Monday, 4 November 2013

William Trevor stories: Justina's Priest

                            JUSTINA’S PRIEST
                                                some very preliminary thoughts

What is the story about?   The tender opening and conclusion suggest about Father Clohessy and his sense of helplessness and anger and not knowing what to say to the  his congregation in the face of  a society of well-fed,  consumerists, who haven’t time for God any more.

In the story, only he and Justina are pious and she has learning difficulties, but then so does he,  so does Maeve unable to deal with her burdens placed on her, burdens she never thinks of bearing as God’s will.   Justina is innocent in that she doesn’t grasp a very wide world,   and desperate to be forgiven her imaginary sins,  but these are sins which has has internalised from Maeve, surely,  her sense of not being wanted, being a drag on Maeve’s life as enforced carer for her as well as her drinker husband and helpless father in law neither of whom make any effort to save the garden turning into a kind of plumber’s dump.   And she is childless.  

Her bitterness and despair foment for lack of companionship and equal love and she has no time for religion.  She laughs away the confession  Justina tells her she, Justina has to make.   Justina is much more ready to clean the church brass than to lay the table or wash the dishes.   At church she is preserving and cleansing, stopping things falling into a mess like her sister’s garden. 

Father Clohessy is moved by Justina’s faith, and feels helpless before it, and she leaves him with a sense of emptiness.   His social round seems pleasant and pointless.  He is still just about respected as a priest.   He is less able to compromise (if that is the word) with contemporary materialism than is his colleague, Father Finaghy,  golfer and drinker good socialiser.   He’s driven to talk Maeve for practical reasons as well as moral ones, that is to prevent her doing drawn into the kind of life her friend Breda is living (or so everyone assumes).   He has a protective instinct towards her.   His sense of inadequacy is focused most poignantly at the end when he sees her looking at his face as if it were the face of God Himself.

Justina is able to have trust.  Nobody else in the story does.   There is a sense, perhaps, in the back of Father Clohessy’s mind that the modern world, for all its greater comfort and provision, is ultimately unrewarding,  ultimately empty, and perhaps – especially if we allow the other characters’ judgements on Breda, decadent,  and above all comfortless.   Maeve’s situation is not going to improve.  She will get more and more bitter and unhappy.  Breda’s high life prosperity is surely to be short-lived.  Gilfoyle and his son are close to being ‘wasters’.

But Father Clohessy can hardly preach all that without alienating his congregation still further and driving still more of them away.

Only Justina is comforted, but perhaps by giving her a learning difficulties Trevor is hinting that her comfort may be over simplistic, or is he coming back to the idea of simple faith,  her learning difficulties are a kind of metaphor for an inability to learn the  modern world, though this is no more than hinted at.  Trevor has no political or religious ‘agenda’ 

In an interview with the Paris Review Trevor sees himself as religions in a ‘primitive’ sort of way.

I don’t really think of myself as religious . . . I only ever go to church in Ireland. I don’t like the Church of England. I feel much more drawn towards Catholicism when I’m in England—not that I’d do anything about it. I always feel that Protestantism in England is strangely connected with the military. All the cathedrals here are full of military honors. It’s part of an establishment with the armed forces; tombs, rolls of honor, that sort of thing. It’s a strange combination. The Protestant Church of Ireland is a shrunken, withered little church that I’m quite attracted by.

There is a strong element of faith in your work, of people coping, enduring, of being borne along in their lives. Is it humanist or spiritual faith?

I don’t think it is humanist; I think it is just a kind of primitive belief in God. I think that certainly occurs in my books. I’m always saying that my books are religious; nobody ever agrees with me. I think there is a sort of God-bothering that goes on from time to time in my books. People often attack God, say what an unkind and cruel figure he is. It is outside formal religion; the people who talk about it aren’t, generally speaking, religious people, but there is a bothering, a gnawing, nagging thing.

In the same interview he distances himself from what is sometimes called ‘commitment’ writing from a particular social or political point of view.  “I am probably politically na├»ve,” he says.

I’m not at all sure ‘where this story goes’,  or ‘what it means’,  but many of the characters seem to be to be like Biblical ‘villains’,  people who have forgotten God and gone astray.    Of course it’s hard to blame Maeve for her  situation, but her bitterness does seem to express some sort of ‘fallen’ state – directly opposite to and comparable to the happy fallen state of Breda.

Justina has her learning difficulty to bear, but she has found a way of bearing it.  She has found something which Father Clohessy himself has, as yet, not found.  Hence his  anger, comparable/contrastable to Maeve’s own state of continuous submerged anger, which might in another age have been direct at God himself (I did not deserve this!).   Justina also does not deserve that endless criticism she gets from Maeve. But Justina feels guilty nevertheless for Maeve's anger, which she feels she must 'confess' to Father Clohessy.   But in a sense, too, she takes Maeve's sins onto herself.

It’s worth reflecting that the title of the story makes Father Clohessy, Justina’s.  He, grammatically at least, belongs to her.   Much more than he does to himself.  He is the representation of God in her eyes, not his own.  And this, in another way, is something he does not deserve.

Finally, perhaps her cleaning and caring for the candles tells us something at a symbolic level.