 1859
I forget what any of this has to do with me being called to write. Its connection to my being a Catholic is pretty obvious, though, which of course is what most of my writing, directly or indirectly, is about; and examples like that of St Mark encourage me not to give up. At least, they encourage me a little. There’s certainly a part of me that finds it very appealing to spend another thirty years sleeping around and then conclude with a glorious martyrdom, though another part of me finds both parts of that life plan unattractive. But the project is—well—taking of that manhood into God. The Eucharist is nothing else.
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1Interestingly, China already had many centuries of Christian history at this point—not just from the Jesuit missions under St Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, but far earlier from the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, once the most far-flung communion of Christians in the world, stretching from Syria to China. Nestorian Christianity had died out some time in the late fourteenth century before St Francis Xavier arrived in the sixteenth.
2And it was; like St Peter’s apostasy.