The troubling tale of a priest who loses his faith

Miguel de Unamuno has been mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world, but he was one of the most important Spanish intellectuals of the twentieth century (photo: AP).Miguel de Unamuno has been mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world, but he was one of the most important Spanish intellectuals of the twentieth century (photo: AP).

Our era of ever-decreasing faith has its own kinds of conversion narrative, and none is likely to be more disturbing to believers than that of the minister who loses his faith. The most recent high-profile case is the young pastor Joshua Harris, who became a Christian celebrity at an alarmingly young age on the strength of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a kind of bible for purity culture.

First, Harris announced that he had (rightly) denounced his book and the culture it helped create; a few months later, he announced that he was no longer a Christian in any meaningful sense.

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Cases like Harris’s make the news, but many non-famous ministers lose their faith. Their stories are chronicled by The Clergy Project, which also helps them find jobs outside their churches and offers them emotional support during what must be one of the hardest transitions a person can go through. To be a minister typically includes the feeling that one has been supernaturally called to the ministry. What does a person who stops believing in the supernatural do with the calling his life has been built on?

The short story “San Manuel Bueno, Martir” by the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno can help us to sort out the feelings of the unbelieving minister.

The ex-minister is not just changing careers—though of course he or she is doing that, too, and might not have been trained to do anything else—one is also changing his or her entire self-conception. Where once one was a minister of the Gospel, a bearer of the highest truth there is, the search for that truth has led him or her to see an entire life as a lie. Believers are apt to feel betrayal when their ministers lose their faith, but we ought also to feel compassion for them.

The Clergy Project reports, somewhat disturbingly, that about a quarter of 1,000 participants are still “currently employed in their religious vocation,” meaning that we might see some percentage of active ministers as sleeper agents for unbelief. I am fascinated by the fact that the project’s website continues to use the term vocation to describe the ministry. While that word has largely been stripped of its religious connotations by its association with “vocational education”—training for blue-collar jobs—the ministry is the one place it maintains its original sense of divine calling. I wonder if unbelieving ministers continue to think of themselves as having been called, albeit by a God they can no longer believe in.

A Saint Without Belief

The short story “San Manuel Bueno, Martir” (“Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr”), published by the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno in 1931, can help us to sort out the feelings of the unbelieving minister, particularly the one who remains in the ministry even after losing faith. Unamuno has been mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world, but he was one of the most important Spanish intellectuals of the 20th century and an important figure (along with people like Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel and Paul Tillich) in what we might call Christian existentialism. His Christianity, however, was conflicted to the point that it might not be accurate to call him a Christian at all. Certainly he was disgusted by the alignment of the Spanish church with antiliberal political forces, but he also believed the death of his son was punishment for Unamuno’s abandoning Catholicism.

But it seems he was never able to have the sort of faith he wanted to have; the best he could manage was the overwhelming desire for God to exist, for the soul to be immortal, for the things he believed as a devout child to be true. His most famous book, The Tragic Sense of Life (1912), locates the tragedy of humanity in the horrible coexistence of that desire and a world that typically fails, in the words of the Psalmist, to “declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1, NAB). The result is a Melvillian figure who could neither believe nor be satisfied with unbelief—a perfect saint for the Christ-rejecting, Christ-haunted 20th century.

Miguel de Unamuno has been mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world, but he was one of the most important Spanish intellectuals of the twentieth century.

“San Manuel,” written just five years before Unamuno died, neatly encapsulates the tensions and contradictions of its author’s faith. The title leaves little doubt as to the moral character of the central figure. He is so good that the story’s narrator, Angela, supports his sainthood only 50 years after his death. (In the past this was remarkably fast for the Catholic Church: Note how long it took for the saintly John Henry Newman to be canonized.) Angela believes that Manuel’s sainthood ought to be granted on the basis of his martyrdom, which would surprise his parishioners, since to all appearances he died a peaceful death, surrounded by people who loved him. But Angela invites us to imitate God, who looks past appearances and “into the heart.” (1 Sm 16:7)

We must keep the title of the story in mind as we read, because Unamuno is offering Father Manuel to us as a bundle of contradictions: The more believers get to know him, the less they will be willing to call him good, let alone a saint. But the more we read, the clearer the terms of his martyrdom will appear, and on the strength of that martyrdom, we will perhaps agree with Angela that he is a saint. But she—and surely Unamuno with her—remains conflicted, and we should, too.

