WHAT DOES IT mean to be a human being? There are two fine novels, written over twenty-five years ago, one by a Roman Catholic, the other by an atheist, both of which are much involved with this question. In The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, the hero, or nonhero, is a seedy, alcoholic Catholic priest who after months as a fugitive is finally caught by the revolutionary Mexican government and condemned to be shot. On the evening before his execution, he sits in his cell with a flask of brandy to keep his courage up and thinks back over what seems to him the dingy failure of his life. "Tears poured down his face," Greene writes. "He was not at the moment afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint, and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint." And in the other novel, The Plague, by Albert Camus, there is a scrap of conversation that takes place between two atheists, one of them a journalist and the other a doctor who has been trying somehow to check the plague that has been devastating the North African city where they live. "It comes to this," says one of them. "What interests me is learning to become a saint."
- Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat