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The Priestly Comedy of J. F. Powers

Yet the center of the story is not truly social comedy, but a serious moral-religious issue. The local tractor company, a successful concern with an execrable record toward its employees, solves its excess profits problem by sending out regular checks as “donations” to the local clergy. Father Eudex, whose sympathies are strongly prolabor, understands the checks to be the most blatant whitening of the sepulchers, but he doesn’t know what he should do with his—send it to the missions, hand it over to the company’s workers’ strike fund? The pastor advises him to put it toward the new car he has been wanting, a car that will make the right kind of point about his station.

Father Eudex makes his decision after a parishioner comes to him seeking not spiritual but financial advice, and accuses him of not being “much of a priest” when he suggests she give some money to the poor. He flushes the tractor company’s check down the toilet in a rapture of righteous divestment. But Powers ends the story with Father Eudex’s priggish reflection on the superiority of his position to that of his fellow clerics who might have used their checks for good works. The final disembodied line, “And you, Father?” refuses to settle the question whether virtue lies in the pure act, with its wage of pride, or in the muddled gift, which serves the poor by abetting the wicked.

In “Prince of Darkness,” Powers introduces us to the inner life of Father Ernest Burner, an entirely mediocre timeserver, a glutton, a cynic, adolescent in his desire to be on the opposite side of whatever position is taken by the younger curate. Powers’s attitude and tone are complicated, and are the source of the story’s comedy. Burner lives in front of a mythic backdrop; even Powers’s most secular readers know the image of the devoted pastor burning himself out for his flock. Burner knows he fails but does not change. He is a romantic whose sin is sloth, the least romantic of the lot. He fantasizes a heroic life, a martyr’s death. Even if we have our doubts, even if we suspect that the Dies Irae might find Father Burner hiding under his bed—Powers shows us Burner putting golf balls into his roman collar, claiming that he is off to visit the sick when he is taking flying lessons, leaving a used match in the holy water font—we cannot help seeing the pathos of his adolescent dreams, even his most down-to-earth one: being named a pastor. We don’t want him to have to write his mother again, telling her that he has been appointed assistant yet another time and that she will have to wait even longer to fulfill their joint dream of her becoming his housekeeper:

He thought of himself back in her kitchen, home from the sem for the holidays, a bruiser in a tight black suit, his feet heavy on the oven door. She was fussing at the stove and he was promising her a porcelain one as big as a house after he got his parish. But he let her know, kidding on the square, that he would be running things at the rectory. It would not be the old story of the priest taking orders from his housekeeper, even if she was his mother….

We never see Powers’s priests doing any harm to the laity. There are no scenes of tormented penitents being denied consolation. It is impossible, for example, to be genuinely worried about the penitent in this confessional scene:

Were you married by a priest?”

Yes.”

How long ago was that?”

Four years.”

Any children?”

No.”

Practice birth control?”

Yes, sometimes.”

Don’t you know it’s a crime against nature and the Church forbids it?”

Yes.”

Don’t you know that France fell because of birth control?”

No.”

Well, it did. Was it your husband’s fault?”

You mean—the birth control?”

Yes.”

Not wholly.”

And you’ve been away from the Church ever since your marriage?”

Yes.”

Now you see why the Church is against mixed marriages. All right, go on. What else?”

I don’t know…”

Is that what you came to confess?”

No. Yes. I’m sorry, I’m afraid that’s all.”

Do you have a problem?”

I think that’s all, Father.”

Remember it is your obligation, and not mine, to examine your conscience. The task of instructing persons with regard to these matters—I refer to the connubial relationship—is not an easy one. Nevertheless, since there is a grave obligation imposed by God, it cannot be shirked. If you have a problem—“

I don’t have a problem.

The language is perfect: “pure” Powers, the “problem,” the “connubial relationship,” the logical leap from birth control to the fall of France and the penitent’s understandable confusion. But, after all, she doesn’t have a “problem,” she’ll be all right. In Powers’s stories, no one suffers nearly so much as the priests themselves.

In “The Valiant Woman,” the priestly suffering occurs at the hands of a truly monstrous housekeeper, the worst possible type of shrewish wife. Father Firman, the pastor, is as trapped as any tormented husband; he can’t bear the guilt of getting rid of Mrs. Stoner, and besides, he can’t afford to pension her off. Yet she has ruined his life:

She hid his books, kept him from smoking, picked his friends…, bawled out people for calling after dark, had no humor, except at cards and then it was grim, very grim, and she sat hatchet-faced every morning at Mass. But she went to Mass, which was all that kept the church from being empty some mornings. She did annoying things all day long. She said annoying things into the night. She said she had given him the best years of her life.

Powers flawlessly brings home the real horror of the woman, hostile, omnipresent, self-satisfied, encyclopedically misinformed.

She smiled pleasantly at Father Nulty. “And what do you think of the atom bomb, Father?”

Not much,” Father Nulty said….

Did you read about this communist convert, Father?”

He’s been in the Church before,…and so it’s not a conversion, Mrs. Stoner.”

No? Well, I already got him down on my list of Monsignor’s converts…. And that congress-woman, Father?…”

And Henry Ford’s grandson…. I got him down….”

But he’s only one by marriage, Father,…I always say you got to watch those kind.”

In “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” Powers explores once again the nature of the priesthood, but here his approach is not comic. The story is anomalous in Powers’s canon; its tone is meditative, somber; there are dream passages, visionary sections. We meet Father Didymus, a Franciscan friar, in the last days of his life. Didymus is a perfectionist, a perfectionalist one might say, tormented by his failure to live up to the Franciscan ideal, an ideal of poverty, simplicity, sanctity. He is a teacher of geometry and suffers, though he comes late to an awareness of it, from pride in his ability to make nice moral distinctions; the spiritual life becomes for him a geometric problem: which solution is the most elegant, the most seemly, the most formally satisfying? In having lived this way, he has entirely lost charity, the necessary center of the ideal to which he strives to conform.

In the character of Brother Titus, a single-minded lay brother, the ideal of charity is embodied. Every day he sits and reads to Didymus, from Bishop Bale’s book of martyrs, “a denunciation of every pope from Peter to Paul IV.” Titus is truly interested in only two books, The Imitation of Christ and The Little Flowers of St. Francis; he knows them by heart and would prefer to read only from them. But in the spirit of genuine brotherhood, he reads what Didymus wants. “Father Didymus, his aged appetite for biography jaded by the orthodox lives, found this work fascinating…. It was in sober fact a lie.”

One cannot come to a genuine understanding of Powers’s work without a careful reading of this story, for it is a story informed by faith. Judiciously spread through the text, coming always from the mouth of Titus, are quotes from spiritual writers that provide the unassailable standard against which all Powers’s priests live their flawed lives. “O how joyous and how delectable is it to see religious men devout and fervent in the love of God, well mannered and well taught in ghostly learning.” Titus, deficient in intelligence, cannot be ordained to the priesthood, yet he, of all Powers’s characters, comes closest to the priestly ideal. Didymus’s incisive yet ungenerous intellect keeps him from sanctity. When his brother, also a priest, asks Didymus to visit him on his deathbed, Didymus refuses, on the grounds that to go would indicate excessive earthly attachments. At the news of his brother’s death, he realizes that the decision not to go to his brother has been a sinful one, a sin of pride and of lack of charity. “Harshly, Didymus told himself he had used his brother for a hair shirt.”

When he comes to this realization, he opens himself up to true sanctity, giving up all delusion. He is also struck with an affliction of the eye which renders the visible world a chaotic jumble to him: “The background of darkness became a field of varicolored factions, warring, and, worse than the landscape, things like worms and comets wriggled and exploded before his closed eyes.” It is the final loss to the geometrician, this believer in natural order as a prefigurement of the supernatural.

