I am leading a book club with one of the other postulants on Graham Greene's classic The Power and the Glory. The main character is a priest who is running for his life during the persecutions that religious endured after the 1910 revolution in Mexico.
The priest is not a saint; he is an alcoholic who fathered a child in a moment of inebriated weakness. He finds himself on the run, the last priest in the Mexican state. He knows he does not deserve to be a martyr and he is afraid to die. Graham Greene, in typical fashion, creates a story with no easy answers, a story that challenges as much as it frustrates.
Which is why not everyone in the book club liked the novel. One woman said with a grimace, "This story is grim." And it truly is. But I have learned a lot from reading the book, especially from the main character, the priest (who remains unnamed throughout the story).
The priest knows he is weak, sinful and undeserving of God's love. But the reader begins to discover a true humility and capacity for forgiveness in this unlikely character. He is able to forgive even the most heinous behavior from others because he understands that he is a sinner himself and has no right to judge that others are worse. At one point in the book he says with emotion, "If there's ever been a single man in this state damned, then I'll be damned too ... I wouldn't want it to be any different. I just want justice, that's all."
Unfortunately, many people, including myself, are not as holy on the inside as we are on the outside. We get caught up in the exteriors of spiritual life. We focus on eliminating sins that others can see. And once we get to a point where our outward sins cause us less embarrassment and we feel justified, we sit back on the porch of our spiritual life and complacently drink lemonade. We lull ourselves into mediocrity by comparing, always finding other people who make us feel like we have it together spiritually. We think, "Well, at least I am not that bad." We only work hard spiritually when our messy insides begin to show on the outside. We keep up appearances, but not much else.
The priest in The Power and the Glory is a mess on the exterior but on the interior his heart is clean. He does not harbor hate or anger towards people. He does not let negative feelings and unforgiveness build up inside, turning the temple walls of his soul black with poison. He does not think he is better than other people. He does not judge. The priest knows his place in relation to God. He understands his nothingness. I may not be an alcoholic with an illegitimate child but I cannot say the same about myself.
Maybe you can recognize the priest in the parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees:
Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 18:11-14
Jesus seems to suggest in this parable that he would rather have a person who sins outwardly on His hands than a person who seems to have it together on the outside but thinks he is better than others and has no need for forgiveness. Of course Jesus calls us to both inward and outward holiness. God is not only looking for outward adherence to His law; He is looking for a deep conversion of our hearts.
Jesus wants us to cleanse the temples of our hearts and Lent is a good time to do this. It is a time to admit that we do not have it together and even if we have it together on the outside, our insides need serious deep cleaning. God is not looking for meaningless exterior penances in this time of conversion, He only wants penance when it cleans our heart. Together in these next few weeks of Lent, let us focus on the interior walls of our heart. Every day God is giving us opportunities to clean up the dark soot that has gathered there. The blackness of sin keeps us from seeing the face of God.
So, before Easter arrives, let's do some spring cleaning!