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
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).
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
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”’
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
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
‘…”What we listened to last night could
hardly be described as a Mass”, the professor said’.
‘ “Are you sure of that?” Father Leopoldo
‘Of course I am. There was no consecration’.
‘I repeat – are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure. There was no Host and no
‘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?’
‘Very difficult to prove that logically, professor. Very difficult
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).
I am indebted to Father Leopoldo Durán for reading the manuscript and
for his thoughtful comments and advice.
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
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
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
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