A Visit to Morin

This is the title of a short story by Graham Greene. The story is about a Catholic novelist with the name of Pierre Morin. The story’s narrator, a Mr. Dunlop, is a non-Catholic admirer of Morin’s writings, and he has some interest in Catholicism due to Morin’s books. Dunlop runs into Morin at a Christmas Midnight Mass, and notices that Morin doesn’t go to communion:

It was not, of course, during his short prayer before the crib that I had time to watch Morin so closely; but when the congregation was shuffling up towards the alter for Communion, Morin and I found ourselves alone among the empty chairs. It was then I recognized him– perhaps from memories of old photographs in Mr. Strangeways’ reviews, I do not know; yet I was convinced of his identity, and I wondered what it was that kept this old distinguished Catholic from going up with the others, at this Mass of all Masses in the year, to receive the Sacrament. Had he perhaps inadvertently broken his fast, or was he a man who suffered from scruples and did he believe that he had been guilty of some act of uncharity or greed? There could not be many serious temptations, I thought, for a man who must be approaching his eightieth year. And yet I would not have believed him to be scrupulous; it was from his own novels I had learnt of the existence of this malady of the religious, and I would never have supposed the creator of Durobier to have suffered from the same disease as his character. However, a novelist may sometimes write most objectively of his own failings.

After the Mass, Morin invites Dunlop to come back with him to his house. As Dunlop is curious about Catholicism, he asks Morin for advice and discovers that Morin no longer believes:

“I wonder if you would recommend…” But I had even less success with him than with the chaplain.

“No. Not if you want to believe. If you are foolish enough to want that you must avoid theology.”

“I don’t understand.”

He said, “A man can accept anything to do with God until scholars begin to go into the details and the implications. A man can accept the Trinity, but the arguments that follow…” He gave a gesture of rejection. “I would never try to determine some points in differential calculus with a two-times-two table. You end by disbelieving the calculus.” He poured out two more glasses and drank his as though it were vodka. “I used to believe in Revelation, but I never believed in the capacity of the human mind.”

“You used to believe?”

“Yes, Mr. Dunlop– was that the name? used. If you are one of those who come seeking belief, go away. You won’t find it here.”

A little later, Dunlop brings up the issue of communion:

“Forgive me, M. Morin, but I wondered at your age what kept you from Communion. Of course now I know the reason.”

Do you?” Morin said. “Young man, I doubt it.” He looked at me across his glass with impersonal enmity. He said, “You don’t understand a thing I have been saying to you. What a story you would make of this if you were a journalist, and yet there wouldn’t be a word of truth…”

I said stiffly, “I thought you made it perfectly clear that you had lost your faith.”

“Do you think that would keep anyone from the confessional? You are a long way from understanding the Church or the human mind, Mr. Dunlop. Why, it is one of the most common confessions of all for a priest to hear– almost as common as adultery. ‘Father, I have lost my faith.’ The priest, you may be sure, makes it himself often enough at the altar before he receives the Host.”

I said– I was angry in return now– “Then what keeps you away? Pride? One of your Rasputin women?”

“As you so rightly thought,” he said, “women are no longer a problem at my age.” He looked at his watch. “Two-thirty. Perhaps I ought to drive you back.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t want to part from you like this. It’s the drink that makes us irritable. Your books are still important to me. I know I am ignorant. I am not a Catholic and never shall be, but in the old days your books made me understand that at least it might be possible to believe. You never suddenly closed the door in my face as you are doing now. Nor did your characters, Durobier, Sagrin.” I indicated the brandy bottle. “I told you just now– people are not only hungry and thirsty in that way. Because you’ve lost your faith…”

He interrupted me ferociously. “I never told you that.”

“Then what have you been talking about all this time?”

“I told you I had lost my belief. That’s quite a different thing. But how are you to understand?”

“You don’t give me a chance.”

He was obviously striving to be patient. He said, “I will put it this way. If a doctor prescribed you a drug and told you to take it every day for the rest of your life and you stopped obeying him and drank no more, and your health decayed, would you not have faith in your doctor all the more?”

“Perhaps. But I still don’t understand you.”

“For twenty years,” Morin said, “I excommunicated myself voluntarily. I never went to Confession. I loved a woman too much to pretend to myself that I would ever leave her. You know the condition of absolution? A firm purpose of amendment. I had no such purpose. Five years ago my mistress died and my sex died with her.”

