Graham Greene’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’: Reflections on Christian Life

Reflection 16-12-12
Having a lot of Graham Greene books around in the Church’s bookstall, and knowing that he has been called a ‘Catholic’ author has prompted me to read some more Greene. I have just finished reading ‘The Heart of the Matter’.

This novel concerns a Mr. Scobie who is a Policeman in Africa. Both he and his wife, Louise, attend Mass regularly, but she is not happy, particularly when Scobie is passed over for promotion. She goes to live somewhere else for a time, during which Scobie forms a love relationship with Helen, a younger woman who has been rescued from a sunken ship. A decisive turn in the plot occurs when Louise decides to come back. Now he is in trouble: He can’t leave his wife, he can’t give up Helen, he can’t go to confession because he can’t decide to repent, he can’t refuse his wife’s request that they go to Mass together, he can’t refuse communion, so he thereby damns himself for knowingly receiving communion in a state of sinfulness. Scobie decides that since he is damned already, he will remove himself from the situation by committing suicide, which he does. Committing one mortal sin after having already committed a first can’t make things any worse.So there are the bones of the story.

Wondering about this novel, I asked ‘What kind of Christianity is presented in this book? Is it a kind that is worth having?’ Then after that came ‘Is this the kind of Christianity that Graham Greene himself held and wants us to have, or is the presentation of this kind of Christianity an implied critique? What would he say himself about what being a Christian means?’ The blurb on the back cover says ‘It is a study of a personality in disintegration’. Is that all there is?

The first thing that struck me was the way in which Scobie and Louise lived as CHristians. At one point Scobie thinks ‘Peace seemed to him to be the most beautiful word in the language: My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you: O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace. In the Mass he pressed his fingers against his eyes to keep the tears of longing in.’ (Penguin books, 1962 p.260)

Do you notice the way that the words of the Eucharist are ‘just there’ for him? Being a Christian in this way is about knowing the texts through long use. It is about regularly immersing ones self in them, so that they are present and available when needed. This is not a kind of Christianity that is like icing on a cake. Instead, it is that the words of the Eucharist, and the psalms, and the scriptures somehow ‘get in’ and become part of the cake itself.

I can understand and appreciate this way of being. Very often I’ll be singing the words of hymns during the day, or the words of a psalm will enter into a conversation. This kind of Christianity does not ask ‘Tell me what you believe’ but asks ‘What words live in your soul (anima) and literally ‘animate’ you?’

The other thing that impresses me is that in Scobie’s life is that there is something in it which is ultimate, his relationship with God. There is this connection between a person’s ultimate seriousness in going into the presence of God in the Eucharist, of receiving God, and the effect of it. If this reception is done in a false way, then as St. Paul says the effect is not God’s blessing, but judgement. This is what Scobie thinks. He has not been to confession because he cannot give up either Helen or Louise, but he knows that this is wrong. He ought to stay away from the Eucharist, he thinks, until he has done what is necessary to resolve this conflict. But he goes to please Louise, thereby drinking judgement to himself, knowingly. This is a pretty serious business:life lived before God. Most people are atheists and say ‘Well, there is no God. There is no accountability. There is nothing that I take with ultimate seriousness on this earth.’ But being a Christian says that there is. In Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’, More’s daughter Meg invites him to take the oath of succession, but then mean something different in his heart. More replies “What is an oath then, but words we say to God? Listen, Meg.When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands…Iike water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again. Thomas More, like Scobie knows that there are some things that we do on earth that really count for eternity. The truth of Christian life is that life is lived with God and that such living calls us to account every time we invite God into our lives at the Eucharist.

But then the kind of Christianity that Scobie lives does not seem to offer him much joy. The moment of failure  comes for me when Scobie does not let the tears of longing flow in the Mass. That is what it is for! Why does he not say ‘Oh God, I want peace but can’t find it. Have mercy on me, a sinner, and have mercy on my inability at this moment to change. I know what I should do, but be patient with me.’ There is no genuine mercy in Scobie’s version of Christian faith. Toward the end of the book, Louise is reading this poem to him ‘We are all falling. This hand’s falling too-all have this falling sickness no one withstands. And yet there’s always One whose gentle hands This universal falling can’t fall through’  Scobie thinks, ‘They sounded like Truth, but he rejected them. Comfort can come too easily: he thought these hands will never hold my fall. I slip between the fingers, I am greased with falsehood.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also one for taking things seriously. He says of the Church’s ‘cheap grace’, ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’ But he knows that there is hope beyond failure. Bonhoeffer, involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, also writes from prison “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” Scobie’s disintegration is perhaps in the end a lack of patience with himself. Everything he says about ultimacy is true. Bonhoeffer and Thomas More agree. It’s just that in refusing the fact that he is still held, Scobie collapses the tension between the ‘what I am’ and the ‘what I ought to be’ too soon. He becomes his judge, and not God. When I pray the collect ‘God save me from dying suddenly and unprepared’ I’m also expressing something of that triangle. The ultimacy of life with God, the provisional nature of my own attempts not to sin and the prayer to have enough time and patience with myself to be able to do something about it or if not, to die trusting in God’s mercy, but wanting and needing it nonetheless, not pretending that it doesn’t matter.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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