Just Good Company
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Ramón Rami Porta is a practicing thoracic surgeon from Barcelona, Spain, who has been interested in Graham Greene since his years at medical school. From avid reader of Greene’s books, he progressively developed an interest in Greene’s life, which provided a more profound understanding of Greene’s work and religious thinking. Since the constitution of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust in Berkhamsted, UK, in 1997, he has become a regular attendant of the annual Graham Greene Festival organized by the Trust, and an unconditional supporter of its activities to promote and maintain interest in Greene. In March and July 2003, he travelled the itinerary described in Monsignor Quixote -- described by The Spectator as "Graham Greene's best, most absorbing, adept and effortless novel" -- and this gave him the opportunity to reflect on the underlying message of this apparently light travel story. In this article, he gives us the result of his reflections. It is also an homage to Graham Greene in his first centennial.

The Itinerant Theologian
A Commentary on Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene

Ramón Rami Porta

The front cover of my edition of Monsignor Quixote (1) includes this quotation from The Spectator: Graham Greene’s best, most absorbing, adept and effortless novel’.

At first reading, the book tells us a rather light story of two opposite characters travelling together in Spain and a series of anecdotes that flow smoothly and catch the interest of the reader. Their travels, often compared to those of Don Quixote, and their conversations on politics and religion are the keystones of the book. However, a close reading shows that there is a predominant line along the pages of this relatively short novel: theology, doctrine and religion issues outnumber those related to politics or to Cervantes’ most acclaimed work.

Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertsforshire, England, in 1904. In 1926, after taking instruction in Nottingham while he worked there, he converted to Catholicism. At that time, his conversion was a sine qua non condition to marry his girlfriend, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic convert herself at the early age of seventeen. Greene’s conversion to Catholicism was not resolved in an intimate act at a dark corner of Nottingham cathedral, but required years of experiences and reflections. He explained it to Ronald Bryden who interviewed Greene in 1970: ‘Before (travelling to Mexico), Catholicism had been a purely intellectual acceptance - I had found no emotional feeling in my Catholicism at all. And in Mexico, seeing persecution and attending secret Masses, I found my emotions touched, and that was one point at which I found myself influenced by history’ (2). According to Father Leopoldo Durán (3), Greene’s most intimate friend and travelling companion in Spain for the last 15 years of Greene’s life, Greene, also experienced an emotional conversion in Africa when he went to Liberia in 1936. The emotions felt in Mexico two years later lead to his definitive conversion.

Greene did not explicitly use religion as an important element in his novels until he wrote Brighton Rock (1938). This was followed by The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), considered by scholars his official Catholic novels. However, we can find religion and theological discussions in other novels, labelled as political novels, such as The Comedians (1966) and The Honorary Consul (1973), and in his plays, The Living Room (1953), The Potting Shed (1958) and Carving a Statue (1964). Moreover, Dr. Van Dalm, using the structural analysis of Greene’s texts, found that God is a story element in all his novels (4).

Summa theologiae in brief.

The former Mayor, Sancho, and the parish priest of El Toboso, recently granted the title of Monsignor for his assistance to a foreign bishop in need, leave for a journey on the old Seat 600 car of Monsignor Quixote. Both need a vacation. The ex-Mayor needs to reflect on his life after losing the elections and Monsignor Quixote needs a break, according to his bishop, after too many years of serving a rather modest parish church and its rustic parishioners. Like two Greek philosophers, they talk a lot, they question each other’s views and convictions, they confide personal experiences, thoughts, doubts, fears. The secondary roads along the central and north-west parts of Spain are their peripathos. They don’t walk much -times have changed-, but they talk a lot when they drive and when they take a snack by the road, in a quiet place on the bank of a stream. Both hold different positions in politics and religion: Monsignor Quixote is an unconditional supporter of Franco and is a Catholic, while Sancho is a Communist and an atheist. The itinerary they follow is not real, but it is not fictitious either. It is a summary of the many trips Greene and Father Durán made together across Spain. The reading of the chapter devoted to their travels in Father Durán’s Graham Greene-Friend and Brother (1996) shows how much Greene relied on personal experience, actual conversations and discussions with Father Durán to construe this novel.

