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The Priestly Comedy of J. F. Powers

Prince of Darkness and Other Stories

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 193 pp., $3.75 (paper)

Morte d’Urban

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 309 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The recent scandal of Chicago’s late Cardinal Cody was of the innocent, old-fashioned, irresistible kind. Money, power, sex—the ingredients of first-rate scandal all were there, but the tone remained provincial. We felt, in our interest, at once familiar and ashamed, as if we were, eye at the motel room key-hole, watching a small-town pharmacist sweating over his girlfriend. It called up all the Eastern clichés of the Middle West. Cody was accused of diverting diocesan funds to Helen Dolan Wilson, his step-cousin. It was rumored that they had a romantic liaison for many years and that he had bought her an expensive house in Florida.

To an outsider it was rather touching: the old-fashioned, Irish name, the distant kin relationship, the real estate. A modern priest would have done it better, had more fun, not have got caught. And the money would have been placed, somehow, in money market funds, or a tax-free shelter with an untraceable corporate name.

The whole business cannot be taken fully seriously by an Easterner, but one can feel the energy of local obsession in the outrage of the natives, who hear America singing in the stockyards and the railroads and proclaim that theirs is the real America. The Cody case underscores the difference between the New York and Chicago churches. Chicago is a thousand miles west of New York, a thousand miles further from Rome. It opens out onto those large, incomprehensible prairies settled by people without much Irish or Italian blood. Much earlier than Easterners, Midwesterners believed they could be Catholics and real Americans at the same time. Even now, Eastern Catholics have a sense of themselves as part of an immigrant Church—even the Kennedys, with their good teeth and their Harvard degrees, changed things only slightly; people are still surprised when Catholic boys get their own offices in Washington.

The Midwestern Church early on lost its Mediterranean tone. The Irish were in charge, particularly in Chicago—there was Daly in City Hall and Cody in the Chancery—but moving further west the Germans grew in power and the comfort of the ghetto as an imaginative construct was a quickly forgotten temptation. In the middle of the continent, these farmers, businessmen, and their sons held to the faith, but the stuff of their dreams was manufactured in the New World. The self-made man, hearty, well-heeled, at home in first-class trains, in suites at the Palmer House, was the man they wanted their sons to be. They did not dream of these boys taking New York or Washington—to say nothing of Paris or Rome. Chicago was the focus of ambition and mythology. In Chicago, these Catholics could be at the center of the things the Protestants felt too high-minded to want, but moving west they could never have access to real power.

They never believed it, though; they never accepted their differentness. For, dress as they might, play golf, vote Republican, send their children to college, they were still led by men who wore black dresses, stayed unmarried, listened to their secrets in dark boxes, owed allegiance to a foreign power to whom they wrote in a foreign power to whom they wrote in a foreign tongue. The success of Catholics at assimilating was undeniably connected to the ability of their priests to pass, to seem only slightly and interestingly different from Protestant ministers, to be as welcome as they at the annual Jaycees lunch, while secretly praying for the conversion of the Chamber of Commerce and dreaming of Bishop Sheen as a White House adviser.

Vatican II was supposed to have changed all that, but the Cody case revealed only partially buried deep structures. Consider the odd role of Andrew Greeley in the Cody affair. Greeley is a Catholic priest in his fifties whose credentials make him respectable in the secular academy. He has a post at the University of Arizona and runs a research institute in Chicago. He has a syndicated column. He has published over eighty books. Attractive, presentable, intelligent, he has devoted a large amount of energy to proving that Catholics are not the isolated bigots that people imagine them to be. That they’re no different from other people. Jews, say.

How the existence of Cody must have galled him. Authoritarian, hierarchical, rigid—Cody created genuine misery for the liberal elements in his diocese. But he also served as a live, powerful suggestion that Catholics are not like everyone else, never have been, never can be. Greeley is the author of a best-selling novel, The Cardinal Sins. Some see it as a roman à clef. The cardinal keeps a woman, is kept by a homosexual member of the Italian curia, is in the grips of the Mafia and the neofascists. Another character, a priest, a social scientist, a liberal, saves the day, the diocese, the cardinal. Greeley’s second novel, Thy Brother’s Wife, just out, has another liberal priest-hero, who has always been in love with his sister-in-law. Despite his outspoken attacks on everyone from Pope Paul VI to the right-wing leader of a Spanish cult, this lovable guy is elected cardinal of Chicago. Unlikely are the heads that wear Greeley’s hats.