Powers has not written again in this vein, but “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” shares some of the concerns of his one novel, Morte D’Urban. In Morte D’Urban, we can see the extended use Powers makes of the priesthood as a kind of metonymic device to explore the themes of community, America, the spiritual/moral life. The book’s central character, Father Urban Roche, is a product of the Midwest’s most treasured image of itself. His success in the pulpit stems from his mastery of the Midwestern conception of Madison Avenue lingo. His particular linguistic specialty is the recycled dead metaphor. God is “The Good Thief of Time, accosting us wherever we go, along the highways and byways of life.” In priests’ retreats, Urban refers to parish priests as “those heroic family doctors of the soul,” and himself as “this poor specialist.” And yet he is a member of a foreign organization, the Catholic Church, and even more suspicious, within that body he is a member of a religious order, the Clementine Fathers. Urban’s reasons for joining the priesthood and the Clementines are revealing; the boy Harvey Roche became the man Father Urban because he perceived at a young age that the best of America was reserved for Protestants:

…You felt it was their country, handed down to them by the Pilgrims, George Washington, and others, and that they were taking a risk in letting you live in it…. He knew, too, that Catholics were mostly Irish and Portuguese, and that their religion, poverty, and appearance…were all against them.

The one man Harvey meets who seems to have it made like the Protestants is the visiting Father Placidus, a Clementine father who spurns rectory hospitality to “put up at the Merchant’s Hotel, where bootblacks, bellboys, and waiters who’d never seen him before seemed to welcome him back.” So Harvey becomes Urban, not because he is called to serve God, but because he sees the priesthood as the easiest way to stay in the best hotels, to meet the best people, to live like a Protestant.

But the glamorous Father Placidus is an anomaly within his Order. The Clementines are almost to a man third-raters. Urban is their one star, and they resent him even as they take advantage of his talents. He has perfected the skills of the successful executive, and adapted them to the service of the Church:

…The usual thing was to drop in on executives at their places of business, but to let them know right away that he didn’t want anything, and if nothing developed, he’d soon be on his way. “Just wanted you to know where we are. Drop in on us sometime.” Later if he ran into somebody he’d met in this fashion, it was like old times. Hello—hello! He watched the paper for important funerals, too, and turned up at some of these. Wherever he went, people always seemed glad to see him—and, of course, it was all for the Order.

Urban is exiled to the Order’s new rural retreat-house-in-the-making in Duesterhaus, Minnesota, and taken off the preaching circuit. He is reduced to scraping floors and stripping wallpaper—work for which he has no talent—under the leadership of Father Wilfrid, who is a fool and, worse, a bad manager.

There had been a priest somewhere in Wilf’s family for over a hundred years, but if Wilf’s uncle had died four days sooner, or if Wilf had been ordained four days later, the chain would have been broken. Wilf was the only priest in the family at the moment, but two nephews were on the way. That was about what it came down to, Wilf’s life story, that and the time Wilf had spent a week on retreat with the late Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town, that and attending a funeral at which Al Capone had been among the mourners, that and bringing in a Greyhound bus whose driver had taken ill on one of those hairpin curves in the Ozarks. “I guess I’ve always been something of a ‘take charge’ guy, Brother.”

It is understood, but never stated, that Urban is sent to Duesterhaus to increase his humility, or, put another way, to ensure against taking undue pride in his success as a preacher. But he is ineradicably the American entrepreneur; even in exile, he arranges local speaking engagements which are hugely successful:

A number of couples came up to him afterward and thanked him for coming, one woman asking if there was any way of obtaining a copy of his talk, and one man saying that, though he was not a Catholic himself, he had always regarded Catholicism as one of the world’s top religions and had never felt closer to it than he had that evening. The toastmaster (not a Catholic himself) expressed regret that Father Urban had been questioned so closely along certain lines. “Not a-tall, not a-tall,” said Father Urban, and accepted an invitation to have a nightcap with the toastmaster and his wife at their home.

