Graham Greene, Monsignor
Quixote, London: Penguin Books, 1982.
In public library system.
256 pages, paperback. New $15, Used $10, online
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Graham Greene’s modern take on Don Quixote made me laugh out loud. The way simple parish priest Father Quixote becomes a Monsignor is delightfully unbelievable. With a vague ideathat he is like his ancestor Don Quixote, the new Monsignor sets out on adirectionless road-trip with deposed Communist mayor ‘Sancho’ Panza. He nameshis ancient Seat motor car Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed.
Fortified by a few sausages and a great deal of wine of La
Mancha, the priest and the mayor, old friends and sparring partners, find
themselves hilariously tilting at the Guardia Civil, the modern equivalent of
The two friends discuss faith and communism, friendship and
authority, and sleep off the wine. The exploration of these deep topics is playful
Greene’s writing is lucid and engaging. I don’t know how I missed this, Greene’s ‘best novel’ according to the Spectator, but it was great fun.
I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith.
Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong.
Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have?
So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime.
Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to
follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for
the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God’s
darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are
doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedieof
the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian
life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why?
But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion one Sunday in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me.
And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée
Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard
of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way
through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.
Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once
wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going.
I am troubled by the Invictus Games. Not just the strange ways the Latin participle ‘invictus’ gets used, but by the normalisation of the warrior spirit. The propaganda around the Games makes war seem good.
In a world where it has become part of the culture to thank every member of the military for their ‘service’, and the Invictus Games seems set to increase such thoughtless commentary even more, I know I need to be precise in my criticism.
War is the way of the world. And the world is divided into nation states. I would be crass indeed not to recognise these realities and fail to acknowledge the sacrifices that the military make to keep our nation safe.
I respect individual sailors, soldiers and airmen for their choice and for their part in my freedom. I am in awe of the peace-keeping that Australian forces do around the world. I recognise that much of the activity of the Australian Army in Afghanistan was building schools and hospitals, surely a good legacy.
But war is a sub-optimal activity for humanity. Partly because the nation-state is an imperfect institution – nations both create conditions for our flourishing and also create artificial divisions between human beings – and mainly because the aggression and killing war involves means that we should not consider war the final best way of relating that human beings can find. We live in a fallen world, and war is a symptom of our sinfulness and not of our glory as human beings.
Much of the lethal activity of war is sly. Drones fly invisible above their targets, and ‘clinically’ murder only the targets. Insurgents, who consider themselves patriots, leave death-dealing devices on roadsides. Proxy wars are fought in countries like Syria between the US and Russia, condemning millions of children to a half-life in refugee camps.
I look forward to a world in which nations are superseded by a common humanity and war has given way to peace, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and the trillions of dollars we spend on armaments are diverted to the benefit of humanity.
This is why I think we should take care with the language we use, and the language we accept, around the Invictus Games. The fighting spirit that restores the wounded to purposeful lives is to be admired. The positive attitudes to disability the Games foster are to be encouraged. We should applaud the new appliances which improve the lives of those living with disability. The contributions the participants made through their service in the armed forces are to be commended.
But any implication that war itself is unambiguously good needs to be challenged. Let us ‘normalise’ disability, by all means. But let us not ‘normalise’ the fact of war. Let us in all ways and in all circumstances question its place in our common life, and decry the death, destruction and waste it brings. Let us aspire to a world without war, a world without the need for warriors, a world where we embrace, not fight, our fellow human beings.
In the name of the living God + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The land where Jesus lived, the land of Palestine/Israel, consists of the Jordan Valley, which is a little bit green, and rocky hills and dry landforms. Jerusalem was the only city in Jesus’s day, so for the most part, there were no roads. Even the Roman road avoided Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan into Galilee in the northern extreme of the province.
The topsoil was thin, and there were always rocks that poked through the topsoil. If you weren’t watching, these obtruding rocks would trip you up. A rock like this was called a skandalon. We get the English word ‘scandal’ from this Greek word. A ‘scandal’ is something, like one of those rocks, that crops up unexpectedly and makes us stumble or fall. A scandal like the child abuse scandals can make us lose faith; we don’t trust the person involved anymore, we feel betrayed and we re-consider what we think of the person’s character.
