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The Heart of the Matter: Devil’s Advocate/L’Avocat du diable

Spring Reading 2024


I begin this book review of the French version of a 1959 novel by Australian author Morris West (26 April 1916 - 9 October 1999) with four quotes by another writer, the English novelist named Graham Greene (2 October 1904 - 3 April 1991).

 

“He entered the territory of lies without a passport for return.”

 

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

 

“Friendship is something in the soul.  It is a thing one feels.  It is not a return for something.”

 

“There’s a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.”

 

I heartily agree with those pithy statements.  I also concur with Mr. Greene on his opinion, one that I located on a quotable quotes website!

 

“People who like quotes love meaningless generalizations.”



That heartless summation is quite a zinger in the midst of quotable quotes by Henry Graham Greene, a journalist-turned-novelist.  Ergo, his always accurate comment, “Media is just a word that has come to mean bad journalism.”

 

At university, the George Washington University to be precise, I was assigned in a literature class the reading of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.  Written in 1948, a date that makes this publication a post-WWII creation, this novel delves into the moral crisis of a former British intelligence agent.  Perhaps, at the age of nineteen, I was too young to appreciate this work; but the closer truth is that I didn’t care much for the writing style of Mr. Greene.  I still don’t.

 

Greene was wont to surround the soon-to-be quotable quotes in his writing with adequate narration to suffice to move the reader — from one nifty penned nugget — to that next gem worthy of citation.  Each correct and cutting blurb proves his point about the splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.  The weightier text, however, isn’t as weighty as those gems of wisdom, and at least some of it ought to be. My splinter of ice tells me so.


I freely admit that I protectively possess that splinter of ice in my writer’s heart.  When it formed, I do not know, nor do I care to find out.  My emotional thrusts and parries are matched, paired if you will, by my analytical gifts.  I’ll go so far as to opine that the two processes grew, in tandem, from childhood, perhaps even infancy, onward.  With my closer walk with Thee, those talents continue to aspire toward goals that must be moral, or they’re not goals at all, at least not noble ones.

 

Dear Daughter informed me about a decade ago that I prefer my emotional cuts to be surgical, and I do.  A surgical cut is cleaner, much more efficient, and heals much more quickly than a jagged tear.  That kinder cut is one of mercy.  All of that sputtering and spilling and gasping of passion is a hideous waste.  The wastage has permeated so many online goings-on that I am instantly and naturally repulsed by that dissipation, and by the dissipated dolts engaging in digital debris dumps.

 

The Scots and the Dutch in me work to create a productive and sound efficiency-model, a Can-Be-World.  The Neverlands that the Oily Efficiency Experts fabricate and foist upon the real world, to exploit for quick plunder, are egregiously ethical oil slicks.  Their results, and profits, come with costs, both planned, and unplanned.  The most recent diabolical disaster from the despotism of the digits emerged, most foully, in 2020, on a Global Scale.  I learned immense and timeless lessons from the unintentional and non-stop exposures of cowardly, greedy inhuman humans perpetrating evil upon their unsuspecting fellow human beings.


My summary conclusion of that botched and execrable experiment upon Humanity is that My Artistic Perfectville is a whole lot better —  more perfect — than The Pseudo-Scientific Perfectville of the Experts, the majority of whom are now half my age, with 1/10 of my real-life experience  They place gargantuan absolute faith in their charts and models and probability percentages.  Surely, reality must be wrong since it doesn’t correlate with the latest results of their statistical analysis!

 

Give me the gritty real over the hypothetical ideal any day!

 

My Artistic Perfectville accepts and embraces the non-perfect, less-than-ideal.  It strives for truth.  It exalts the real.  It celebrates life.  It combines art and science in order to arrive at authenticity and verity.  My novel NOCTURNE unequivocally proves those points.

 

My creative ideal encompasses pragmatism, intuition, and piety toward my Maker and His creations; it thereby transforms an abstract vision into a concrete reality, grounded in love.  It’s a happy, almost magical place for me to be.  The Perfectville of the godless zealots, driven by their tyranny of the numbers, is a morass of their own morbid misery and hatred of Homo sapiens.  Their vile use of a tool, the computer, to try to control people is a diseased delusion, located somewhere within those rings of Dante’s Inferno.


The structures of those circles have been remodeled during the past decade or two by the sick servants and stewards of Lucifer.  Those future residents of Gehenna aren’t the devil’s advocates; they’re its accomplices.  Those malevolent flunkies constructed, without proper permitting, a slap-dashed new chamber to the Vestibule of the Future.  It’s called the Vestibule of Now.  My first novel, NORTHSTAR, covers those lewd bases quite well about the Journalist joining up with the corrupt demagogue to machinate how not to cover the nut that the public must eat.

 

During the past few years, the model-skeptics among us were hard-pressed to develop an almost divine approach to dealing with the fascist health-heathens, the political pagans, the macabre moneylenders, and the sneaky hypocrites (who comprise All of The Above).  Sordid scenes and scenarios from the amoral technocrats and medical ghouls in Nazi Germany played out before our very eyes.  I achieved levels of self-discipline I’d deemed nearly impossible.  I saw that vengeance truly is the Lord’s!

 

My unexpected arrival at mercy was guided by the splinter of ice in the heart of this writer.

 

The objectivity needed by any person to scale that mountain toward forgiveness is aided by the passion for purity within his heart.  The two impulses are intimately wedded within the soul of an artist.


The transcendent emotion that gets wound around any sublime description, narration, and dialogue is a liberating mercy, la miséricorde, an apogee to which any gifted novelist must aspire.  The attainment of that magnificent summit demands of the writer the ability, the humility, and the willingness to execute surgical cuts of countless feelings along the way to that resplendent goal, art.

