'Wheat That Springeth Green,' by J. F. Powers: May Selection

Over his lifetime, J. F. Powers published dozens of stories and two novels—the first at age 43 (April’s Catholic Book Club selection) and the second at age 71. Powers agonized over his second novel for 25 years. In a sense, Wheat That Springeth Green conveys the anguish of a writer trying to make sense of the world from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. It tells the story of a priest, who grows up in the late 40s, is ordained in the 50s and who struggles mightily with the changes of church, society and culture that exploded in the summer of 1968. Powers artfully describes the world that Fr. Joe Hackett inhabits as a pastor in a suburban town. While out on a beer run, Joe passes the defense plant (producing cones and casings for missiles) and the mall that the plant owns. Joe ponders the scene:

Cones [the defense company]…was said to be so diversified that it was crisis-proof. Joe hoped that this was true, since many of his parishioners earned their daily bread there, but he also hoped that those who earned it by producing doomsday weapons could find other work. For Joe to say nothing, living among and off them as he did, was prudent but hard when a whiff of self-righteousness came his way, hinting that he was beholden to the freedom-loving military-industrial-complex for protecting him from its opposite number in freedom-hating you-name-it. But then, running a parish, any parish, was like riding in a cattle car in wintertime—you could appreciate the warmth of your dear dumb friends, but you never knew when you’d be stepped on, or worse (103).

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Joe gets stepped on often—by his fellow priests, his administrators and the folks who populate his town and parish. He also gets himself in trouble. Joe is prideful, petty, shortsighted, lonely, cynical, alcoholic and imperious. Though he has no tolerance for constant talk of parish finances and takes his stand against Vietnam and war profiteering, his faith is lukewarm, and he is despairing. Indeed, as I wrote in last month’s introduction to Morte D’Urban, Powers does not elevate priests; he cracks them open and gives the reader some understanding of the tremendous complexity and contradiction that might reside within an otherwise wholly ordinary parish priest.

When Joe entered the seminary, he labored to become a spiritual athlete, a contemplative anchored in prayer. He became an outcast because of his hair shirt and Jansenist disposition toward priesthood. At his first Mass, he takes a stand against the pastor who had asked him to descend—in his vestments—at the offertory and personally pass the baskets for a special collection. Of course, the pastor would take the bait. Later, at his first assignment, Joe begins to reject the contemplative life and assumes the active life of a young parish priest. He admits to a fellow priest: “After years of trying to walk on water…it’s good to come ashore and feel the warm sand between my toes” (77). He also begins to drink and gamble, and, after some twelve years, he finally becomes a pastor in an indistinct parish. In 1968, at age 44, the diocese assigns a curate to assist him. The curate suddenly becomes Joe’s audience, and Joe indulges himself in telling of his own defeats and slights, as well as his idea of the priesthood. Yet, at the same time, Joe also helps the curate mature, and the two priests begin to cultivate a genuine friendship. Essentially, the hard truth that Joe has learnt and intends to convey to his young curate is that wisdom consists in some admixture of charity and despair (207).

Wheat That Springeth Green is a beautiful book because it mixes charity and despair, wisdom and humor. It is perhaps more thoughtful than the novel that earned Powers the National Book Award in 1963. (Edward Boyer, in his 1988 review of Wheat That Springeth Green for The New York Times, wrote that the quality of the novel should shame the literary establishment into republishing J.F. Powers’s earlier work.) Comparing the first novel to the second, one sees the difference between 1962 and 1988. Wheat That Springeth Green contains sex, curse words, strip malls, allusions to Vietnam and the Second Vatican Council and priests that dress in jeans. Joe’s life is far more complicated, far more absurd than Fr. Urban’s. Yet, both priests confront meaninglessness and change. In Urban’s case, his own talents and urbanity are finally ground under by cruel benefactors and his own subtle naïveté. For Joe, his early proclivity for spiritual prowess and righteousness gives way to a keen sense of the monotony of human sin in his parishioners, in his fellow citizens and in himself.