At the height of the agitation over Cody’s alleged financial irregularities, a newspaper, the Chicago Lawyer, published what it said were transcripts of tapes made by Greeley, which portrayed him as contemplating a scheme to oust Cody and to replace him with the more moderate Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati. According to the transcript, as long as four years ago Greeley talked about subjecting Cody to “the worst kind of public scandal by turning an investigative reporter loose on the archdiocese, and tell[ing] him to blow the Chicago thing wide open.” Greeley claims that the transcript represents only idle, late-night ramblings of the novelists imagination. (You know how novelists are.) But the story gave weight to Cody’s claim that he was being hounded by malcontents. Until he died, Cody reportedly continued to ignore federal grand jury subpoenas for his financial records; he refused to be questioned by either prosecutors or the press. Even Richard Nixon was more accessible.

There is only one American writer whose work could give the Cody affair quarter: J.F. Powers. Powers is a comic writer of genius, and there is no one like him. In vain one looks for precedents—English scenes of comical clerical life in Sterne or Trollope or Goldsmith do not do; the English tone is sweeter, for those clergymen never have to worry if the community wants someone like them around. In those novels, if the clerics themselves do not represent personal power, they represent an institution whose power is unquestioned. The furtive, hot desire for assimilation is impossible to imagine in the rural towns where those parsons christen, marry, bury. And the high drama circling round the priests of Bernanos or Graham Greene flies nowhere near the carefully barbered, untonsured heads of the Powers clergy. It is America that Powers writes about, and the peculiar situation of its Catholic priests illumines the larger world that they inhabit as the lives of outsiders who remain outside by the fixed nature of their identities must always do.

The isolated world—the pilgrimage, the madhouse, the country house, the colonial outpost—is a natural setting for the kind of comedy whose implications are at once moral and social. Life is denser in such places; personalities conform to types and types to personality; objects tell as they do not where the press of things and people is less close. It is in the close, packed atmosphere of parishes and monasteries that the comedy of Powers grows and flourishes: an odd, rare bloom: satiric, harsh, and yet not condemning, falling with an undisguisable relish upon the clergy’s faults yet based upon a tough and weary faith in what these clergymen so ineptly represent. Powers’s voice is dry, supremely ironic; it is a difficult one for Americans, who like their comedy, it seems, with fewer modulations, and do not read him.

Despite winning the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte d’Urban, Powers has never had the audience he deserves. His output has been small, one novel and three collections of stories, Prince of Darkness (1947), The Presence of Grace (1956), Look How the Fish Live (1975). And he has one subject: priests; his stories on other topics are far less memorable. His great and unique talent lies in his ability to record the daily lives of priests; he does this with sympathy, yet with close, hilarious attention to the errors of their lives spelled out by their possessions and their diction.

He writes without romance and without rancor, perhaps because he sees the priests he likes as largely powerless. He never expects heroics from them; the irony of their lives that he so clearly sees is that the expectation of heroics is implicit in their vocation. Yet they inhabit the actual world, west of Chicago, and they are unexceptional, average Americans, who must live out the history of apostolic succession in a mode particularly American. Truly American, they cannot really comprehend the European ideal of the Roman Church. Like the millionaire who builds himself a villa in Michigan—installing copies of the Venus de Milo in each of his ten bathrooms—they both misunderstand the ideal and rudely try to force domestication on it. In addition, being priests, they are necessarily alone—unsure tenants, poor relations, dependent upon the charity of strangers whom they must, if they are true to their vows, serve, impress, and keep as strangers.

The story “The Forks” concerns a pastor and a curate; it is a story about power and authority, youth and age, idealism and Realpolitik as well as about the uneasy cohabitation of God and Mammon. The pastor, known only as Monsignor, has taken Christ’s counsel to the unjust steward: he has made friends for himself with the Mammon of wickedness, so well that he is far more at ease with local businessmen than he is with the Roman Church. Speaking of his bishop, Monsignor says:

He reminds me of that bishop a few years back—at least he called himself a bishop, a Protestant—that was advocating companionate marriages. It’s not that bad, maybe, but if you listened to some of them, you’d think that Catholicity and capitalism were incompatible!”

The Holy Father—“ [the curate replies].

The Holy Father is in Europe, Father. Mr. Memmers lives in this parish. I’m his priest. What can I tell him?”

Is it Mr. Memmers of the First National, Monsignor?”

It is, Father. And there’s damned little cheer I can give a man like Memmers. Catholics, priests, and laity alike—yes, and princes of the Church, all talking atheistic communism!”

Monsignor imagines himself a man of culture and his curate a boor. But his notion of European culture is entirely Midwestern; in an outburst of outraged sensibility, he complains that his housekeeper has included green olives in the “tutti-frutti” salad he has asked for; he plans a lady garden in the back of the rectory, calling for a fleur-de-lis, a sundial, a cloister walk “running from the rectory to the garage.” Father Eudex, the curate, who tries to help the janitor with the job of digging, sees the project as expensive, and, in this country, “Presbyterian.”

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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