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The Marrying, Burying World of J. F. Powers

by Matthew Giunti

Matthew Giunti is on the staff of The Christian Century and the Century’s production coordinator. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 21-28, 1988, p. 1178. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The figure of the priest is nearly irresistible to some fiction writers. As a living exemplar of Christ on Earth, he is already halfway to being a symbol. Thus novelists have portrayed censorious, unforgiving priests to demonstrate the gap between the church and genuine Christianity; repressed, neurotic priests to demonstrate the unhealthiness of the celibate life; and gentle, saintly priests to demonstrate the unworldliness of the true Christian. Some writers force priests into ridiculous situations for laughs, suspenseful situations for thrills, or political situations to champion a cause. At a literary pinnacle we have the tormented, existential priests of Graham Greene, and at a literary nadir the sexually compromised priests of much popular fiction. Everything, it seems, except the priest as a man doing a difficult, maybe impossible job.

That is J. F. Powers country.

A published writer for more than 40 years, Powers’s literary career is unusual compared to that of other "important" American writers. While his reputation is high among the discerning -- particularly among other writers -- his limited output has kept him unknown among most of the reading public. His first two published works were short-story collections, The Prince of Darkness (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956) , whose contents could be divided evenly between the merely excellent and the truly extraordinary. His first novel, Morte D’Urban (1962) , won the National Book Award, as did a third short-story collection, Look How the Fish Live (1973) Although more uneven than the first two collections, this book still contained the requisite number of outstanding pieces. This year Knopf published his second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green.

Style and substance also set Powers apart from most of his contemporaries. Neither a lyricist nor a minimalist, Powers settles for a clean, supple prose, concise without ever being merely functional. While he’s not exactly invisible in his work, he eschews rhetorical flourish. He provides no "big scenes" or anything one might normally think of as dramatic. Sex and violence -- indeed, all forms of violent passion -- are notably absent from his fiction. Powers knows that more clergy are lost to the golf course or a second round of drinks than are tempted by a parishioner’s bed. If, as Alfred Hitchcock has said, "Drama is life with the boring parts left out," Powers likes to leave the boring parts in -- or rather, to reveal the latent drama behind the boring parts. Powers is the bard of prosaic parish life at a time when hot political novels and tricky metafiction prevail. In an age of writers swinging for the fences, Powers hits for average instead.

Though Powers is routinely referred to as a satirist, specifically of the Roman Catholic Church, that term tends to misconstrue his attitude. Satire implies the anger of a Swift or the snobbishness of a Waugh. While Powers’s vision is undoubtedly a comic one, his great strength is balance and proportion. He is not inclined to judge his clergy’s lives, for he understands that any priest must compromise between the spiritual and the secular. In fact, all of Powers’s ecclesiastical fiction, the novels in particular, can be seen as an exploration of this compromise. Intertwined with this theme is Powers’s effort to define the qualities that make a successful parish priest. What constitutes the business of the church, and what is merely church business? Or, as Father Urban Roche, hero of Powers’s first novel, puts it, "There was too much emphasis on dying for the faith. How about living for the faith?" All of Powers’s priests eventually face that question: How does one live for the faith?

Morte D’Urban reads as fresh today as it did when first published. Father Urban Roche is a talented, motivated worldbeater in a declining "teaching and preaching" order, the fictitious Clementines. In a little more than a year’s time he turns the order’s latest white elephant, an estate in rural Minnesota that the order hopes to convert into a retreat, into a going concern. Father Urban is the ecclesiastical version of the ‘50s corporate man, and while his secular talents allow him to accomplish his external goals, they are achieved at the expense of his spiritual life and his vocation as a fisher of men.

Throughout the novel, Father Urban’s spiritual and secular successes are contrasted with those of other priests. Father Urban’s ecclesiastical alter ego (and the closest thing he has to a friend in the order) is Father Jack, who is humble, devoted and sweet-tempered -- everything Urban is not. Significantly, Urban and Jack perform the same service within the order. They travel around the Midwest as guest lecturers, something at which Urban is extremely skillful and Jack is not. Also weighed against Urban is Father Wilfred, his superior at the retreat. Wilfred is a poor administrator and has none of Urban’s social graces. Thus, while Urban’s spiritual failings may be obvious, his skills make it difficult to judge him adversely. Jack is a poor speaker, Wilfred’s decisions are usually bad, and much of the order seems mired in a complacency that may cause it to fold -- the success of the retreat clearly is due almost exclusively to Urban.