I urge members of the Book Club to read Powers’s second novel, especially those who enjoyed the initial offering last month. I appreciate the comments and participation in the dialogue concerning Morte D’Urban, and I look forward to responding to them in the coming days. I also anticipate a wonderful discussion on Wheat That Springeth Green. To initiate conversation, I offer three questions:

1. What do you see as the major differences between MorteD’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green? If you are beginning with Wheat That Springeth Green this month, what, if anything, did you enjoy in the novel—the quality of the writing, its humor, its spot-on depiction of priests and parish life in the 1950s and 60s?

2. At key points in the novel, the author emphasizes the image of Christ’s cross (236, 303, 327). Why? Does the image change at all? Does it transform from suffering to redemption?

3. What about the title? Do you know anything about old hymns? Why do you think that Powers chose this title for the novel?

I look forward to our discussion.

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MaryMargaret Flynn
4 years 5 months ago
A question. Please where do I find the discussions? Will they be appearing for the first Morte D'Urban (which I first read in the 1960ies and re-read in part for this Book Club, ) here in the comments section? I have tried to find the discussions previously and never found them. So do I return here to comments and see the postings from Kevin and others? thank you
MaryMargaret Flynn
4 years 5 months ago
I found the comments, which I am thoroughly enjoying reading for the previous books. No need to respond to the above. I am getting this book to read and look forward to the comments and summary by Kevin. Thanks marymargaret
Tim Reidy
4 years 4 months ago

The discussions will be taking place in the comments' threads. You can follow the discussion of Morte D'Urban here. Thanks for reading!

http://americamagazine.org/issue/morte-durban-j-f-powers

 

