“The Whiskey Priest”

There is plenty of evidence – both scientific and otherwise – that as we get older, we can grow in wisdom and compassion and the ability to love others in a less judgmental way. The past couple of weeks or so I’ve been reading a collection of essays and interviews on the life of Thomas Merton (Trappist monk and one of the great spiritual writers and social activists of the twentieth century) titled Soul Searching – edited by documentary producer Morgan Atkinson and shown in the lead photo. The “choir” interviewed for this little work were those who either lived with or knew Merton well before his untimely death. As I mention in my upcoming book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Telling Our Stories Over a Lifetime, I literally grew up with Merton in a way – his writings were very significant in shaping my own spirituality in my late teens and early adulthood. Even in recent years, I have read almost everything Merton wrote, including his journals that were finally edited and published decades after his death at age 53. He was accidentally electrocuted in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, during an interfaith conference attended by Buddhists and Christians in 1968.

The book that made Merton famous was called The Seven Storey Mountain – his autobiography of his early life before he entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. In it, Merton relates a scene that was important to him in responding to what he was beginning to sense was a call to enter more deeply into a religious life. If I remember correctly, a close friend and poet, Bob Lax, urged Merton – after Merton’s conversion to Roman Catholicism – to “become a saint.” And Merton spent his whole life aspiring after sainthood, living both a contemplative life in the monastery but also becoming involved in the anti-war movement of the ’60s as well as other social causes he took up over the years.

About a decade ago, though, I stopped reading Merton’s work. I found that I had become impatient with his self-absorption in his journal writing. So I closed his books and stored them on a shelf in my bedroom and that was that.

Until now. What has changed? His life and legacy? No, likely not. Me? Yes, probably. Let me explain. And let me explain with the help of another book that I have recently re-read – one of the most profound novels depicting a saint in human form: Graham Greene’s classic and best novel, The Power and the Glory. (See the second photo below.)

About a month ago I preached at St. John’s and, in the middle of the sermon, I drew from Greene’s story to illustrate my sermon’s basic point. I had used this story before, and so I knew that it fit well with the point I was trying to make. So I drew from the climax of the novel to illustrate in the most powerful way I could what it means to be a saint in flawed, complex human form. I then decided to see if I still had a copy of the book on my shelf. And I quickly found it without much trouble – another one of those providential occurrences in our lives? (And yes, I have too many books on my shelves, from the rec room to the attic. One of these days …)

Once I started re-reading Greene’s work I couldn’t put it down. But I did decide after a while not to read it before bedtime because I was swept up into the drama that was so powerful – the picture of a great sinner who became, over the pages, a Christ figure – finally a martyr who could have saved his life but also could not abandon his duty or his people in the end.

The setting is Mexico during a violently anti-clerical period in its history, and the protagonist – this “whisky priest” – is an alcoholic who has abandoned most of his clerical vows, but again, in the end, chooses to stay with his people to do what he can. He gets caught by the police, and (spoiler alert!) is shot before a firing squad after refusing to run or hide his identity after he’s caught by the authorities. But through the whole process of depraved and inhuman suffering while he is thrown into jail with other unfortunates, he experiences profound compassion and love for even those who have betrayed him. In his words as he was shoved into a hovel of a cell and began to feel in the pitch dark those who were jammed in with him:

He said after a moment’s hesitation, very distinctly: “I am a priest.”
It was the end: there was no need to hope any longer. The ten years’ hunt was over at last. There was silence all around him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love; it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain the time was short …
… Everybody, when he spoke, listened attentively to him as if he were addressing them in church: he wondered where the inevitable Judas was sitting now, but he wasn’t aware of Judas [the one who had turned him in] as he had been in the forest hut. He was moved by an enormous and irrational affection for the inhabitants of this prison. A phrase came to him: “God so loved the world …” He said: “My children, you must not think the holy martyrs are like me. You have a name for me. Oh I’ve heard you use it before now. I am a whisky priest. I am in here now because they found a bottle of brandy in my pocket.”
… He couldn’t even say Mass any longer – he had no wine. It had all gone down the dry gullet of the Chief of Police. It was – appallingly – complicated. He was still afraid of death; he would be more afraid of death yet when the morning came, but it was beginning to attract him by its simplicity.
In the cell with him was one particularly pious woman – a sanctimonious woman of the worst kind who the priest recognized as reeking with judgment on all the rest. At first the whisky priest recoiled from her, but then his compassion extended even to her. He says:

… When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity … that was a quality God’s image carried with it … when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination … [but] It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye: a saint gets a subtle taste for beauty …
I believe that this profound book is a moving and penetrating glimpse of what humanity in all its fallenness and flaws is capable of. So here is the take-home point: There is plenty of evidence – both scientific and otherwise – that as we get older, we can grow in wisdom and compassion and the ability to love others in a less judgmental way. So perhaps we can all follow Bob Lax’s advice he gave to Merton on that street in Manhattan so many decades ago. Maybe inspired by the truth about the human condition that Greene captured in this beautiful novel, we can all aspire to become such wise and compassionate saints, like this whisky priest, in the end.