The central comic motif in Morte D ‘Urban is the retreat center, which is financed by revenues earned at an adjoining golf course bought by the order for just that purpose -- Urban’s idea, of course. This situation and the logistics of it are very funny, but it also makes explicit the church’s dilemma in the secular world. The golf course is intended to attract the "right kind of people" -- that is, those who can leave an honorarium -- to the retreat. While this should hardly be the order’s chief concern, without financial support the retreat would have to fold. Powers doesn’t make a case for either side of this argument; he merely presents the situation as an example of the compromise the church may have to make.

Father Urban’s principal failure as a priest is his inability to see success for the order in any but worldly terms. This is made explicit in Urban’s dealings with Mrs. Thwaite, a rich Catholic widow whom Urban cultivates in the hope that she will bequeath the Clementines something in her will. When he catches her cheating the maid out of her earnings, he cannot convince her to return the money: his fear of alienating her makes him pussyfoot. As a spiritual adviser, he fails. He also fails with the wealthy, petty and childish Billy Cosgrove. After having charmed Billy into supporting the order, Father Urban is made to realize that the time when he could have taken Billy under his spiritual care and shaped him has passed. Like Billy’s chauffeur, Father Urban is just another bought man. A dunking in the lake at Billy’s hands sets Urban on a road to physical decline just as his spiritual life begins to take off. That this shift in attitude occurs at the pinnacle of Urban’s worldly success is the final irony.

This novel is built on two halves moving in opposite directions. The first chronicles Joe’s spiritual awakening and his education at life’s less than gentle hands. The second half follows his spiritual rebirth.

A privileged only child and former high school track star (and for a short time a sexual athlete as well) , Joe hits the seminary running, his energies turned toward a type of spiritual athleticism. Inspired by a spirituality retreat, Joe becomes the unofficial leader of a small band of contemplatives. In a quest for holiness ("Holiness.

was the only ambition worthy of the priest") they haunt the chapel and give up their vices (for Joe this is "smokes, sweets, snacks, snooker and handball")

Again, Powers uses secondary characters to refine his portrayal of his protagonist’s spiritual state. In Joe’s ascetic phase, two important contrasts to him are provided in Hrdlika, a fellow seminarian, and Father Van Slaag, Joe’s first pastor. Hrdlika is "a simple soul" to whom the rewards of contemplation come easily -- he’s a natural. Given a hair shirt by the seminary rector to test his resolve to join the Trappists, Hrdlika passes with flying colors. At Joe’s request, Hrdlika bequeaths him the hair shirt (there’ll be "God’s plenty of such where Hrdlika was going," Joe reasons) Unfortunately, the bequest comes at a train station and Hrdlika is still wearing the shirt. They manage to make the exchange in the men’s room, but flawed ascetic that he is, Joe can’t bring himself to put it on straight off of Hrdlika’s body.

Joe’s relationship with Van Slaag, the parish’s only pastor/contemplative, is more complex. Joe admires and tries to emulate him, even as he attempts to fulfill the practical demands of the job that Van Slaag ignores. One night, tired of fending off the housekeeper’s vicious dog and putting up with her blaring television, he stumbles into the pastor’s bedroom to complain.

. . . he’d seen through the old, almost buttonless cassock. . . the horny grey growth on the knees, the dogtooth wounds on the ankles. . . . Father Van Slaag did nothing about Mrs. Cox’s dog and TV. He was using them, these crosses, as a means to sanctification and salvation.

Seeing in Van Slaag a sanctity he knows he can never approach, Joe gives himself over to the mundane matters of parish life. He no longer distinguishes "as he had before. . . between the religious and the social demands of parishioners. . . . Joe’s hope had to be that he was, without knowing it, a sleeper."

Yet a priest who is so holy he will not -- or cannot -- heel a nipping dog or ask that a television be quieted is ridiculous. Van Slaag may be a saint, as Joe considers him, but he is also an inadequate parish priest. Earlier, Joe uses the story of Mary and Martha to defend Van Slaag from his critics. Most priests are Martha, he says, who complain about needing help preparing the meal; Van Slaag, like Mary, "hath chosen the best part." But the church needs its Marthas as much as it does its Marys, and Van Slaag’s detachment is an abnegation of his responsibilities as pastor. When at a poker game Joe criticizes Van Slang ("Just one thing wrong with Van not doing his job") , the latter sees it as a betrayal, but he also realizes it’s "only the truth." Leaving Van Slaag to his savaged ankles and calloused knees, the only cross that Father Joe needs is the daily rigors of parish life. He is learning to "live for the faith."