Angela introduces Father Manuel to us as “my true spiritual father,” a replacement for her biological father, who died before she had a chance to truly get to know him. Her progressive and atheistic brother, Lazaro, sent her to a convent for her secondary education, though for practical rather than religious reasons. She clearly learns a great deal at her school, but at a 50-year remove all she remembers is that Father Manuel had already achieved regional celebrity and a reputation for sanctity. She had vague plans to enter the convent herself and be a teacher, but eventually lost her “interest in pedagogy”—which suggests that whatever narrative she is telling us is not a simple lesson about anything.

A Restorative Space

She probably lost her interest in pedagogy when she returned to Valverde de Lucerne and spent time with Father Manuel, who had turned his back on a promising scholastic career in order to serve the poor villagers. Importantly, his work there is existential, not intellectual. The most important service he performs for his parishioners is to be a source of comfort for them.

For example, on St. John’s Night in midsummer, it is customary in this village for people “who thought they were possessed by the devil, but seemed to be nothing more than hysterics and epileptics” to go to the lake for healing. We might expect Father Manuel to exorcise them or to disabuse them of the notion that they need to be exorcised, but he doesn’t. Instead, he “took the task of being the lake himself, a restorative bathing place, and tried to alleviate or, if possible, cure them. Such was the effect of his presence, his gaze, and the gentle authority of his words and his voice—and what a wonderful voice!—that he achieved surprising cures.”

Father Manuel is presented as a bundle of contradictions: The more believers get to know him, the less they will be willing to call him good.

A certain paganism infuses this description. The holiday may be called St. John’s Night, but its significance is that it is “the shortest night of the year”; the people come not to the church nor to some official religious site but out into the natural world, and Father Manuel’s method of comforting them is to merge himself with that world. There is little that is specifically Christian in what he does here. He even tells a woman seeking a miracle that his bishop has not authorized him to perform them.

Feeling Forsaken

Even when the ritual—and it is ritual, above all, by which Father Manuel performs his duties—is specifically Christian, Manuel does not so much teach as inhabit it:

And in his Good Friday sermon, when he said the words: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” a deep tremor spread through the entire village, like one that passed through the water of the lake on days when there was a strong north wind. And it was as if they heard the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ himself as if it came from the old crucifix at the foot of which so many mothers had expressed their woes.

What could be more faithful than fulfilling one’s vocation even when it feels hollow and useles?

In fact, though it will be years before Angela realizes it, the feeling of being forsaken is key to Father Manuel’s religious sensibility. She will learn, much later, that what faith he has is wracked with doubt and that his life “has been a sort of continuous suicide, a struggle against suicide, which is the same thing.” One is reminded, anachronistically, of St. Teresa of Calcutta, who spent decades serving the poor despite a lingering and devastating sense of the absence of God. “In my soul,” she wrote in a letter, “I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.”

When her doubts became public a decade after her death, her detractors took the opportunity to gloat, arguing that this supposed paragon of the Christian faith had no real faith of her own. But what could be more faithful than fulfilling one’s vocation even when it feels hollow and useless—for four decades? The paradox of St. Teresa’s life is that her nearly absolute doubt was proof of her faith. So, too, perhaps, with Father Manuel.

The Ritual Comes Before the Belief

And yet the reader, like Angela, is disturbed by Father Manuel’s lifelong existential crisis. It is not clear if it deepens as the story progresses or if Angela simply becomes more aware of it, but his disbelief becomes increasingly explicit even as the villagers become increasingly convinced of his holiness. He even manages to win over Angela’s anticlerical and progressive brother, Lazaro, though here too the townspeople fail to see the truth clearly even as they correctly identify the goodness of their priest.

