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The last several weeks have found me reflecting on the works of Graham Greene and William Congdon. Something in the work of these two artists speaks to me. As I read Greene’s novels and gaze on Congdon’s paintings, I feel a deep sigh that they understood much of what I feel, perhaps even more than I feel it. And I as I reflected on their works, I found it was the hope in their art that drew me in
I provide medical care to young people who suffer hopelessness. More than medical care, I study these young people, listening to their stories, trying to bring those stories to light. I look for elements of hope in their lives, although with them I often call it resilience, and reflect it back to them. But so often the pain, the trauma, the sadness, the anger, and the crushing oppression of their lives leave them with no future and without the will to even fight for one. This lack of hope crosses sociodemographics. I work with young homeless teens who gaze without hope into a future of poverty. I work with rural youth who feel trapped with no hope of finding meaning in life. I work with wealthy suburban adolescents who try to block out the hopeless pain in their lives with soul-numbing drugs. I look into their eyes and wonder how the darkness can ever be lifted. If my hope falters, how can I lend them any?
In Graham Greene’s novel “The Power and the Glory” a drunken, philandering priest serves the Eucharist to a myriad of impoverished parishioners throughout a diocese in Mexico during a time when Catholicism was outlawed. He is furious at God for giving him the gift of turning bread and wine in the body and blood of Christ. He cannot escape his calling, he wants to flee Mexico and is given opportunity to do so, but he doesn’t.
Let me be clear, I love Graham Greene’s work, and I particularly love “The Power and the Glory.” When I read it for the first time about 2 years ago, I was devastated by its insight into doubt and faith, its clarity about the limits of love and fear, and its beauty in capturing the ineffable horror and glory in life.
Everyone in the novel is desperate for grace, hope, and meaning in the midst of pain.
The paintings scattered across this blog are all by William Congdon. An action painter, contemporary and close associate of Jackson Pollack and others in that school, he had a meteoric rise to prestige in the early half of the 20th century. His fame quickly dwindled however when he encountered Christ, and converted to the Roman Catholic Church. His paintings changed, and for a period of nearly 8 years following that, he wanted to paint nothing other than the Crucifix. He eventually became a permanent resident of a monastery in Lombardy, and once again his paintings matured along with his faith, with a new emphasis on capturing the abstract beauty and wonder around him.
Emily and I encountered Congdon’s work at an exhibit in New Haven, CT several weeks ago, and his haunting visceral images drew me right back into Greene’s novels. To start, his painting of New York City – blurry reds and yellows of teeming life covered over by grid work of all encompassing darkness that even the sun can’t pierce – captured exactly how so many young people I meet in my clinic encounter life around them. It isn’t just because they are in an urban environment; it isn’t even only the poverty (although that does seem to exacerbate things).
No, it is the fact they are imprisoned by so much darkness, the life and light in their lives are trapped and beaten down. In The Power and the Glory, one of the most intimate scenes is one night as the priest lies awake in prison listening to the desperate sounds of those around him groping for their humanity in the dark.
After leaving New York, Congdon made his way to Vienna, where he painted a series of paintings of St. Mark’s Cathedral. I sense elements of a transformation in these paints, gone is the grid work of black obscuring all else, now there is a hazy cathedral with a golden dome (or is it the sun?) splitting the square in two. Dark non-descript buildings line both sides, but down the middle is light. Dividing the day from the night. What is splitting, shattering, the darkness? It is never clearly in focus in these paintings, but the essence of the Church (the Body of Christ) is unmistakable.
In a poverty-stricken Mexican village, Greene’s priest encounters his daughter who quite obviously and openly hates him. In the same village, worn out from hearing confession throughout the night, he celebrates the Mass as the sun rises, barely finishing before the police raid the village in search of the rogue priest. Light trapped between darkness, but light nonetheless.
These two paintings are both Crucifixes from the period where this theme was a massive part of his work. The first – a smear of tar on a road in Mumbai. This painting screams in its simplicity about Christ’s incarnation, life and death. Taking on our existence he is spread out, trampled on, beaten down, yet is the only thing that can mend the holes and cracks in the lives of humans.
The second – the crucifix is implied on a background that moves upward from darkness to a red and gold dawn. Light and life come with the crucifixion and resurrection, but the reality remains, even with our life hidden in the new birth from Christ, we face days on earth – and as Jesus told us, even when we don’t understand his words, we still know how to read the meaning of a red dawn.
As much as part of me identifies with the priest in the The Power and the Glory, it is the boy who adds a compelling, if understated, extra narrative to this extraordinary novel. He appears at the beginning, seeing the priest, but unaware and frankly uninterested in what he sees. The next time we see him is at the end when the priest is being taken away to die, and the boy acts out becoming a soldier. Two visions of life are given, both driven by ideals, both deeply committed. The first is the priest doggedly carrying out his calling, despite all his personal failures, and ultimately dying an inglorious, humiliating death. The second, the view that hope and faith will be crushed completely; the view the gun is stronger than the sacraments. And by the end of the novel, it seems that this second view has won. The last priest is dead. God is dead. And the children have no hope but to perpetuate violence, destruction, and death.
However, even as darkness appears to win, throughout the novel there is a pervading sense that it never fully wins. There is something puzzling that death and suffering are all the darkness can inflict, and while those seem to be more than enough, the longing for light and life is never crushed, never overcome. If grace and hope are so weak as to be destroyed, why does everyone want them? Not just the devout villagers seeking absolution for their sins, but even those who do not realize what they want.
In a city, the priest purchases black-market wine with the last of his money, money that could have purchased passage out of Mexico, and watches helplessly as the town official he was dealing with uncorks and drinks the entire bottle. Even in trying to satisfy his own despicable desires, all this official can really do is try to partake of the Blood of Christ.
It is this longing for grace that is the Power and Glory that can never be quenched. And the Power and Glory are God’s alone. Borrowing from Thomas Merton, in a world gone dark with sin and death, simply the longing for grace is proof of that God’s grace is present and already at work.
In this dark scene painted by Congdon, titled Il Sepolcro, the despair of Holy Saturday, the despair of the death of God, the despair of what Pope Benedict called, “The Sabbath of History,” are presented in the wavy, inky blackness of Christ’s tomb. As I look at the painting, I see violence, I see hopelessness, I see all things being swallowed up. I feel as if the darkness from Congdon’s New York City paintings has become complete. There was nothing left. No life, no hope.
Except for that stab of gold in the middle of the painting – breaking free.
Disclaimer – I am not a Greene scholar, and my copy of The Power and the Glory was confiscated by a friend in Norfolk, Va (you know who you are…), so if I made glaring errors in my memory of the novel, I really apologize since I am working from memories and impressions of the novel…