In this morning’s epistle and gospel, scandals are there, but somewhat hidden in the English translation. We hear of ‘obstacles’ to faith. We hear how Jews are stopped from believing because the signs are wrong. Gentiles are stopped from believing because they don’t think Christian preaching measures up to their sophisticated world of philosophy. Or in the original Greek, the lack of proper signs is a skandalon, a scandal for Jews, the lack of wisdom is a skandalon, a scandal for Gentiles.
The signs were an obstacle for Jews believing. They indicated the wrong sort of Messiah; the Jews wanted a political or military Messiah, the sign of the cross indicates a Messiah for whom love and forgiveness were the winning combination, not defeat of the Romans and the unity of the Jewish nation.
The Gentiles looked for wisdom, the sort of wisdom they found in debates and complex philosophy. We know that the New Testament has depths of interpretation and meaning, but the Gentiles at the time heard only a simple and direct preaching of the cross.
Having tripped up on the issue of philosophy, the Gentiles then found other factors to be scandalised about. Christians appealed to the poor and weak, not to the masters and house-holders and the powerful. How could that make sense in a patriarchal world where the more power you had the wiser you were, and the wiser you were the more powerful? Women and slaves and children had little power. They could not possibly be wise, could they?
So the question Paul poses to us 2,000 years later is this: what is skandalon for us? What crops up unexpectedly to prevent you from believing, or believing more fully? For you, it could be – I know it is for some people – that the cross is a scandal. If Jesus was exterminated like a criminal, wasn’t that losing rather than winning? For you it could be, as it is for some people, that the cross is ugly, that Jesus’s people, tax-collectors and prostitutes, are not proper advertisements for God.
What obstacle do you trip over?
Let us turn to Mark’s Gospel where Jesus paints a picture of sin creating a skandalon. If your hand is a skandalon, cut it off. We don’t need much imagination to envisage our hand becoming a scandal; imagine the sins we can do with our hands – theft, murder, assault, fiddling our tax returns.
Perhaps we have to think a little harder to imagine our eye becoming a scandal, but we know from other things Jesus said that it is not only what we look at, but how we look, that can be a scandal, an obstacle to our faith. Looking at others’ spouses sexually, with lust, looking at valuable property enviously, in other words using our eye to desire things that if we possessed them would be harmful to others and ruin ourselves – that can become a scandal.
But what is this second sort of skandalon? This is not being tripped up by our wrong expectations; this is being tripped up by our own sinful actions. Imagine someone using his hand to enter fraudulent details on the internet, then he feels guilty for stealing. He is tripped up looking at himself as a thief, as a sinner, as guilty. Uh-oh! He should cut off his hand, perhaps by restricting his internet access, then repent, repay the money and re-consider his desire to be ahead in money or material things. Otherwise he will slide into a hell of self-recrimination, self-loathing and become so self-absorbed that he is unable to be in relationship with others. The path to ruin is too easy a story to write.
Jesus makes us squirm by compelling us to ask ourselves what we trip over with the actions of our hand and our eye. What ruinous actions could be our obstacles to faith?
The gospel today gives three remedies for skandalon; three prescriptions for removing these obstacles to faith.
The first is accepting a cup of water because of our faith. If we can’t be kind to others, Jesus suggests we reflect on the kindness of others to us. What does that mean? How does that recall us to our Christian standards and believing? What does their kindness say about the possibility of Christ working through that person, and through ourselves?
The second is a little strange on the surface. Jesus says, ‘Have salt in yourselves.’ Don’t lose your saltiness. There is a cluster of good things, like salt, that we should take into ourselves that will restore us to faith.
Recall the fire, the sharp burning taste, that is in salt. Allow the fire of appropriate criticism to burn away our inclination to turn away from God. It may be a member of your family or a stranger in the street, but when someone criticises our actions, we should welcome it as from God himself.
Secondly, let the strangeness of the Gospel change us. We say we are trying to be more like Christ. The implication is that if we hear something in the Gospel or in the words of other Christians that seem strange, that may well be because it points to unfamiliar characteristics, unfamiliar because it is not yet part of us, but is part of the Gospel. Welcome the strangeness of the Gospel.
Thirdly, a little sprinkle of salt affects the taste of the whole meal. Let the Gospel spread through the whole of your life so that every aspect reflects the love of God.
