The heart of the matter

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I’ve started re-reading Graham Greene. I read his books many years ago in my teens and early twenties along with most of the other books considered classics.

I’ve begun with The Heart of the Matter. I doubt I got much out of it as a young woman, because the only thing I remembered was that it was set in a hot place, so hot that the protagonist couldn’t touch his wife at night without sweat running between them. I understood that this was a symbol of the problems in their marriage, but I didn’t remember or understand much more.

I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering Graham Greene, and can’t think of any modern writer who can match his prose for creating setting and atmosphere in a few sentences. I’ll try to say a few things about the novel without too many spoilers.

A love square

The main character, Scobie, is a respected policeman serving in the British colonial service in Sierra Leone. The second world war is on, making it difficult or impossible for the colonial administrators to take their annual leave. In the hot climate and small colony, gossip breeds, tempers fray, men become corrupt. Sometimes people even go mad.

Scobie, however, keeps well out of it. He’s been there fifteen years and has grown to love the place and the indigenous people. All he wants is to do his work in peace. However, other people stand in his way. One is his wife who is unhappy and desperately wants to get away for a while. In trying to make his wife happy, Scobie commits his first mistake. He accepts a loan from a corrupt businessman to pay for an extended holiday for his wife.

Scobie finds himself in a love triangle, or perhaps it’s a love square. He has made promises to three people: his wife, his mistress and God. He loves all three of them in different ways. However, his promises are incompatible. Whatever he does, he’s going to let one of them down.

Can God cope with disappointment?

God, Scobie reasons, can cope with disappointment better than a mortal. He can do without Scobie’s love, and the policeman decides on a course of action which, he believes, will keep his mistress and his wife happy, even if it cuts him off from God.

The prose is spare, yet in a few deft words, Graham Greene paints vivid pictures of the colonial town and the heat. Each scene tightens the noose around Scobie’s neck as he becomes more morally compromised.

Scobie is a Catholic, a convert in some ways lukewarm and going through the motions of keeping the rules. However, he has great respect for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He agonises over whether to take communion when he believes himself to be in a place of mortal sin.

Did Scobie love God?

Scobie is a flawed character, someone who made what seemed at first to be small mistakes. Instead of getting everything out into the open, he covers them up and falls deeper into error.

The novel poses questions about rules versus God’s mercy which are relevant to all of us since we all make mistakes and can identify to some extent with Scobie.

I felt that Scobie, despite his choices, was a man who loved God. Some of the passages were so beautiful that I felt myself open out to deeper love of God. In the end, isn’t that what great literature is meant to do, open our hearts a little more?

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Who gave you authority …?

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One issue which I thought about often before becoming Catholic is authority. This is one of these issues like Mary and the saints or confession which polarises people either for or against the Catholic church.

When I began to investigate the Catholic faith, I found many blog articles on authority, from both Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. I’ve read complex articles by Protestants explaining how their own particular church traces its apostolic authority back to Jesus and the apostles.

I’m not going to get into arguments about which church has the best pedigree. To be honest, I don’t know much about theology or church history and a lot of these arguments go over my head. I also feel very uncomfortable about arguing along the lines of ‘we have authority and you don’t.’ More and more, I feel that this blog should be about building bridges rather than digging chasms.

A year or so before I began thinking about becoming Catholic, something happened related to church authority which really shook me to my core. However, I haven’t told the story until now, because it involved other people. Because it isn’t just my story, I can only tell the bare bones.

The bare bones of a story

Someone close to me was in hospital fighting a difficult illness. A lady, also known to me, paid a visited and delivered a religious message laying the blame for the illness on events in the past.

I believe the lady really thought that her message could ‘fix’ what she saw as the cause of the illness. However, her words caused the sick person distress and anxiety. Within a week, their condition had deteriorated to the extent that they had to be moved to a different ward. Although they eventually recovered, the road back was slow and difficult, and it was a long time before I stopped wondering, ‘What if this hadn’t happened …?’

Church responsibility

It turned out that the lady had taken the message to the hospital with the approval and perhaps even the encouragement of her church. It also turned out that this church was an independent, recently-formed organisation.

Although I wasn’t one of the main players in this story, I was deeply affected because someone I loved had become sicker. I confided in an Episcopalian priest (the Anglican church in Scotland). Her reaction was not quite what I expected. She shared my anger over the incident. However, most of her anger was directed, not at the lady who visited the hospital, but at the church which had sent her.

The Episcopalian priest saw the problem as one of authority. She thought that the church had acted very irresponsibly by encouraging someone to share a frightening message with a sick and vulnerable person.

This incident went through my mind when I began thinking about becoming Catholic. Who gave authority to come up with this message, send someone with it, start the church in the first place? By a strange coincidence, I had known one of the people who started the church.

Questions

My mind got stuck in a loop of questions. On the one hand, I had Father K telling me about apostolic succession: Jesus laid hands on his disciples and gave authority to them, they in turn laid hands on others and passed authority on to the next generation of disciples, and so on, all the way to the present day.

On the other hand, I knew that the number of different Protestant denominations had reached thousands and counting. I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times, becoming thinner and weaker with each break. Some of the things we believed seemed eccentric and out-dated to people in mainstream churches.

In Scotland, and in the Highlands in particular, people tend to break away and form new churches rather than staying, talking to each other and trying to heal their divisions. Was this Christian?

I remember thinking about the church which sent the message to the sick person, and the strange coincidence that I knew one of the people who started it. What was to stop me starting my own branch of Christianity? The thought made me giddy, but the answer was nothing but time and energy if I remained Protestant and unaffiliated to any denomination, and well, an awful lot, if I became Catholic.

Which way to go?

I became confused and distressed thinking about authority. I couldn’t return to the church of my childhood, where there had been undue emphasis on God’s judgement rather than God’s love. If I didn’t go there, which of the plethora of Protestant churches should I try next?

The incident at the hospital was frightening, not because anyone had intended evil. Quite the opposite. The church believed that they were doing good. However, the effect was harmful. It is possible to take parts of the Bible out of context, giving too much emphasis to one thing rather than another, and come up with dangerous messages.

Safer with authority

As I investigated Catholicism, it was a relief to learn about the Magisterium of the Catholic church, authority and teaching based on the Bible as well as church tradition handed down from the church fathers. Teaching can evolve from what’s gone before, but no-one, not even the Pope, can make a total break and ignore 2000 years of tradition.

Some people might prefer to be totally free to make their own interpretation of the Scripture. Catholics are also encouraged to practice Lectura Divina (reading the Scriptures and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance). However, as someone who couldn’t read the Bible for many years without encountering an angry, unforgiving God on every page, I found it reassuring to enter a church with a central authority and body of teaching.

Part of the reason I became Catholic was that I felt safer, like a child who prefers rules and limits to being left alone to do my own thing.

I realise that it’s not only the Catholic church which has a system of authority and teaching. This was clearly an important issue for my Episcopalian friend when I shared this story with her.

In the end, I’m glad I can’t just start my own church, even if I wanted to!