Monsignor Quixote

Monsignor QuixoteThere is a great deal of moral thought in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. I just want to finish off my thoughts on this novel, which I discussed in video form a couple of weeks ago.

In modern America, I think of Christians as being selfish conservatives who think the poor are morally inferior. It is nice to remember that this is exactly the opposite of traditional Christian thought. Father Quixote is a man who cares very much about all people. I think this, more than anything else, is why his best friend is the Communist Sancho.

In this first excerpt, Father Quixote is trying to figure out what penance he should give to an undertaker who claims to have stolen handles off the coffin of a beloved priest (although he didn’t really):

Father Quixote wondered what Father Heribert Jone would have written about this case. He would certainly list it among sins against justice, the category to which adultery also belongs, but Father Quixote seemed to remember that in the case of theft the gravity of the sin had to be judged by the value of the object stolen—if it was equivalent to one-seventh of the owner’s monthly wage it must be treated seriously. If the owner were a millionaire there would be no sin at all—at least not against justice. What would Father Gonzalez have earned monthly and indeed was he the true owner if he had only come into possession of the handles after death? A coffin surely belonged only to the earth in which it was laid.

Imagine the good Christian men Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney (yes, Mormonism is a kind of Christianity) would think of this idea about the sin of theft. In our society, the rule seems to be that if you steal from the rich you will get more punishment, not less.

The other excerpt is shockingly beautiful in its compassion, although I think most people will find it repellent. Don Quixote starts this dialog with Sancho:

“There is a popular saint in La Mancha who lost her virginity when she was raped by a Moor in her own kitchen when he was unarmed and she had a kitchen knife in her hand.”

“She wanted to be raped, I suppose.”

“No, no, her thought was quite logical. Her virginity was less important than the salvation of the Moor. By killing him at that moment she was robbing him of any chance of salvation. An absurd and yet, when one thinks of it, a beautiful story.”

Again, this is not the thinking of most people who consider themselves Christians. Yet this saint did just what Jesus supposedly did: she suffered for the sin of the Moor.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He said that reading was the western version of meditation but that it was better. “When we read, we meditate with the greatest minds of our culture.” I think he was right. And I can’t think of a novel in which this is more true than Monsignor Quixote. I highly recommend meditating for a few hours with Graham Greene, who is certainly one of the greatest minds of our culture.

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