“It may seem an odd thing to say—when a man’s as wrong as that—but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.” So comments Father Rank on the life and death of Major Scobie, the protagonist of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. As the major’s counselor and confessor, the father has indeed seen a good deal of wrong—and right—in his parishioner. The chief of police in a British outpost in West Africa, Scobie tries his best not only to do his official duty but to do it with kindness and tolerance. To satisfy the needs of his chronically unhappy wife, he becomes enmeshed in a jewel smuggling operation, takes bribes and then sets himself up for blackmail.
Out of pity—he seems to pity everyone but himself—for a traumatized young woman who comes under his care, he becomes drawn into an adulterous affair. Ultimately, as the only way he can see to redeem the messes he’s made, he takes his own life, in Catholic terms the one “Unpardonable Sin.” And yet, as Rank says, without doubt Scobie loved God and attempted to live within the Commandments. When those around him—especially including those he had tried so hard to help—denigrate him as a bad Catholic, I feel that he is rather an exceptionally good one. On a path fraught with mistakes that injure himself and others, Scobie does indeed love God and expresses that love in a flawed and all too human life.
The Heart of the Matter, a novel chronicling the downward slope of a “bad Catholic,” instructs me in ways that Buddhist literature, exemplifying the virtuous life, does not. As a Zen Buddhist who sometimes has also gone wrong, I find that Scobie reflects me. In spite of my best intentions, I also have injured father, mother, brother, friends, lovers and partners. The high standards of the Ten Prohibitory Precepts and the Bodhisattva Vow only sharpen my sense of my failings. In this, Scobie’s example, as one who also fails to live up to the high standards of his faith, keeps me company.
Precisely because Scobie’s life is as flawed as it is, his relationship with the crucified Christ is intimate, impassioned, even brutal. He takes to heart the basic tenet of Christianity that “Christ died for our sins.” At one point, thrashing around in the moral mire he has fallen into, Scobie has a vision of Christ’s face bludgeoned with the blows that Scobie’s own actions are delivering. “He had a sudden picture before his eyes of a bleeding face, of eyes closed by the continuous shower of blows: the punch-drunk head of God reeling sideways.” But just whose face is it? Scobie’s? A loved one’s? Or God’s?
Who would have thought that in the crucible of a Zen meditation retreat I too would have a vision of Christ? It was the fourth day of my first weeklong sesshin, an extraordinary physical and psychic ordeal, especially harrowing for a twenty-five-year-old Zen zealot in the midst of a poorly understood personal crisis. Among Zen students, it’s understood that the middle day is the make-or-break day, when many hours of zazen facing a blank wall sometimes come to a head. By the period just before lunch, I had been sitting since the dark before dawn in the full lotus, “bruising body to pleasure soul,” to borrow a phrase from William Butler Yeats. And it was a pleasure, if only that of relief from the usual torments of my mind. Physical pain, a twisted anesthetic, left no room for thoughts. Still, I was holding out for the ending of that masochistic pleasure, silently praying for the bell that would end the morning sitting.
I sensed a storm gathering. I seemed to be at the base of a hill viewing a man at the peak outlined against a cloud-whipped sky. His arms were outspread, his thorn-crowned head looking up as he cried out for deliverance, from pain certainly, but more from the anguish of abandonment. A bolt of lightning flashed, thunder clapped and the bell rang. I uncrossed my legs, my self-wrought suffering blessedly come to an end, and stood up along with my fellow sufferers ranged in a double row, waiting for the abbot, Suzuki Roshi, to enter the hall and lead us in the midday service. In the pause I could hear the rain begin to fall. When Roshi, a tiny man, walked down the aisle, passing under my downcast eyes, I glimpsed the gleaming top of his shaven head. The light blurred. As one who’d never cried—through the breakup of parents, abandonment by a series of father figures, my own recent divorce, a litany of regrets for my own misdeeds—I wept freely. I left my place in the line and rushed out of the zendo. The brief shower had passed and each raindrop glistened on spring’s green leaves. I wandered around in an altered world for an indeterminate period of time. I felt washed clean of the griefs and mistakes of my short life.
In the forty-five years since, my studies in Buddhist literature have failed to address that numinous experience, an experience that has repeated in various forms on and off the cushion. Reading The Heart of the Matter, on the other hand, and encountering the vision of the punch-drunk face of Christ, I see a little way into it.
It’s not hard to see the roots of that vision. As an ex-Catholic—so goes the cliché, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”—my soul was deeply impressed with the Stations of the Cross, the fourteen images hanging on the walls of Catholic churches representing the successive stages of Jesus’ Passion, from his sentencing by the Roman prelate Pontius Pilate, to his death on Mount Golgotha, the “mountain of skulls.” On Good Friday, two days before Easter and the Resurrection, it is the custom of the faithful to make the rounds of the church contemplating the Passion of the Christ, as it’s known in Catholicism. This is the crucial story of Christianity, from Pontius Pilate pronouncing Jesus’ death sentence; to Jesus’ carrying of the cross, stumbling under its weight; to the nailing of hands and feet and the three hours hanging alone in agony, with his last breath crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Finally, the broken body taken down and placed on the lap of his mother.
As a child, Good Friday was my favorite holy day. From a nonbeliever’s point of view the story might seem sick, betraying an atavistic fascination with torture and inculcating bottomless guilt, but as a believing child what I felt—and in some fainter way, still feel—was at least a connection with God. After all, Christ died for our sins, more precisely felt, my sins. Now as an adult, looking back on the child’s experience of the Stations of the Cross, I see it as an early glimpse of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth that life is anguish. But all dogmas are dispassionate. I feel it more keenly in my surviving Catholic soul when cast in the Christian vocabulary of the Passion (literally, “to feel”). In my (still-Catholic) soul I still cringe under the whips and nails, spears and splinters driven into Christ’s body by my own misdeeds. In Scobie’s story, Greene dramatizes the legend in one man’s life, with the crux of it described in the vision of the punch-drunk face of God.
As Father Rank pronounced of Major Scobie, a man “as wrong as that” can still love God. Perhaps precisely because he’s wrong, and knows it, he can love God all the more passionately. I read Scobie’s tale of a wrong man with a right heart as Everyman’s, Everywoman’s, certainly my own. By the light of it, I glimpse the Buddhanature of God, however flawed, and the godly nature of Buddha, however barbaric. God has appeared to me a number of times since in my meditations and contemplations. The numinous, apparently, is truly catholic. With all beings, divine and mortal, clearly I’m in the best and worst of company. The heart of the matter is that Christians and Buddhists (and the devout of any and every religious tradition), theists and atheists, suicides and saviors, sons and fathers, husbands and adulterers, cops and criminals, masochists and sadists—we bear our crosses up the mountain of skulls, together.