“Then why couldn’t you go back?”

“I was afraid. I am still afraid.”

“Of what the priest would say?”

“What a strange idea you have of the Church. No, not of what the priest would say. He would say nothing. I dare say there is no greater gift you can give a priest in the confessional, Mr. Dunlop, than to return to it after many years. He feels of use again. But can’t you understand? I can tell myself now that my lack of belief is a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true. I had cut myself off for twenty years from grace and my belief withered as the priests said it would. I don’t believe in God and His Son and His angels and His saints, but I know the reason why I don’t believe and the reason is– the Church is true and what she taught me is true. For twenty years I have been without the sacraments and I can see the effect. The wafer must be more than wafer.”

“But if you went back…”

“If I went back and belief did not return? That is what I fear, Mr. Dunlop. As long as I keep away from the sacraments, my lack of belief is an argument for the Church. But if I returned and they failed me, then I would really be a man without faith, who had better hide himself quickly in the grave so as not to discourage others.” He laughed uneasily. “Paradoxical, Mr. Dunlop?”

Dunlop concludes,

He drove me back to my hotel and we hardly spoke. I was thinking of the strange faith which held him even now after he had ceased to believe. I had felt very little curiosity since that moment of the war when I had spoken to the chaplain, but now I began to wonder again. M. Morin considered that he had ceased to be a carrier, and I couldn’t help hoping he was right.

As Dunlop notes, “a novelist may sometimes write most objectively of his own failings.” It is not difficult to see that Greene is using M. Morin, to some extent, in order to write about his own life. This has been confirmed by Greene himself. Michael Brennan says in his book Graham Greene: Fictions, Faith and Authorship: 

 It becomes impossible to ignore the numerous self-reflective elements inserted by Greene into this narrative. The author seems to be tempting the reader into viewing Morin’s spiritual dilemma as an image of his own, not least in his depiction of Dunlop’s school-teacher Mr Strangeways, who had a ‘principle of leaving the author’s views out of account’ and, thereby, always missed the obvious. In an interview with David Lodge, published in 1991, Greene echoed Morin’s hopeful doubting as he explained how he distinguished between ‘Belief’ which he had lost and ‘Faith’ which he still had, although it seemed to him more like a ‘wistful kind of Hope, that the whole Christian myth might improbably turn out to be true after all.’ Like Morin, Greene frequently made the gesture of spiritual abstinence by not taking Communion, and he shared with his fictional creation a sense of the watchfully oppressive presence of the Catholic clergy who feared the apostasy of so public a figure. Morin recalls how priests ‘swarmed like flies’ around him and his women, treating him as an ‘exhibit for their faith’ and proof that ‘even an intelligent man could believe’. At first the Dominicans, who enjoyed the ‘literary atmosphere and good wine’, pursued him. But, later, when his novels dried up and they began to smell ‘something gamey in my religion’, the Jesuits took over the pursuit since they ‘never despair of what they call a man’s soul’. The list of semi-autobiographical references could be extended, but it is clear that Greene threaded though ‘A Visit to Morin’ various anxieties from his own spiritual history and angry spurts of resentment at the Catholic Church and the expectations of those readers who viewed him as a ‘Catholic’ writer.

It is also likely that Greene intends to point to adultery as the cause of his own loss of faith (or belief, as he would say.)

As most Catholic confessors would know, Morin’s faith would probably have returned if he had went to confession. Morin is correct to say that this would be evidence for the power of the sacraments, and therefore also for the truth of the Catholic faith, and he is also correct that the opposite event would be opposite evidence. However, he is obviously mistaken in supposing that it would be a conclusive test. In any case, there is a basic reason why his faith would be likely to return, and it does not depend on whether or not the sacraments actually have any special power. Going to confession, in this context, is a way of committing your life to the claim that the faith is true. And choosing to commit your life to a claim is nothing other than to choose to believe that claim. This is one of the advantages of confession in comparison to the situation of Christians who do not have this sacrament. If there is no concrete external act which represents the choice to reject one’s past behavior, there is no guarantee that one has actually chosen to reject it, and one might not know “how” to make that choice. For Morin, the possibility of going to confession is nothing more or less than the possibility of choosing to believe again.

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