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Graham Greene and the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit and the ability to “speak in tongues”, recalls Greene’s Mon

This Sunday is Pentecost, a day on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles while they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the gift of tongues suddenly enabled them to speak in many different languages, malicious observers said it was just drunken babbling (a claim that St Peter answered, saying that in fact it was the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Joel).

This made me think of how Graham Greene dealt with the Holy Spirit, a rather tricky and elusive entity, and, indeed, the subject of wine, in his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote. Some readers may remember the charming Thames Television film adaptation, in which Alec Guinness played the innocent, other-worldly Monsignor Quixote and Leo McKern the communist ex-mayor of their little village who travels across Spain with him to buy the purple bib and socks that go with the rank to which the priest has just been elevated.

The pair stop for the evening at an abandoned farm, and sit by a wall eating sausage and drinking rather a lot of Manchegan wine. Sancho, the ex-mayor, asks his friend to explain the mystery of the Trinity to him. I'm going to quote the passage at length, as Greene is often thought of as being tormented by his Catholicism, but this shows his playful side.

"You see these bottles?" [says Monsignor Quixote.] "Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half-bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."

"I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost," [says Sancho.] "He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."

"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half-bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

"You are very ingenious, friend. I begin at least to understand what you mean by the Trinity. Not to believe in it, mind you. That will never do."

Father Quixote sat in silence looking at the bottles. When the Mayor struck a match to light a cigarette he saw the bowed head of his companion. It was as though he had been deserted by the Spirit he had praised. "What is the matter, father?" he asked.

"May God forgive me," Father Quixote said, "for I have sinned."

"It was only a joke, father. Surely your God can understand a joke."

"I have been guilty of heresy," Father Quixote replied. "I think -- perhaps -- I am unworthy to be a priest."

"What have you done?"

"I have given wrong instruction. The Holy Ghost is equal in all respects to the Father and the Son, and I have represented Him by this half-bottle."

"Is that a serious error, father?"

"It is anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early Council. Perhaps it was Nicaea."

"Don't worry, father. The matter is easily put right. We will throw away and forget this half-bottle and I will bring a whole bottle from the car."

"I have drunk more than I should. If I hadn't drunk so much I would never, never have made that mistake. There is no sin worse than the sin against the Holy Ghost."

"Forget it. We will put the matter right at once."

So it was they drank another bottle . . .

Perfect. And if you get the chance to see the film version you'll see both Guinness and McKern make the most of Greene's gentle meditation on bewilderment and faith. Not one of his most celebrated books, for sure, but still a latter-day reflection "of the master's long-standing preoccupation with doom, pity and the inscrutability of God's will", as the New York Times put it.