Last Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a hero and mentor of mine. Francis grew up thinking the church then, 800 years ago, was a scandal. Its main focus was wealth and the power needed to protect that wealth. For example, there was a large Benedictine monastery up the hill from Assisi. When Benedictine property anywhere in the region was threatened, the monks would down their farming tools, their hoes and scythes, and pick up swords. Even the Pope had a large and busy army.
As a cloth merchant, Francis had experienced firsthand how bishops loved the finest cloth for their vestments! Many of the clergy were squeezing peasants for land rents and whatever other corruption with which they could enrich themselves.
The church then was a scandal. St Francis did three things: firstly, he embraced poverty as a way of life. This meant for him that he constantly experienced the generosity of others. Francis believed that when he experienced people’s generosity he was experiencing God’s generosity through them.
Secondly, Francis could be weird, screwy, pazzo as his fellow Italians said. From
eccentric dress to over-the-top acted parables, like spinning at a crossroads until you were dizzy to decide which way ahead. But there was gospel in his madness. In dressing down like the worst beggar, Francis reminds us of our constant concern about our appearance and what it says about ourselves. Not necessary in God’s kingdom.
In spinning at a crossroads for direction, Francis reminds us how little control we have over our own decisions. For him this points to the need for greater and greater trust in God.
Thirdly Francis was constantly doing little random acts of kindness, bidding people peace, smiling, listening, leaving behind little scraps of gospel wherever he walked, salting the world with hints of Jesus.
What we need to do to hear the gospel through the scandals will be different than Francis in the 13th century. But just like Francis, just like this morning’s readings we too need to:
Have salt in ourselves.
Allow the kindness of others to reveal Christ; and when other criticise, let that reveal Christ too.
Scatter little signs of gospel everywhere we go.
These are the ways to peace with God and with each other.
“He died singing, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his conversion”.
Today, October 3, we mark the Transitus of Saint Francis. May your Transitus be filled with blessings.
His biographers were keen to show that Saint Francis died happy, and we will repeat this line during the marking of his Transitus tonight. “He died singing.” Joy accompanies the “crossing over” of Saint Francis from this world to eternal life on October 3, 1226.
This cheery approach to dying can be off–putting. A Jesuit admirer of Saint Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was heard whispering throughout the day of his death, June 9, 1889, “I am so happy! I am so happy!” Even my dear friend Father John Wardman with whom I spent hours in the weeks before he died, was inspiring in his eagerness to step into the next page of the adventure God had for him.
For most of us, our own Transitus will not be so uncomplicated. We are circled with images of difficult dying: Will we die lonely in a nursing home? Will we die in pain? Will we die in an instant in a terror attack? These ways of dying are statistically unlikely, but even so it is hard to avoid these negative predictions of the way in which we will die.
But the cheery approach shown by saints to their death also has its problems. My main sadness about my dying is the break that it will mean with my beloved wife, children, grandchildren and others close to me. While I am dying, I am sure the disruption of my loves will cause me much grief. While I am convinced that dying is a door to a wider life than this present one, free from pain and full of praise, it is not unmitigated joyfulness.
The point about the Transitus of Saint Francis, the point about learning from saints how to die, is to restore the balance of our expectations about death. Because we love, we will grieve, but St Francis, poet Hopkins, John Wardman, and all the other happy deaths keep reminding us that we can make a good death.
When I was eight years old, I sang “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”, and believed that heaven was just above that blue dome. [Or was it just behind the blue altar curtain in St Mary’s, Tambellup?] Now I think of heaven in more existentialist terms, a state of being in the presence of God eternally, and I look back and see the many ways in which my concept of the afterlife has grown more sophisticated. The sense of mystery about it has also grown. The more complex my conception of it, the more it is shrouded in a sense of unknowing.
So part of making a good death is constantly interrogating one’s picture of the afterlife and updating it as we update our understanding of God and how completely his love covers our existence.
Practising for a good death includes taking now every opportunity for joy and praise. For me as a musician, singing must be part of my preparation for dying.
Preparing for a good death also includes being conscious of those we love and continuing to work at those relationships, not to increase our grief, but to celebrate the great love which God shares with us.
So while it may be true that I will die in some sadness at leaving behind those I love, I also dare to hope that those with me in those last hours will also be able to say, “He died singing”.
In marking the Transitus of Saint Francis today, we can resolve to turn our attention, however old we are, to preparing to die singing, held by love.