Along the 256 pages of Monsignor Quixote, there are at least 132 issues related to religion and theology, an average of almost 10 issues per chapter. What else could we expect from someone who had written: ‘Theology is the only form of philosophy which I enjoy reading...’ (5)? Theology comes into the text in a rather casual way, but there certainly is an in crescendo systematization of topics which begins with a very subtle comment on the celibacy of priests and culminates with the most sublime Mass ever described and a reflection on the permanent nature of love. Some of the topics treated in Monsignor Quixote are recurrent. Greene had already written about them. For example, papal infallibility, contraception, the Immaculate Conception, Catholicism and Communism were the subject of some essays and several letters to the press (6, 7, 8); faith, hope, love, despair, doubt, suicide, and hell appear rather often in his books. Monsignor Quixote is a synopsis of his religious and theological thought, doubts, controversies, and disagreements with the official position of the Church. However, all these topics seem to be the dressing of a more profound line of thought that progressively introduces the theological virtues and develops their effects by God’s grace. The theological virtues are, indeed, the vertebral column of this book; through their working an atheist is being transformed and there are many motives to think that he can be saved.

Theological virtues on the road.

The theological virtues work their way along the adventures of Monsignor and Sancho, but theirs is not an easy job. Each of them has its own shadow that tries to curb its action: faith has doubt, hope has despair, love has selfishness. However, by accepting the gift of God’s grace, their light can overcome their shadow and contribute to the salvation of those who seem to be completely separated from the right path.

Faith and doubt.

Faith was in Greene’s mind from the very beginning. Significantly enough, Greene chose Thomas as his Christian name when he was baptised and later explained that it was after Thomas Dydimus, the Doubter, not after Thomas Aquinas. Greene made a clear distinction between belief and faith. Belief is what we can accept as true based on available objective information and rational arguments, regardless of whether we can personally confirm it or not. Most of us have not seen Mount Everest, but there is enough evidence to belief in it and to belief that it is the highest mountain in the world. Faith implies an additional effort: we have to accept something based on very light evidence or no objective evidence at all. The experimental method does not work: God  and the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception cannot be proved in the laboratory. What we believe in is beyond all reason, but God’s grace helps us accept them. One needs to want to have faith in them and accept them as true. ‘I want to believe’, says Monsignor when he is challenged by Sancho, very much in accordance with Unamuno, who thought that ‘to believe is to want to believe ’ (9).

By accepting this difference between faith and belief, between the unknown and the known facts, Greene’s thoughts are in line with those of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas also made a clear difference between knowledge and faith and he put his view in the very poetic words of Pange Lingua, still sung, seven centuries after he wrote them, when the Host is exposed in the mostrance: ‘...praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui’. In other words, faith gives the necessary supply to the limitations of our senses, of our rational knowledge. Greene was, indeed, a Thomist in disguise, as was Unamuno when he differentiated the rational God from the cordial God, the God we can feel in our hearts, but our rational mind is reluctant to accept (9). Another prolific contemporary writer, who also happened to be a Catholic, put it in this simple way: ‘...a confession of faith is a confession of ignorance’ (10). Greene would have liked this definition; the opposition and difference between knowledge and faith were clear to him: ‘JAMES: If I knew I wouldn’t believe in Him. I couldn’t believe in a God I could understand ’ (11). A real believer in God, if he or she is aware of the limitations of faith, will never say he or she knows God. Not even Monsignor can say that: ‘You think my God is an illusion like the windmills. But He exists, I tell you, I don’t just believe in Him, I touch Him’. He can touch Him; he does not say he knows Him. This simple but profound conversation actually happened between Greene and Father Durán and Greene recalled it in his conversations with Marie-Françoise Allain (12).

Both the atheist and the believer have faith: faith in Communism and faith in God. The intellectual process is the same: the acceptance of something or someone they do not really know. However, their doubts unite them more than their faith: ‘...sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference: the doubter fights only with himself’.

I hope -friend- that you sometimes doubt too. It’s human to doubt’, says Monsignor Quixote to Sancho. Doubt is intrinsic to humans. The complexity of the human being requires long years of dependent care and education. Instinct, which is enough for animals to survive and to develop their lives according to their particular nature, is not enough for us to hold a human life. Human beings, by an act of their will, can control their instincts. We make decisions based on an intellectual reflection and consideration of possible alternatives. More often than not, decisions have to be made based on incomplete information and here arises doubt. Doubt is the devil’s advocate of faith. We cannot live without them: ‘Can a man live without faith?’, Monsignor asks the Mayor, perhaps remembering the scriptures: ‘We live by faith, not by sight’ (13). Later, the Mayor recalls a reading at classroom by one of his professors -a clear reference to Unamuno and his half-belief- at the University of Salamanca, where he had studied: ‘“There is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty which whispers in the ears of the believer Who knows? Without this uncertainty how could we live?”’ Doubt was very important to Greene. In a way, doubt could be the beginning of faith. He expressed this in the last paragraph of one of his short stories, The last word, when a general shot the last Pope: ‘Between the pressure on the trigger and the bullet exploding a strange and frightening doubt crossed his mind: is it possible that what this man believed may be true?’ (14).

