Wheat That Springeth Green
by J.F. Powers
Knopf, 335 pp., $18.95
Wheat That Springeth Green is J.F. Powers’s first novel in twenty-five years, his second altogether. The preceding one, Morte d’Urban, won the National Book Award; the new book was nominated for the same prize. In the twenty-five years between the two novels have appeared a number of short stories, some of them collected in Look How the Fish Live (1975). “Bill” and “Priestly Fellowship” from that collection are incorporated in two chapters of the new novel. In the original story, Bill was a new curate whose pastor faced the problem of buying him a bed and other furniture to put in the sparse rectory and of finding out what his last name was without having to ask him directly. That is the kind of difficulty Powers’s priests are apt to get hung up on. Bill and his boss turn up in the novel with the same difficulties. Bill’s name proves to be Schmidt.
The title of the new book, which has perplexed some reviewers, perhaps because it seems uncharacteristically hopeful, is taken from a lyric by J.M.C. Crum (1872–1958) set to medieval French carol music. The words remark how love returns “that with the dead has been,” just as the wheat “that in dark earth many days has lain” comes back to life as a “green blade.” The title seems appropriate for a work by our leading Catholic novelist, whose faith numbers among its tenets the physical resurrection of Christ from the tomb where he was laid after dying on a cross, and the physical resurrection of all mankind at the end of the world and of time. How the image of rebirth applies to the book is of course another matter. Perhaps it merely suggests an author who has produced another novel after so long an interval.
Although Powers writes mainly about priests and their housekeepers in midwestern parish rectories, ecclesiastical Dickens characters, Minnesota RC Captain Cuttles and Mrs. MacStingers, and about monsignors and bishops and chancery politics in the same “fly-over” part of the country, he sometimes draws on and enlarges on details of personal life for his fiction. In “Jamesy,” a charming early story, a small-town boy discovers that his local baseball hero, a pitcher named Lefty, has been throwing games for money; in “Tinkers,” a later story, a midwestern Irish-American writer brings his family—a wife and five children—to live in a closed-up small hotel at a coastal resort south of Dublin, only to find out just before Christmas that the conniving owners are moving back in and reopening for the holiday trade. The Americans find substitute accommodations in a cold dark house up the road, and while they wait for the electricity to be turned on the father has a thought that now they are practically squatters, like the families of Irish tinkers who have importuned the writer and his wife for handouts of old clothes and money. If he reaches any conclusion, it is that he, like all other writers, is no less an itinerant, and so perhaps is everyone else. There is a suggestion, too, in this displaced American family of that family of old that was once also turned away from an inn. This kind of analogy has intrigued the Catholic imagination since Dante.
In Catholicism there are the joyful and the sorrowful mysteries. Wheat That Springeth Green is practically on a line between the two, maybe inclining slightly toward the joyful side. It is the imaginary biography of a Minnesota Catholic, Joe Hackett, son of a prosperous small-town coal and ice merchant, who makes his career in the secular priesthood. That means that he attends a local seminary, does not go on to Rome for advanced study, becomes an assistant in local parishes, and progresses to become a rector or pastor within the same archdiocesan authority. During the long Part Two of the book Joe is rector at Saints Francis and Clare, a suburban parish in Inglenook, Minnesota, where the permanent church structure is still to be built from funds mostly to be raised by Joe. The time is the 1960s, and among Father Hackett’s problems are changing suburban mores in an era of burgeoning consumerism, the impact of Vatican II reformism on the attitudes and behavior of the new church assistants, a large assessment from the archdiocesan fund drive that somehow must be raised within the parish, and the quandary of how to advise young men who are being forced to choose between Vietnam War service and some type of draft evasion or resistance.
Joe remains interestingly unpredictable in the views he holds (and sometimes argues at excessive length). He is a conservative on the conciliar reforms yet rejects theological arguments urging the doctrine of the just war, and he therefore advises young men to follow conscience wherever it may lead. When conscience leads the son of a fiercely patriotic family to emigrate to Canada, Joe is fully supportive. He even feels regret at having failed to register as a CO himself during World War II, which he spent in the seminary protected by the standard deferment offered to divinity students. Joe is headstrong and quixotic: after winning a thousand dollars at cards from wellheeled fellow priests during the annual diocesan retreat for rectors, he gives the money to a bookie to bet that Eugene McCarthy will win the Democratic nomination for president, because the staggering odds will pay off the renewal fund assessment at one blow if God arranges for McCarthy to win. But God, as we know now, had other plans.