 

Those purposeful incisions of emotions must be, not the first, but the last resort, when all else has failed to bring solitude to your soul.  At that point, that fate-filled point, the sacred sublimation that is creativity ensues.  The writer can then construct from her imagination, intuition, and pertinent experiences of life the stuff of which dreams are made.

 

The constructed literary dreams of Graham Greene are a melange of metaphysics and egotism that were manipulated along the road to aesthetic realization.  The life-altering moral crisis of his sorely conflicted protagonist felt contrived to me.  Greene used the ethical crisis of his protagonist to prove the superiority of his own conscience.  He did not permit his central character the chance to earn the always vital moments of spiritual struggle, moving toward catharsis and resolution.

 

Almost a decade after having read The Heart of the Matter, I entered into my own journey toward mercy, la miséricorde, through reading the 1959 novel entitled The Devil’s Advocate.  This personal study usually occurred late at night, after all my other work had been accomplished.


I was being shepherded toward the spiritual adventure referred to in theology as dispensation.  Those discoveries and revelations were, are, and shall forever be the fundamental stepping stones of my pathway in this life, and my voyage toward becoming a writer.  And the epiphanies were offered to me through the French language because I did not read this book in the original English; I read it in the 1960 French translation, L’Avocat du diable.

 

Father Blaise Meredith, le père Blaise, is the protagonist.  He’s a sophisticated, erudite, meticulous, and culturally refined man who has whiled away his years at the Vatican.  Thus far, his life has been unremarkable.  One might say he’d yet to fulfill his mission on this earth, spiritually, practically, emotionally, and morally.  He’d neither loved a woman nor hated a man, nor wept over the sorrowful fate of a child.

 

At the same time that Father Meredith is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he is sent from Rome to a small village in Calabria named Gemello Maggiore.  To this day, that proper noun of two words holds uniquely wondrous sounds for me.  It is there that this devil’s advocate comes face to face with abiding faith; with the grim realities of life and of genuinely living life; and with the spectre and the dignity of death.


He peers, at long last, into the interstice of a passion for living, and for dying; and he knows that he dare not look away from the amazing grace that he perceives through that aperture.  This stranger to the human heart very gradually begins to open his arms, and his heart, to that life-altering emotion:  love.

 

His Cardinal Marotta specifically chose Father Meredith for this task of inquiry into the canonization of Giacomo Nerone, a local man who has been promoted to sainthood.  It is through this process, and this position, of the advocatus diaboli, devil’s advocate, that this Promoter of the Faith must argue against the canonization of this candidate through uncovering and verifying any and all character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence in favor of sainthood for this individual.

 

Here we have a man who has received his own death notice; and he must look into the good and evil of a deceased man who has received favor in the Roman Catholic Church.  This book, published in 1950, presents the emotional and mental workouts of a strict moral conscience that is searching itself as much as it searched the conscience, or lack thereof, of a potential saint.


Father Meredith expects to die, soon.  He confronts several ugly rumors, as well as several uncomfortable truths about Giacomo Nerone.  He then weighs these spiritual frailties against the force of good that Nerone was during his lifetime.  Nerone was a sinner; he was also a man of courage, of virtue and of passionate devotion to his small, impoverished village.

 

It is through having to sort out intent from consequence that Father Meredith looks at his own life, one spent securely in the Vatican where he avoided passions of many kinds, and just as many sorts of charity.  Indeed, Father Meredith worked by canon, not by charity.

 

Morris West does not go anywhere near the vapid situational ethics or the hollow moral relativity that have marred and mangled true morality during the past 50-60 years in America, Europe, the entirety of Western Civilization.  He permits the reader to draw his own conclusions about this pristine priest whose spiritual faith is less than perfect, precisely because it had so rarely been challenged in the world outside of the Vatican.  Father Meredith crosses that threshold to hope through his surrender to his own soul, one that, in spite of umpteen years of religious training, had been seeking a reason to believe . . .


While verbally pondering the dictates of faith in the orange grove of the bishop, Meredith asks:  “What have oranges to do with the human soul?”

 

The bishop is quick to reply:  “Everything.  You can’t cut a man in two and polish up his soul while you throw his body in the trash heap.”

 

The fictional characters of Morris West are real, gloriously real.  They consequently touch the heart.  I shed tears while reading certain passages in this momentous novel.  There is the mark of a literary artist at work.  His flawed protagonist, Father Blaise Meredith, ultimately and profoundly learns the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:7:  “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

 

He learns to walk the walk, not merely talk the talk.  His final steps on this earth are extremely numbered, but this Father, at last, walks faithfully, through true love, toward the arms of his Heavenly Father.


I was sufficiently impressed by the writing of Morris, and by his characterization of this cynical priest, seeking the purity of passion called faithfulness, to permit myself to create a priest, Père Antoine, in THE DAWN.  The duties of one man of the cloth to his Church, to his fellow man, to his troubled conscience, to the world, and to his Maker are intricately interwoven in this novel, one that goes directly to the heart of the matter.

 

The balancing of good vs. evil never goes out of style, nor does the fictional depiction of a man humbly seeking, at life’s end, to become divine, with or without the argumentations of a devil’s advocate.  The powerful light of goodness ultimately prevails over despair, because of the purity of faith that keeps alive the flame of that faith, journeying through the murky darkness of doubt that is the work of the devil.

 

Faith in things unseen is both gift and mystery, if the heart is but willing to receive those eternal blessings.

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