Hope and despair.

The French Catholic thinker and writer, Charles Moeller, called Greene ‘the martyr of hope’ (15). I would like to reflect on the etymological meaning of ‘martyr’. It means ‘witness’. Greene always was a witness for the defence of hope. The defence of hope against despair, ‘the worst sin of all’ , and in all circumstances. The end of Brighton Rock, Greene’s first novel with a Catholic background, is a call for hope in the most extreme circumstance: the hope for salvation for someone who has committed suicide. ‘“We must hope and pray”, he said (a priest in the confessional booth tells the young widow), “hope and pray. The Church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy’, that ‘appalling...strangeness of the mercy of God’ (16). It is true: the Church does not judge our consciences. Not even the Pope, who has the faculty to proclaim saints, has the power to assure someone’s damnation, for this is reserved to God’s judgement. Greene’s theological thinking was very advanced when he suggested that someone who had committed suicide could be saved, if we consider that he wrote Brighton Rock more than twenty years before the Vatican Council II, at a time when people who committed suicide were denied burial in consecrated ground. Ten years later, Greene insists on the same subject when another Catholic also commits suicide in The Heart of the Matter (1948). Again, it is a priest who tries to comfort the sacrilegious man’s widow: ‘...”don’t imagine you -or I- know a thing about God’s mercy” (...) “The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart”’ (17).

Both Monsignor Quixote and Sancho have hope, but, as it is the case of their faith, their hope is different. Monsignor hopes that, one day, his Communist friend will convert to Catholicism, and Sancho hopes that Monsignor will convert to Marx. But their hope goes beyond this: the hope for Catholicism leading men to a happy future and the hope for a not too belated arrival of Communism to help workers of all nations are confronted. Neither seems to have arrived, yet, and both Monsignor and Sancho sometimes despair. However, any ill feelings disappear and their hope is strengthened when they drink another glass, for ‘vodka inspires me with hope’, says Monsignor. It is interesting to note that both their faith and their hope arise from the books they read. Sancho reads Marx and Lenin and Monsignor reads the Bible, books of moral theology, and books by St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and St Francis of Sales, among others. ‘They are all the faith I have and all the hope’, Monsignor tells Sancho when he mocks his books. While Sancho’s hope is merely materialist, Monsignor hopes for the salvation of the world, sustained by his faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, something that Sancho finds completely absurd. But ‘It’s an absurd world or we wouldn’t be here together’, says Monsignor. His faith goes beyond the boredom of rationality and even if something looks absurd, he still has faith.

Love and selfishness.

‘...but if I have no love, I am nothing’ (18). Love is, indeed, the greatest of all virtues (19); and Greene knew it, because if there really was some hope for those who committed suicide in the examples mentioned previously, it was because there had been a shade of love in them. ‘If he loved you, surely (...) that shows there was some good...’ (16). ‘It may seem an odd thing to say -when a man’s as wrong as he was- but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God’ (17). The password for salvation is love: love saves.

Monsignor Quixote and Sancho left El Toboso, south of Madrid, in Toledo province, and headed for Madrid; then they followed to Segovia, Arévalo and Salamanca, Greene’s favourite city. From Salamanca they went to Valladolid and León. While on route, news of their strange adventures and misinterpretations of how they helped a bank robber escape arrived to Monsignor’s bishop, who had him back to El Toboso by force. At this moment, Sancho was faced with the dilemma to choose between crossing the frontier and seek refuge with Communist friends in Portugal, away from the civil guards who still mistrusted Communists, or to go back to El Toboso and rescue his friend. And he could not cross the frontier! His loyalty and love for his friend weighed more than his desire for safety, much as his love for a wounded criminal prevented the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory from crossing the frontier of the Godless state into comfort and safety. There always is a frontier in Greene’s stories that cannot be crossed, a permanent reminder of the green-baize door that separated Greene’s school and its unfriendly atmosphere from the safety of his parents’ house.

