First, a brief bio: J.F. Powers (no relation to our Sean, SJ, by the way) was born in Illinois in 1917. High school graduate, Pacifist, imprisoned for conscientiously objecting World War II, and writer for The Catholic Worker, Powers lived according to his religious convictions and desired to enact change amidst what glaring injustices he witnessed. He was also fascinated by the leaders of his Catholic faith, those priests who served as mediators between God and humanity, who tried to save souls while bumbling along themselves, worthless if not for, as Powers titled one of his short stories, "The Presence of Grace." While both activist and author, the latter proved to be Powers' true calling, his way of engaging the world.
"I think God likes humor. I think there's too much of it for it just to be an accident."
Powers uses his craft to address a seemingly age-old anomaly: why would God entrust His Church to a bunch of fishermen and tax collectors? For centuries we've seen corruption, greed, sin after sin by these priests who have been called by Christ in spite of their flaws and failings. Powers takes this query and with a typewriter has hammered out a little corpus of stories which pokes fun but inevitably answers the question by saying: "Somewhere along the line something has to happen. Grace has to take over. It can happen in as many different ways as there are people."
Grace. Grace is what transfigures each of us, makes us true instruments for the vineyard. God takes us and invites us, more and more each day, to grow closer to Him. Powers mirrors this in his characters, allowing them to decide who they will choose to serve: God or Mammon. This is most obviously seen in Powers' celebrated novel, 1963's National Book Award winner, Morte D'Urban, the tale of a religious order priest who is sent out to the country by the provincial so his love of power, cars, money, booze, cigars, and desiring the provincial's job can be checked. Eventually Powers serves up the needed Pauline conversion, but instead of being knocked off a horse, Fr. Urban receives a blow to the head from the Archbishop's sliced golf ball. Sometimes conversions can be painful!
Through satire and irony Powers helps us to laugh but also to recognize in ourselves some of the similarities to his characters. As one bishop wrote Powers, "Throughout eighty percent of that novel I saw myself in the shoes of Father Urban very graphically, not to say painfully!" I won't ruin the novel, but Father Urban discovers through his "death" that there is more to life than what he held dear. Of course, with Powers, the satire is laid on quite thick. As we laugh through his work it is possible to laugh at ourselves and then to, as Powers suggests, respond to the presence of grace that Christ has given to us.
So that's what I've been working on this year. If you're interested in a fun read, check out J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban. Hopefully you'll agree with me that his work is, well, befitting of this post's title.
Have a blessed summer!