from The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: the fugitive whiskey priest gives his last mass in Mexico

A little group of Indians passed the gate: gnarled tiny creatures of the Stone Age: the men in short smocks walked with long poles, and the women with black plaits and knocked-about faces carried their babies on their backs. “The Indians have heard you are here,” Miss Lehr said. “They’ve walked fifty miles–I shouldn’t be surprised.”

They stopped at the gate and watched him: when he looked at them they went down on their knees and crossed themselves–the strange elaborate mosaic touching the nose and ears and chin. “My brother gets so angry,” Miss Lehr said, “if he sees somebody go on his knees to a priest–but I don’t see that it does any harm.”

Round the corner of the house the mules were stamping–the guide must have brought them out to give them their maize: they were slow feeders, you had to give them a long start. It was time to begin mass and be gone. He could smell the early morning–the world was still fresh and green, and in the village below the pastures a few dogs barked. The alarm clock tick-tocked in Miss Lehr’s hand. He said: “I must be going now.” He felt an odd reluctance to leave Miss Lehr and the house and the brother sleeping in the inside room. He was aware of a mixture of tenderness and dependence. When a man wakes after a dangerous operation he puts a special value upon the first face he sees as the anaesthetic wears away.

He had no vestments, but the Masses in this village were nearer to the old parish days than any he had known in the last eight years–there was no fear of interruption: no hurried taking of the sacraments as the police approached. There was even an altar stone brought from the locked church. But because it was so peaceful he was all the more aware of his own sin as he prepared to take the Elements–“Let not the participation of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, though unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgment and condemnation.” A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell: but he carried Hell about with him. Sometimes at night he dreamed of it. Domine, non sum dignus. . .domine, non sum dignus. . .Evil ran like malaria in his veins. He remembered a dream he had had of a big grassy arena lined with the statues of the saints–but the saints were alive, they turned their eyes this way and that, waiting for something. He waited, too, with an awful expectancy: bearded Peters and Pauls, with Bibles pressed to their breasts, watched some entrance behind his back he couldn’t see–it had the menace of a beast. Then a marimba began to play, tinkly and repetitive, a firework exploded, and Christ danced into the arena–danced and postured with a bleeding painted face, up and down, up and down, grimacing like a prostitute, smiling and suggestive. He woke with the sense of complete despair that a man might feel finding the only money he possessed was counterfeit.

“. . .and we saw His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Mass was over.

7 thoughts on “from The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: the fugitive whiskey priest gives his last mass in Mexico

  1. I went through a Graham Greene phase in adolescence, reading everything he wrote—I suspect for the exoticism and dark psychology as much as the wonderful writing. Reading this today brings it all back. I find I still like the writing although I left all that “domine non sum dignus” far behind.

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