Sancho manages to rescue Monsignor and they leave El Toboso again through secondary roads to end their journey at the Monastery of Osera, in Galicia, north-west of Spain. Monsignor is seriously injured because, being followed by the civil guards, they had a car accident on arrival to the monastery and he is taken to one of the monastery’s cells. He is in a state of  semi-consciousness. When he says ‘I don’t offer you a governorship, Sancho, I offer you a kingdom’, paraphrasing a passage of Don Quixote, and continues with ‘Come with me, and you will find the kingdom’, Sancho answers ‘I will never leave you, father. We have been on the road together too long for that’, and Monsignor replies ‘By these leaps you can recognize love’. A few moments later, he goes to the church, followed by Sancho, a monk and a professor who was doing research at the monastery. He begins saying the most mystic and essential Mass ever described (today, perhaps, someone would call it virtual). He recites in Latin -as Greene preferred it-, and consecrates with no bread or wine. At the time of communion, he takes the communion first, with no Host or wine, and then tells Sancho ‘Compañero (...) you must kneel, compañero’ and Sancho receives the invisible Host from Monsignor’s fingers. After that, Monsignor still repeats ‘By these leaps (...), by these leaps’, before he falls down dead and Sancho, who had been very attentive all the time, holds him in his arms.

Greene liked the sound of the Spanish word compañero, which means companion. Greene paid attention to the sound of the words when he wrote. However, when I read the paper by John J. Deeney in the first number of Just Good Company (20), I realised that besides the musicality of the word, its meaning fits extremely well with this scene of the Mass, no doubt the most theological of Greene’s writings. Deeney elaborates on the etymological meaning of companion, which means ‘with’ ‘bread’ or ‘con’ ‘pan’, in Spanish, and comes from the Latin word companius (‘cum’ and ‘panis’) (21). It seems to me that Monsignor Quixote thought that his friend Sancho could be raised to the category of companion, and, therefore, someone with whom he could share the Bread, when he recognized that there was some love in him. When he realised what Sancho had done for him and that he would not abandon him, following the natural instinct to seek protection, then he offered him to take communion, to share the invisible consecrated Bread. By his love, Sancho was admitted to communicate.

This modest reflection would not be complete without a reference to the conversation that followed after this Mass. Greene, now impersonated in Father Leopoldo (an additional homage to Father Leopoldo Durán), wrote the most profound theological words in the conversation between the professor and Father Leopoldo:

‘…”What we listened to last night could hardly be described as a Mass”, the professor said’.

‘ “Are you sure of that?” Father Leopoldo asked.’

‘Of course I am. There was no consecration’.

‘I repeat – are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure. There was no Host and no wine’.

‘Descartes, I think, would have said rather more cautiously than you that he saw no bread or wine’.

‘You know as well as I do that there was no bread and no wine’.

‘I know as well as you –or as little- yes, I agree to that. But Monsignor Quixote quite obviously believed in the presence of the bread and wine. Which of us was right?’

‘We were’.

‘Very difficult to prove that logically, professor. Very difficult indeed’.

Without even realising, Sancho learnt the lesson from the scriptures: ‘Love is eternal’ (22). Sancho’s reflections on the permanent nature of love, as he realises that, although hate is finished with the death of the hated person, love persists after death, simply confirm the judgement Monsignor made about his friend’s nature and his capability to receive communion. There was love in Sancho and this love accompanies him on his way to Portugal, now that he has finally fulfilled his mission of helping his friend till his death.

An exemplary death.

Greene died in 1991 in Vevey, Switzerland. In contradistinction with fiction, he, the Mayor, was survived by Monsignor, Father Leopoldo Durán, who lives in Vigo, Galicia, the Spanish region Greene liked best.

There are amazing coincidences in the deaths of Monsignor and of Greene. Their roles seem to have reversed. Monsignor was held by an attentive and careful Sancho, who had been closely watching the final deterioration of Monsignor’s life during the Mass, till he fell down at the end. Greene died in Father Durán’s company, as he had wished, and Father Durán held his hand during the last minutes of Greene’s life, carefully observing Greene’s superficial breathing till it stopped. Monsignor’s death was like a transferred premonition: what Greene wrote of Monsignor actually happened to him.

Greene had abandoned religious practice for a long period of time, but, according to Father Durán, at least for the last 10 or 12 years of his life, he received the sacraments regularly. His faith in the world to come could be paralleled only to Monsignor’s and he gave evidence of it in the way he died: he fully and peacefully accepted the fact. His physician was an eye witness of this and said that only a person with a very solid faith could be so serene before passing away (23).

