From the Boundary: On white clouds flying – Part one
At the root of all religiousness is the idea of, the state of, innocence – the innocence of the child and of the dove. “Unless you become as little children…”, Jesus tells us (Matt. 18:3), we’ve lost the plot; not, of course, by becoming children but by being AS children with all their openness, wonder, receptivity, creative power and spirit of adventure. You see, with religiousness there is no faking, no dressing up, no ‘down your nose’ moralising, no rule books – but simply a meeting with life, with all its byways, riddles and challenges, and always with embracing arms. In this, and in next week’s column, let me give you two examples. One is a book, the other a movement.
The book is Graham Greene’s novel ‘Monsignor Quixote’. It was made into a marvellous television film with Alec Guinness and Leo McKern of ‘Rumpole’ fame. I regard it as a holy book which, with Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’ and Pope John Paul 1’s ‘Illustrissimi’ (as Albino Luciani)), should be prescribed reading in seminaries. It explores this concept of innocence in terms of the adventures of a humble parish priest, a descendant of the great Don, and his unlikely friend, Sancho, the communist ex-mayor of El Toboso, who travel the by-ways of Spain in a four wheeled Rocinante, an equally humble Fiat 600. It’s not exactly Cervantes. There’s no tin-tattle armour, only the armour of God – and it happened like this.
Fr Quixote, just outside El Toboso, meets the Bishop of Motopo, an African Diocese, by his Mercedes which has apparently broken down. He takes him home and gives him hospitality which includes what the Bishop describes as a “divine steak” but which is in fact horse meat. They discuss whether mosquitoes were made for man’s use and whether a horse has a soul. Quixote ‘repairs’ the Mercedes which has, in fact, simply run out of petrol. The Bishop is enormously impressed and so recommends Quixote’s promotion to the rank of Monsignor. The news of promotion is remitted by Quixote’s own Bishop who has no time for him. Indeed, they have no time for each other.
Quixote and Sancho leave for their holiday in the Fiat and arrive in Madrid. Sancho persuades a reluctant Quixote to purchase a pair of purple socks and a purple pechera (a kind of bib) as marks of his office and to give them both an element of credibility on the road. Quixote wears the socks but absolutely refuses to wear the pechera until he witnesses a village Feast of Our Lady. Her statue is being carried through the streets plastered with money notes which the village priest afterwards keeps. For Quixote, Our Lady has been desecrated by being stripped naked. Incensed, he struggles into his new pechera, the armour of God, and disrupts the procession. The priest strikes him with his censor and Sancho pulls him away. The pair escape in the Fiat pursued by the police, but the car crashes outside a monastery where they are given sanctuary. Mortally injured, Quixote celebrates his last Mass in a dying dream with neither host nor wine.
I once raised this issue in a sermon – whether it would really be a Mass without the elements. I suggested that it might since everything depended on how they were actually given and received, whether for the recipient what was given really was believed to be the consecrated elements. The idea attracted a few superior frowns and I was given a book on the Mass to study, a gesture which rather missed the point. For if Jesus could turn water into wine, why not also a figment of imagination into something rich and meaningful if that is how priest and communicant conceive it? The intention to give and receive would coincide.
Quixote’s adventures are as many and varied as those of his illustrious ancestor. But they’re not rooted in the imagination. They’re not fantasies but rather expressions of his innocence. Taken to a pension in Madrid, which Sancho knows to be a brothel, Quixote notes warmly the winsome smile of the maid who is, of course, a tart. He finds a rubber something beside his bed and blows it up believing it’s a balloon. It’s a condom and it bursts. “Oh dear, Sancho”, he says. “Was it a gift for a child?” “No Father”, Sancho responds. “It was a gift for a girl.” Sancho takes him to a blue movie with the misleading title ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’. When Sancho enlightens him, there’s a momentary irritation but then, of love making, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done. They seemed to suffer so much.” Moral philosophy is alien to him. His texts are St Francis de Sales, St Therese of Lisieux and the Gospels. He is, he says, a very ignorant man. He knows that he does not know. How many of us can say that?
Unlike his ancestor, Quixote doesn’t blur the boundaries between reality and illusion. In his adventures with Sancho he pursues no illustrious purpose but just the luck of the road. There is no ‘golden age’ of chivalry to be restored. He ever carries with him the essence of innocence as wonder. Save in the case of the desecration of Our Lady, there is no duality for him, no light and shade, no good and evil. His approach is essentially pragmatic and is rooted in his very limited experience. He fails to measure the consequences of his actions and so finds nothing wrong in hiding a felon in the boot of his car. He wants to believe, of course, and he wants others to believe so they’ll be happy. He accepts the Christ in the writings of Marx. He hears a confession in the cubicle of a toilet. “Don’t be so self-important”, he tells an undertaker, who has retrieved the brass handles he attached to a coffin so he could use them again and so suffers from intense, if confused, guilt. “God has created a universe and you’re worried about two brass handles?”
He is wholly without artifice. For Sancho at the end he has more than mere friendship. Sancho becomes ‘companero’ – comrade – as their relationship burgeons into love. Open and generous, wondrous and ever humble, not playing God like the supercilious Fr Herera, his replacement at El Toboso – aren’t these the qualities which unlock all that’s beautiful in us? And the spirit of irreverence too which, with the maturity of personal experience, enables him to say of his mean spirited superior who is incapable of blessedness – “Bugger the Bishop.”
Go safely, then – until the next time.
Loving every creature from the boundary: “Not to look at nature, not to love it to the full, is to refuse to read a poem God has composed for us in the abundance of his love” (Carlo Carretto).