Christopher Rushlau
4 years 5 months ago
I've read the first two chapters and propose two more study questions, parts of one question, which I'll present by mentioning that the cross had already made its appearance on page 9 when Joe hit Catfish with the cross Joe was carrying as Jesus in the class play for Easter: Joe dropped it on Catfish's foot like a hammer on purpose. What is virtue, or, what are its enemies? One enemy seems to be the social order. Joe's life at age nine, in Prohibition times, is full of fear of embarrassment. People today seem mightily motivated by a desire to fit in, to be politically correct, to toe the party line. Some OT proverb says that one's reputation is sweeter than honey. So sin is in part this fleshly desire to lose oneself in the herd which is some sort of power hierarchy, prestige pyramid, party structure--Catholic Church institutions playing their part in that role. The other is one's own autonomous attempts to escape responsibility by creating one's internal party structures, prestige pyramids, and power hierarchies. The publisher's blurbs use the word "comedy" but I see nothing funny so far. Protestants were worse, in my own experience, in just these sorts of socialized denial structures that stunt souls. And today, the Global War On Terror has made such stupidity one's national duty, in the name of all that's Arbitrary and Capricious. Everybody's doing it. The author expects you to note every comma or else you get lost in the sentences. Jesus is then someone who sees what is there, and wonders what you do with what you see. I suppose Powers' question is, how do you institutionalize the quest for virtue, or is any such attempt the precise content of sin? What then of civil law if all institutions are sinful? I hold out hope (let's see if I can get through the book, with or without that hope) that civil law is based precisely on this insight and properly restricts itself to the mechanisms that allow people to work out their own virtue: things like STOP signs, as opposed, perhaps, to things like Prohibition, and certainly as opposed to things like the GWOT. (PS. Having read that over, I'm reminded of a mighty US Bishops' effort, maybe in the late 1980's, to speak of social justice. They published a book of articles, which I skimmed mightily for an hour or so (a professor at Saint Joseph's College in Maine having told me what no professor at Carleton College in Minnesota ever did: that you skim books to decide if you should read them), and the consensus seemed to be that civil law is to make it easier for people to be virtuous. I used the word "nice" in my analysis at the time. That seems a tremendously important insight from a tradition that bases itself on the search for the relationship between reason and revelation. That relationship might have everything to do with the nature of society, of the interpersonal. What is authority? Is Pope Francis correct to say in his recent letter that groups create meaning and that the individual is barren in this respect, needing to choose, as it were, which star--that is, which group--to hitch her wagon to; or does the individual make the initial contact with meaning in the act of knowledge, as Karl Rahner seems to argue? In either case, what is authority, what is the social bond, what is the nature of obligation? It seems to me that the relationship between faith and reason is that one must initially believe in the goodness of God as the basis for believing the evidence of one's senses, but thereafter one must strictly let facts speak for themselves, despite all enemies foreign and domestic. Of course, as Karl would say, there is no "before" and "after" here. There is the initial premise for knowledge and there is knowledge: attitude and experience. A novel is the story of one's unending journey in this adventure.) (PPS. Having now read four chapters, and having noted the book jacket's mention that Powers wrote many stories for the New Yorker magazine, I wonder if it is significant that each chapter so far seems to stand alone as a separate short story with its own plot and climax. Does that mean that the book as a whole will not have a plot and climax of its own? Are such resolutions impossible in a serious book? If the relationship between faith and reason is that faith works intellectually and practically by means of a myth, a fantasy, a make-believe, a parable that tells you to trust your senses because God loves you, then this "faith knowledge", to use Karl's term, which yet seemed to abandon his life's devotion to knowledge, in that "faith knowledge" is to him "circular" (such as, we believe Jesus rose from the dead because we believe Jesus rose from the dead), cannot ever have a resolution, an end, a "and they lived happily ever after." It has, on the contrary, to work like a Zen koan, leaving you with a seeming paradox which is an endless source of new questions. Not Zen, but this might illustrate that: "the ways the Tao are manifested are manifold." That is, there always turns out to be a point, a rule, to everything that happens, Karl might say a universal, a concept, so that it is intelligible, but the rule is always different. Kevin's comment, "Essentially, the hard truth that Joe has learnt and intends to convey to his young curate is that wisdom consists in some admixture of charity and despair (207)." may be the ultimate spoiler for this book, then; but then again, maybe "despair" needs some freshening up as a concept. I remember saying to a spiritual colleague (you don't get many of those, since they are also spiritual enemies--they're the only people you can talk about this stuff with) thirty years ago that there is a certain wisdom in a certain kind of despair: in not expecting God to meet your expectations about ANYTHING. I've tuned up the terms a bit since then. A priest, the one who turned me onto Karl, described (to a mandatory religion, no, ethics, class at SJC) life as falling down a dark well: you can either like it or not like it. "And they lived happily ever after" suggests some kind of "cheap grace". And the key pastoral question is always, "Right