Greene is gone; his doubts have been solved; his faith has become knowledge; his hope, rewarded. His works remain; they are the result of his love for us. They are witness of his convictions and carry a precious message of hope like no other literary work of the 20th century has done. Greene left a skeleton to the ground and a soul, a work, to history (24).

Acknowledgement.

I am indebted to Father Leopoldo Durán for reading the manuscript and for his thoughtful comments and advice.

 

References.

1- Greene G. Monsignor Quixote. Penguin Books, Ltd. Reprint, 1986. (Quotations with no specified reference are all from this book). (First published by The Bodley Head in 1982).

2.- Bryden R. Graham Greene discusses collected edition of his novels. The Listener, LXXXII: 2173 (23 April 1970), 544-555. In: Donaghy HJ (Editor). Conversations with Graham Greene. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson and London, 1992; p: 85-89.

3.- Duran L. Second Graham Greene Festival. Berkhamsted (Herst), UK. October 2nd, 1999.

4.- Van Dalm, RE. A structural analysis of The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene. Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1999; p127-146.

5.- Greene G. Carving a statue. Epitaph for a play. In: Greene G. The collected plays of Graham Greene. Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1985; p: 212. (Carving a statue was first published by The Bodley Head in 1964).

6.- Greene G. Ensayos católicos . EMECE Editores, SA. Buenos Aires, 1955.

7.- Greene G. Yours etc. Letters to the press 1945-89. (Selected and introduced by Christopher Hawtree). Reinhardt Books. London, 1989.

8.- Greene G. Reflections. Reinhardt Books. London, 1990.

9.- Unamuno, M. Del sentimiento trágico de la vida . Colección Austral, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, eighth edition 1997. (First published in 1913).

10. West M. Desde la cumbre. Javier Vergara Editor, SA. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1996; p 18. (Spanish translation of A view from the ridge. Harper Collins, San Francisco).

11.- Greene G. The potting shed. In: Greene G. The collected plays of Graham Greene. Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, UK, 1985; p 132. (The potting shed was first published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd.).

12.- Greene G. El otro y su doble. Conversaciones con Marie-Françoise Allain. Caralt, Barcelona 1982; p 197. (Spanish translation of L’autre et son double, first published in French by Belfond in 1981).

13.- 2 Corinthians 5:7

14.- Greene G. The last word. In: Greene G. The last word and other stories. Reinhardt Books, London, 1990; p: 18.

15.- Moeller C. Literatura del siglo XX y cristianismo . Volume 1, 3rd edition. Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1958; p 325. (Spanish translation of the original French edition: Littérature du XXe siècle et christianisme. Éditions Casterman, Paris et Tournai, 1954).

16.- Greene G. Brighton Rock. Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, reset and reprinted, 1975; p: 246. (Brighton Rock was first published by William Heinemann Ltd. in 1938).

17.- Greene G. The heart of the matter. Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1971; p: 272. (The heart of the matter was first published by William Heinemann Ltd. in 1948).

18.- 1 Corinthians 13:2

19.- 1 Corinthians 13:13

20.- Deeney JJ. A Jesuit think tank for the world? http://justgoodcompany. org/1.1/thinktanktext.htm. (Accessed on December 13th, 2002).

21.- Diccionario de la Lengua Española, 20th  edition, Tomo 1. Madrid 1984;  página 346.

22.- 1 Corinthians 13:8.

23.- Durán L. Graham Greene. Friend and brother. Fount Paperbacks, London 1995; p: 344-345. (English translation by Euan Cameron from the original Spanish text, Graham Greene. Amigo y hermano, published by Espasa Calpe, SA, Madrid, 1996).

24.- Unamuno, M de. La agonía del cristianismo . Sixth edition. Espasa-Calpe, SA, Madrid, 1980; p: 18. (La agonía del cristianismo was first published in French in 1924).


Ramón Rami Porta is a practicing thoracic surgeon from Barcelona, Spain, who has been interested in Graham Greene since his years at medical school. From avid reader of Greene’s books, he progressively developed an interest in Greene’s life, which provided a more profound understanding of Greene’s work and religious thinking. Since the constitution of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust in Berkhamsted, UK, in 1997, he has become a regular attendant of the annual Graham Greene Festival organized by the Trust, and an unconditional supporter of its activities to promote and maintain interest in Greene.