They are convinced that Lazaro will convert to Catholicism. And he does, albeit not in the way they imagine. He tells Angela “how Don Manuel had spoken to him, especially during the walks to the old Cistercian Abbey, trying to convince him to join the religious life of the people and even if he did not believe, pretend to believe, in order to hide his thoughts. And without trying to catechize him, he converted him in a different way.”

Father Manuel’s lifelong existential crisis becomes increasingly explicit even as the villagers become increasingly convinced of his holiness.

Angela, anticipating the reaction of the reader, is horrified when Lazaro tells her about this exchange. And in fact, Lazaro was himself horrified by this order to practice hypocrisy. But Father Manuel has told him that this is not a matter of pretending to believe: “Like they say, take the holy water and you will start believing.” The ritual comes before the belief.

The belief does not come for Lazaro, at least not as far as he can tell. But he does take Father Manuel’s vocation upon himself; he begins participating in the rites of the church, not for Father Manuel’s sake, not even really for his own sake, but for the sake of the faithful and ignorant parishioners. Life has a horrible secret, Father Manuel tells Lazaro: We all die, with no guarantee that there’s anything beyond death, and the simple villagers simply cannot reckon with this awful truth.

Recognizing the psychological and sociological benefits of faith, Father Manuel decides to remain faithful to his vocation and bring to others a faith he cannot himself muster. Unamuno’s conservative readers, myself included, are likely to be disturbed by this decision. I remember teaching this story at an evangelical college, when some of my students became very animated against Father Manuel. “How many days a week do you really believe in God?” I asked. “Do you have the right to call yourself a Christian?”

Fidelity to God’s Grace

That, I think, is the question Unamuno means to ask the believer through the this story. Except perhaps for the greatest of saints, all of us live in some dialectic of faith and doubt.

And yet Fr. Manuel is a saint. At the end of the story, Angela reveals that the bishop in charge of his canonization has interviewed her and that she has not told him about the priest’s disbelief. It seems as if she is withholding necessary information, information that would make Father Manuel’s canonization a joke. But here, too, things are more complicated than we might like them to be.

Except perhaps for the greatest of saints, all of us live in some dialectic of faith and doubt.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that canonizing saints means “proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace” in order to “sustain the hope of believers.” By this definition, Father Manuel may rightly be called a saint; whatever he dies believing or disbelieving, his life displays “fidelity to God’s grace” by his service of God’s people. His whole life is spent sustaining a faith that—at least on the surface, at least as far as he knows—he doesn’t share.

But if the villagers don’t see the whole picture of Father Manuel, Angela believes that he doesn’t see the whole picture, either. Both Father Manuel and Lazaro, she tells us, “died thinking they did not believe, but without thinking they believed, in an active and resigned desolation.” Unamuno’s dialectical method rears its head again, and peels back the layers of reality like an onion.

The naïve belief that salvation comes from belief gives way to a belief that ritual begets belief, which gives way to a belief that unbelief can itself be a form of sanctification, which gives way to the belief that belief can lurk underneath unbelief, as it were. “And yet” endlessly follows “and yet.” God alone, if he exists, sees Father Manuel’s heart; the rest of us are dragged back and forth forever. She may be our narrator, but the convent-educated Angela might have ulterior motives for wanting Father Manuel to be orthodox after all.

 

As if to drive this last point home, Unamuno shuffles Angela off the page for the story’s final two paragraphs. An unnamed editor, presumably a fictionalized version of Unamuno himself, tells us that he isn’t an editor at all, that the story we have just read is Angela’s memoir as it was given to him. He offers his own cryptic commentary, centering on Jude 9: “Yet the archangel Michael, when he argued with the devil in a dispute over the body of Moses, did not venture to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him but said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you!’”

The editor treats this verse as uninterpretable, but it seems to me that Unamuno uses it to evoke our inability to interpret: Ultimately, we do not and cannot know what is going on in the deepest recesses of the clergyman who loses his faith without abandoning his vocation. And surely it is significant that it is St. Jude who appears here as a benediction: the patron saint of lost causes, of things, as one prayer to him puts it, “almost despaired of.” Perhaps the unbelieving priest has merely refused to despair entirely. Only God knows.

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