Wheat That Springeth Green opens in its hero’s earliest childhood: we see him at the age of three trying to show off to the adults at his parents’ party. Powers is an ironist who rarely shows his hand, but we would be wise to consider the following questions: a) Is there a connection between this early showing off and the “show” of the priest to come as he gestures and chants at the altar during the Mass? b) Is the showing off an early sign of “vocation,” as the opening of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist reveals the later vocation for literature in the infant Stephen’s absorption in the words of nursery rhymes and his father’s bedtime stories? If so, then God is an ironist too, as everything by Powers suggests He is.
In high school Joe is a star athlete and in the seminary (the “sem”) he pushes hard during the competitions of ostentatious piety that go on, and there is a wonderful episode about an actual hair shirt that he gets hold of. It begins to dawn on young Father Hackett that a career of ordinary service, rather than one of sanctity, is what the future holds.
One of the difficulties in responding to Father Hackett and to the novel is that Powers is quite elusive in deciding whether Joe is an extraordinary or an ordinary man. That is, does his ordinary manner conceal exceptional spiritual powers? This is a question about what he is “called” to do: no one, least of all the author, is questioning the validity of the calling itself. Part of the difficulty comes from Powers’s angle of narration. Joe is always in the foreground, very much a “debating hero,” which means that he is mainly seen from his own point of view, and is always given the most to say and the clinching arguments in his discussions with fellow priests, with lay people, and with his ecclesiastical superiors. At the same time, he accepts the ground rules: the Church is divine and may do with his life what it will.
At the end of the book Joe is reassigned from the pleasant suburban parish to a difficult, racially vexed poor parish in the heart of a big midwestern city. We don’t follow what becomes of him there—his story breaks off at the end of the 1960s. I suppose Powers is deliberately begging the question I have raised about whether Hackett is ordinary or special or heroic, no doubt for sound theological reasons. For us laity and scoffers this could be translated as “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Sanctification can never be ruled out, and hell forever yawns. One remembers that the priest in Powers’s early short masterpiece, “Prince of Darkness,” whom Evelyn Waugh called “a magnificent study in sloth,” was in fact a compendium of all seven deadly sins (except lust), having accomplished so much without ever rising above the rank of parish assistant.
Joe himself drinks a lot and worries about it in the usual way. He is also shown to be “normal,” if that is the word, in sexual development: at age fifteen he takes on at the same time two uninhibited servant girl–waitress types and performs with astounding vigor. At least the girls are impressed. Once this is gotten out of the way sex does not rear its head again, until the mid-1960s when Father Hackett begins among the newly ordained to meet serious young men who dress like hippies, prefer driving VW Beetles to big black sedans, and are not really convinced that a celibate priesthood is a good thing. Joe argues them down on all these points, but certainly on the last he lacks mature experience with women to bring to bear. He is shown spending no time at all with the other sex, or addressing their problems as a pastoral counselor outside the hasty routines of confession. His recreations consist of getting drunk fairly often, eating out with buddies from seminary days or other male friends, and following the Minnesota Twins on television. This is not to say that he fails to put in long hard hours running the parish.
In debate Joe compares the Church to “a big old ship. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets to where she’s going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.” Even for a politician talking about the “ship of state,” Joe’s complacency, with its edge of quirkiness, would be excessive. The question is, are assumptions that go without saying ever worth holding?
Other propositions and positions Joe regards as self-evident—they are certainly unfalsifiable—are that “people, most people, lay and clerical, just weren’t up to much,” and that “people might not be able to exercise free will any more, owing to the decline in human intelligence.” He faults Vatican II for putting the Church in the direction of “going too far too soon,” but fails to indicate whether he is thinking of the vernacular Mass or of more fundamental change. Joe says, in “priestly fellowship,” laying this stuff on some polite young curates who wouldn’t dream of telling him he’s full of hot air, “A few monks saved civilization once. Could be the answer again. Principle’s sound.” Evidently he has in mind a single-sex civilization of celibate men, saved by other celibate men. Women on the face of it would only get to bring in dinner and mend socks. How the human stock would be replenished is as much in question as it was for the thirteenth-century Albigensians and their nineteenth-century avatars, the Shakers.
