Being a broken man himself, Greene knew how to probe the pain and romance of faith and its failed practitioners better than anyone else. Even those of us who never ended up in a prison in Mexico waiting for execution, like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, knew what his self-disgust felt like. We knew what Greene was on about when he described the sadness of missing happiness by seconds at an appointed place. A little more self-discipline and maybe our tormented hearts would have ceased tormenting yet. But we also knew somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.
Being a priesthood themselves, great writers understand this better than most. Tennessee Williams knew that if he’d exorcised his demons he’d have destroyed his angels as well. And the poet Ian Crichton Smith understood that “from our weakness only are we kind”. Greene would have agreed with them both. There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. That’s why the spoiled priest in his greatest novel was overwhelmed with compassion for other losers. When you looked at other men and women, “you could always begin to feel pity. 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.” And that had to include self-hatred. In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood."
The priest dragged himself towards her on his knees.
‘I beseech you,’ he cried, ‘if you have any heart, do not repulse me! Oh! I love you! I am a wretch! When you utter that name, unhappy girl, it is as though you crushed all the fibers of my heart between your teeth. Mercy! If you come from hell I will go thither with you. I have done everything to that end. The hell where you are, shall be paradise; the sight of you is more charming than that of God! Oh! speak! you will have none of me? I should have thought the mountains would be shaken in their foundations on the day when a woman would repulse such a love. Oh! if you only would! Oh! how happy we might be. We would flee—I would help you to flee,—we would go somewhere, we would seek that spot on earth, where the sun is brightest, the sky the bluest, where the trees are most luxuriant. We would love each other, we would pour our two souls into each other, and we would have a thirst for ourselves which we would quench in common and incessantly at that fountain of inexhaustible love.’
She interrupted with a terrible and thrilling laugh.
‘Look, father, you have blood on your fingers!’
The priest remained for several moments as though petrified, with his eyes fixed upon his hand."
“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, by Charles Dickens. Chapter 19, “Shadow on the sun-dial”