My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Found my copy on a stoop. Was totally worth picking up.
At the end of this comes, for me, a startling — and strangely calming — quote from a priest. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t provide much context; it is enough to say that the priest tries to comfort someone by saying that
You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.
Graham Greene wrote this novel in 1938, and that line — ellipses included — has had a long, rich life. Longer and richer, I might say, than the book itself, two film adaptations notwithstanding.
It is appalling.
It comes up quite often in essays that traffic in contemporary views on theology. And in books about religion in literature, (e.g. “To Promote, Defend and Redeem,” “Redeeming Modernity,” etc.
“Indeed, if Greene really had instilled a doubt of hell in the reader’s mind, then the spiritual thriller which is “Bright Rock” would cease to thrill.” (p. 124, “The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961” by Ian Turnbull Ker)
Even now, it resonates with bloggers and tweeters. There apparently is a lot of depth to plumb in those few words, if we can believe what we read. Given Mr. Greene’s own, shall we say, interest in writing about Catholicism, there are probably some psychologies between the lines as well.
But the Catholic novelist is more than unhappy
Reading Greene is not a theologically comfortable experience.
I read the words and was struck with a kind of knowing. It was jarring because I was so focused on the book and so near the end. I was racing to the finish with not a little enthusiasm, and hoping to get there before the end of a Very Important Nap. I was sure I had heard that sentence before, and my first thought was the Pauline epistles. It seemed natural, and it was certainly a natural thing for a priest to quote from.
But of course, that is not where I first remembered it from.
“You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive.
That is from “Two Cathedrals,” Season 2 Episode 22. And it leans a little toward the melodramatic. President Barlett’s grieving for the death of his secretary manifests itself in an angry, one-sided conversation into the echoing stillness of the National Cathedral, complete with an overliterary matzah ball delivered, I imagine, with a knowing smirk from Aaron Sorkin.
If you ask me, and I know you didn’t, I would say about half the power of that scene (see below) comes from the fact that about half the lines are spoken in Latin. It’s a little like how Americans think British people sound smart, whether they actually are or not. Mr. Greene’s main character from “Brighton Rock” tosses out Latin phrases from time to time, too, and these take on a menacing tone a little ways out of proportion with his real-world potential.
So does this quotation, if you ask me. What does it mean — the appalling strangeness — if not, Stop thinking so much?