A world unfolds to us, of toastmasters and nightcaps, and priests as good at pleasing as the businessmen they preach to. Here is Powers’s comedy at work: self-satisfaction oozes from the well-oiled pores of his characters as it does from Malvolio or Tartuffe. Yet no great evil is done by these fat bankers aching to be nonsectarian. They swim in a warm, prosperous ocean of bonhomie and a belief in their own broad-mindedness, which they mistake for culture. Powers records them, sticking them like fat, shining beetles, on a pin.

Urban’s most important function is the procuring of rich benefactors for the Order. Like the Monsignor in “The Forks” he sees his vocation as the maker of friends with the Mammon of wickedness. In a revealing passage, Powers allows us to glimpse Urban’s thoughts on that most difficult of Gospel parables:

Our Lord, in Father Urban’s opinion, had been dealing with some pretty rough customers out there in the Middle East, the kind of people who wouldn’t have been at all distressed by the steward’s conduct—either that or people had been a whole lot brighter in biblical times, able to grasp a distinction then. It had even entered Father Urban’s mind that Our Lord, who, after all, knew what people were like, may have been a little tired on the day he spoke this parable. Sometimes, too, when you were trying to get through to a cold congregation, it was a case of any port in a storm. You’d say things that wouldn’t stand up very well in print.

Urban cannot tolerate mystery, paradox, irony—the ingredients of Christ’s lesson; therefore he is no match against the real evil that intrudes in the persons of the very benefactors whom he courts. There is Mrs. Thwaites, an unspeakable octogenarian, who keeps two TV sets going at all times, and has an elevator for the sole purpose of taking her to her fallout shelter in case of atomic attack. She has stolen back all her Irish nurse’s wages by beating her—and probably cheating—at dominoes.

Billy Cosgrove, a shady businessman and paradigm of arrogant vulgarity, is impressed with Father Urban’s “urbanity,” gives the Clementines a lease on a fancy building—and then takes it away when Urban finally censures his behavior. The incident that occasions this censure is the center of a chilling scene. Piqued at having had a bad day’s fishing, Billy tries to drown a swimming deer. When Urban stops him, finally realizing that Billy has gone too far, Billy literally throws him out of the boat and leaves him stranded, forced to swim home.

This scene marks the turning point in the novel; it is the beginning of both Urban’s worldly failure and his spiritual awareness. Morte D’Urban’s great distinction is that it is a conversion story told in comic terms. Urban’s periapateia takes place in the context of a virtuoso display of Powers’s talent for recording American kitsch. His encounter with Billy happens at a fishing lodge named Henn’s Haven where “the stuffed birds and fur-bearing animals on the walls wore cellophane slipcovers,” and where the proprietor draws Father Urban’s attention to a sign that says: “WE DON’T KNOW WHERE MOTHER IS, BUT WE HAVE POP ON ICE!” Instead of being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, he is knocked out by a bishop’s golf ball.

Shaken by his failure with Billy and Mrs. Thwaites, and by a successfully resisted carnal temptation offered by Mrs. Thwaites’s daughter, physically damaged by his encounter with a golf ball, Urban begins to have mysterious headaches, which his barber’s son, a neurosurgeon, diagnoses as psychosomatic. At this point, Urban is elected to be the Order’s provincial. Now chief executive, he loses his executive ability, his love of the rich, his desire to see the Church “the best-run company…second only to Standard Oil.” He loses his energy as well; he makes unpopular decisions. He finds his soul but, in so doing, presides over the collapse of his Order.

Perhaps Father Greeley should read J.F. Powers; it might remind him of the comic possibilities inherent in American religion, which Americans nearly always forget. Because we tend to see religion as unsusceptible to humor we have outlandish expectations of it, expectations which only a demagogue can pretend to fulfill. In the face of the most recent events in American religion, and its stars—Cody, Greeley, Jerry Falwell, even—Powers’s vision, clear, ironic, and secure, continues to refresh and nourish. The recent republication in paper of Prince of Darkness and Morte D’Urban makes the books once more available.

Letters

Catholics December 2, 1982

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