Then there is Joe on the warfare of religion and science: “Religion in our time had lost its clout, had become the victim, as ‘science’ was the beneficiary, of changing fashions in credulity.” Of course, it is not Joe’s habit of mind to ask what are the truth claims of science, on which its authority may be founded, and what are the truth claims of religion, which might help to explain its having become powerless in our time, if that is what has happened. Why should he when he commands an audience previously characterized as severely deteriorated in intelligence and not up to much? It takes a person back to his misspent youth: “Cracky! Didn’t Father Joe just sock it to them agnostics this morning at the eleven! He really should have his own radio hour.”
The rector of Saints Francis and Clare does better at trying to save his church grounds from invasion by a marching band and pom-pom girls sent over from the nearby shopping center for a photo opportunity with an archepiscopal visitor—although he fails. The effort stems from his belief in “that separation of Church and Dreck [which] was a matter of life and death for the world.” There is also the delicious comedy of his bemused interactions with Father Felix, an unworldly yet would-be with-it Franciscan monk who busses in weekends from a monastery eighty miles away to help with confessions and the odd extra Sunday Mass. Felix’s sermons stupefy the congregation with minutiae of medieval historical anecdote, cast in a narrative style owing much to Disney films of the Snow White era, the moral point of which no one can make out.
The most interesting issues cluster around an incident at Joe’s first Mass following his ordination. As he is conducting this service and assisting the same morning at the first Mass of one Toohey, occasions which ought to be so joyous that they might help to sustain a priest through years of dull clerical routine, a problem of conscience comes up that Powers never settles or perhaps would even intend to settle. Instead it persists, casting a casuistical spell on the rest of the novel, a “case” about which arguments might go on and on. Powers’s mastery of his materials and of his art is at its height here, for the incident is a high point of comedy even as it establishes a nexus of moral and spiritual issues which Catholicism has a distinctive way of approaching.
What happens is that Fathers Hackett and Toohey are scheduled to celebrate their first Masses in the church of a notorious money-grubber and skinflint named Father Stock. He decides that there is a lot of extra money to be made by having each new priest, as a special object of edification to the pious congregation, pass the collection basket at the other’s Mass. Joe is properly appalled and tries to buy his way out by making a five-hundred-dollar donation to Father Stock’s general fund. But the rector is adamant, and when he is sent down one aisle, basket in hand, during the collection interval at Toohey’s service Joe tries to run out of the church. Toohey on the other hand has no problem with these arrangements. He will go straight on from his first Mass to become a church politician of monsignor rank, working at the chancery and a perpetual thorn in the side of decent rectors of the Father Hackett type.
In the end, Joe caves in and passes the collection basket. He had resisted for the best reasons but he complies because open conflict with greedy Father Stock would cause “scandal.” To a non-Catholic this may appear as sheer rationalization. Scandal, however, is a complex notion for Catholics. The old example was that speaking lies or making false accusations about somebody is a great sin, but telling the truth about someone’s failings or exposing them may be a greater sin, depending on circumstances, for you may drive a person to do desperate things and, in the end, to the greatest of all sins, which is despair. So one may not want to show up the simoniac rector before his own congregation (and the celebrants’ friends and relatives) not only because it makes the Church, which is divine, look bad, but also because Father Stock might go to pieces when his grossness becomes widely known and fall prey to the devil through despair. Whether this analysis is correct by current RC standards of casuistry is hardly the point; what matters is that nobody else in American fiction is capable of making such cases of conscience palpable in the American midlands.
Powers’s greatest story may be “Lions, Harts, and Leaping Does.” In it an old monk dies an ecstatic and beautiful death that is represented through severely restricted imagery—Minnesota imagery—of snow falling on bare frozen fields as night comes, of an ancient high-shouldered canary escaping its cage and out through a window deliberately opened into the icy dark. The monk could be a saint in the making. Joe Hackett is more of a foot soldier, but unlike Toohey he understands his vocation well enough to aspire to a death like that. Powers creates interest in a substantial world and in distinctions and values that matter whether you believe in anything or not.