Joe’s complacency comes under attack with the arrival of a new curate. Unlike Joe, Father Bill does not leave the seminary on fire with the idea of becoming a saint. For him, a child of Vatican II, the church provides a chance to do good works, perhaps change the world. He makes it clear he wanted a slum parish, not Joe’s suburban congregation. The conflict between Bill’s idealism and Joe’s realism eventually changes them both.

The scenes involving Joe and his curate have a domestic charm unusual in Powers. When Joe hears he’s to get a curate, he goes through an elaborate and very funny series of preparations to make the new man at home. Later, as pastor and curate become embroiled in a fund-raising crisis, their mutual resistance begins to melt in camaraderie, the daily humiliations of the job creating a closeness that their cross-generational discussions never could. These scenes of priestly fellowship -- Joe and Bill sharing a drink or playing catch -- are perhaps Powers’s warmest and most touching. Joe and the realities of parish work succeed in refocusing Bill’s sights on more realistic goals, but Bill’s innocence in turn affects Joe. The forced introspection and recognition of his self-justification help Joe see how jaded he has become. As the book ends, he reaffirms his sense of vocation, and perhaps takes a small step toward that saintliness he had sought in seminary. It is he, not Bill, who ends up with the slum parish.

To underscore Joe’s progress as a priest, Powers creates an elegant structural device that brings the novel full circle. At Joe’s first mass, Father Stock, his old parish pastor and a money-grubber, takes advantage of having two newly ordained celebrants in his parish to take up a special collection. Joe balks at this, even to the point of trying to pay off Father Stock. His solution -- heartfelt but hilarious -- is to feign nausea, run down the aisle as the collection begins, and hide in the bathroom. Joe is right to condemn Father Stock for this insult to the parishioners and the priesthood. But that doesn’t absolve Joe of either self-righteousness or a lack of spiritual discipline in his refusing to obey his pastor.

Later, as a pastor himself, Joe balks at the taking of a tasteless publicity photo of his rectory, insisted on by his bishop. When he fails to dissuade the bishop, he swallows his pride and -- with a longing look toward the bathroom -- humbly submits. This is not lost on the bishop, who tells him, "There’s something in what you said last night, but a lot more in what you did this morning." "That’s what I’m afraid of," is all Joe can respond. The usual Powers ambiguity is there, but this time Joe submits to the ordeal with a humility that even Van Slaag could envy.

A recent review in the National Catholic Reporter criticized Powers for not acknowledging the ferment in the church resulting from Vatican II; it accused him essentially of writing in a time capsule. This is a misreading. Father Bill and his friends are fairly obvious examples of post-Vatican II clergy. Joe’s response to them is explicit, and it seems to be Powers’s too:

"Sure it was a time of crisis, upheaval, . . . but a man could still do his job. The greatest job in the world, divinely instituted . . . a marrying, burying, sacrificing job, plus whatever good could be done on the side. It was not a crusade. Turn it into one . . . and you ask too much of it, of yourself and of ordinary people, invited nervous breakdowns all around."

Powers doesn’t view life as a crusade either, or as a "barricades operation." "I don’t do the headline stories. I’m not running a newspaper," he has stated. For Powers, the enemy is boredom, careerism or despair. The real challenge is keeping the faith strong while battling the everyday monotonies, rationalizations and concessions.

But this makes Powers sound much too serious, and underplays his humor. His ear for colloquial speech and comic dialogue is unerring, and the one-liners he assigns Father Joe could sustain a borscht-belt comedian. Scenes of Joe fighting with contractors or negotiating rectory politics are pure comedy of manners, while scenes that take place at "the Great Badger, the Discount House with a heart," veer more toward social satire. Best of all are Powers’s interior monologues, comic amalgams of fantasy, faith and sports clichés that somehow approach the lyrical. As a humorist, Powers hits to all fields.

But his greatest comic triumph is Joe Hackett. It would have been easy to requisition a jaded-cleric type from central casting, perhaps give him a few eccentricities, and then knock off for the day. Powers does something much more difficult. While he uses Father Joe to express opinions Powers himself obviously holds, the character is bigger than that, and irreducible in a way Father Urban isn’t. In Father Joe, Powers has achieved that rare accomplishment of creating a fully rounded character like no other in modern fiction.


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