now, right now: how are you?") (PPPS. I've now read through chapter six, and the chapters are building on one another as they proceed: I can begin to see that some green shoot will spring up from the ground that cold and wintry had lain, or whatever the lyrics are. I laughed when Joe said he had a weakness for people after all, but then I realized this could really be a problem.) (PS4. I've finished Chapter 19, with the mentions your essay cited: on 210 of the Cross and on 211 of the possible wisdom of old men learning to keep their mouths shut, be it charity or despair. Joe says at the end of the chapter it'd been a good retreat, he'd made a grand at poker. I have to say I went leafing ahead to see if Part II of the book was going to end so I could finish it before sleeping. I found two chapter titles referring to inspectors. I fear the worst for the protagonist's steadily contracting self-image: it is about to get ripped open again. "This isn't me." Oh, yes, it's you, and there's so much more.)
Christine T.C.
4 years 5 months ago
I'm really enjoying the slice of life perspective that allows us to follow Father Joe Hackett as his day unfolds. The sack race incident is a great reminder to both clergy and laity that we should strive to be aware of the tribulations of everyone around us, so they don't miss their race! As Pope Francis said in his latest Q & A with seminarians in Rome, it's not about being businessmen or princes relating to vanity, it's about service. It's a pleasure to watch this perspective unfold (slowly) in the book, as I continue reading it.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 5 months ago
I've just finished the book, at 3:43 am. How to be a priest. No experience required. Memorize the following and recite it at every opportunity: " 'Joe, it's going on eleven, Father. Why not stay for lunch? We'll have time to talk and time for a brew.' "Joe shook his head, which, he'd noticed, had lightened and loosened up some. 'No, I'd better not, Father. I have to drive.' " 'My thought exactly, Joe. Get some food [that one word in italics] in you, Father.' "Joe shook his head, denying himself, his thirst, and also, he was afraid, Father Antoine his love of company these days. 'Well, all right, Tony.' " Page 332. So now's he's ready for the Holy Cross. Before (237, 303, 327) it had meant despair, life sucks, God hates him. He just could never get out of his own head, out of his own way, really. Scripture advises us it's better to say you won't go and then to decide to go than to say you will go and then decide not to go. I advise you that being itself and as such is the object of first order knowledge, and that the implicit skill appropriate to this object of first order knowledge (second order knowledge being knowledge of words and other symbols, such as doxologies, memories, etc.), as all first order objects have their respective skills in us appropriate to them which allow us to know them ("the soul is, in a certain sense, everything"), is faith. When Paul says faith is knowledge of things unseen, he means that faith is knowledge of things that cannot be reduced, or elevated, to words. "If I could tell you what the dance means, I wouldn't have to dance it." Bit by bit, step by step, inch by inch, Joe learned to let his mental word machine run a bit, stumble, stop, then run a bit, clunk, clatter, then run on a bit, run on, run on, until it ran down. Finally he was able to altogether ignore all the good advice he was always giving himself. He had to find his voice before he could learn to listen. Now he's ready for Holy Cross. Powers is working on a sequel in which Joe successfully recasts Catholic Christology to make Jesus' death on the cross a marvelous lark for a lovely spring day, and the "Eli, eli, limaidhe sabachthani?" (I seem to have partly recast that Aramaic into Arabic), a poking fun, an ironic aside, between two good friends. A forward to some published work by Kafka said that he would read from his work to his friends and "they'd all roar with laughter." I was afraid, up almost to the end of "Wheat...", that Powers and his Joe were going to, like the wicked witch of the east, was it?, melt away among the pavement stones, perhaps shrieking, "I'm melting, I'm melting!", perhaps not; but then, when hope had seemed to have vanished ("hope is the interpersonal virtue"--Karl Rahner; "hope is illustrated as, 'I hope in you for us' "--Gabriel Marcel), a tiny little green thing shoved its tiny little questing head up from between the rough granite blocks, and the sun, though it shown on good and evil alike, delighted in the appearance, and the sprout delighted in the sun. Thank you for this book, friend.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 5 months ago
It's quiet around this comment section--too quiet. Let me add a footnote to my statement above: are memories second-order objects of knowledge? To the extent the memory is untampered with, it is a first-order object of knowledge. To the extent it has been, as it were, indoctrinated, formalized, stylized, it is a second-order object of knowledge: a historical event has become history, a story, a telling, a gathering of whatever the Greek logein would have us gather in using our intelligence. I think the larger point raised here, in this footnote, is that the most completely abstract and artificial line of symbols we can run across our minds, imaginations, mind's eyes, attentions, attention-spans, what have you is, as it's running, a first-order object of knowledge: that set of symbols is really happening in that time and space. So if there is a science of helping people, of helping people get back to their senses and out of their heads, out of their fears and greeds and back into their spontaneity and willingness to give things a try, then it probably consists entirely in urging people to take their greeds, fears, refuges-in-abstractions, identities, whatever it is they're hiding in while hiding from the world and from God, seriously. Those chimeras, as Rahner's footnoter Metz says on p.169 of Spirit in the World, are the right name for what Rahner says are the things that do not exist yet which we insist, in making a judgment about them as if they existed, on treating as if they existed. The result, says Rahner, for such an attempt to reify, if that is the right word, something that cannot exist--let's take the example of a racist canard, the "hajji", for instance, the despised local person met by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan--is that there is no judgment at all. But I think that means something. I think it's how denial works, how Joe was distracted all these years, essentially by his desire to be a good priest, from being a good priest. Affirming a chimera may, it seems to me, take us out of the action while things are happening, and so we miss them, do not consciously take them into account, all because we're blanked out on this chimera we're trying to affirm. I think we're getting very close there to Isaiah's Chapter 44 fable of the man with the two blocks of wood. How does he square within his own mind burning God to cook his lunch on, or letting his firewood tell him how to live? Addiction, and the patterns of abuse we call dysfunctionalism that surround it and make it stand, stem primarily and originally from a misapprehension of grave proportions. Buddhists say that the great sin, as it were, is the "formation" (Thich Nhat Hanh) by which we project fears, greed, and delusions (from a Buddhist retelling of Psalm 1: "blessed are the man and woman who have grown beyond greed, put an end to hostility, and no longer nourish illusions") into or onto our experience, plunging ourselves, as it seems to me, into anxiety. All great unhappiness stems from mistaken notions of duty. It's not just the "I want a hot-fudge sundae," it's the "I deserve a hot-fudge sundae," that hurts you. It might be true, but it might not be. Losing the ability, the willingness, the readiness, to tell the difference in the event, in the moment, that's, let me call it, the reason for prayer. It's why prayer is so sweet.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 5 months ago
It needs to be clarified, and I don't know if I can do it, that there is a difference between something you understand and something you tell yourself. You can run a set of words through your head and not commit yourself morally (or immorally) or you can run a set of words through your head and commit yourself, likewise. The question is, as it were, are you reading out loud or are you telling yourself something? Joe was always telling himself something, how to be a better priest, how to stay out of trouble, how to make his family proud of him, and these exhortations were beating him down and making it very hard for him to pay attention to what he was doing and to the people and events around him. Will Rogers said that it's not ignorance that hurts us, it's the things we know that ain't so (or at least he handed the saying on). I'm saying it's not the things we know, no matter how wrong they turn out to be, that hurt us, it's the things we tell ourselves, which, in another moment or another situation, might be absolutely true and praiseworthy to say, but at the crucial moment are our "out", our escape clause, that estranges us from the situation, ourself, and God. They are a deliberate choice to wallow in a contradiction, to separate ourselves within ourselves although they also have the effect of separating us from others (contrary to the biblical injunction). If everything we utter is poetry (from the Greek for the thing "made", poein), then a person who utters poetry with a divided heart makes, not bad, but tragic, poetry. Isaiah's man with the two blocks of wood makes tragic poetry. If you say you love God, give God some credit for setting up your life so that you can follow God's rules, as you understand them, to arrive at God's intended result, as you understand it. It's when we try to help God out by adjusting things to be a little more this or a little less that that we get in trouble.
MaryMargaret Flynn
4 years 5 months ago
I just read Isaiah 44. I cannot follow your further allusions---to me it just says anyone can make anything into an idol and yet we "will not be forgotten by Me (God) and "I have wiped out your transgressions..."
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
You can look them up on Google and find them quite easily, much to your enjoyment I predict. What do you think of the story in Isaiah 44? What is the writer's point? What is an idol? Why do you link your "make anything an idol" with an "and yet" to our not being forgotten by God (what does that mean--and I use the rendering of "I wrote your names on the palm of my hand" as opposed to "I carved you, etc.", not being myself able to translate the Greek or whatever it was--the point being that we kid when we suggest that God might forget us); and what, then, are "our transgressions"? Isn't that the main point of the novel: what are our transgressions? I mean, the novel answers that by saying that it's essentially Martha and Mary, and who has chosen the better part. So where does Mary kneel by the Lord's feet in real terms today? I note the photo of Francis resting his head on the wall in Israel/Palestine. All the main news media outlets, by and large, suppressed that very sympathetic and eye-catching photo in favor of ones taken where he only is resting his palm on the wall. The heart of racism is arbitrariness: the good Samaritan, etc. Why does it matter to the pious if they might get their hands dirty, perhaps on the Sabbath, helping the man who fell among thieves? What sort of piety is that? Is the heart of Jesus's gospel that we must not be arbitrary? I like to say that political people should not fall into two delusions: that God is stupid or that people are stupid. We use history, including that of things that never happened, like Joe's career, to clear our minds so we can engage with the present with a whole heart. The question is, will God help us do that? What kind of welcome does God give us when we try that? What kind of welcome do we get from other people when we try that? Is it even possible to do that, to "engage the present with a whole heart"? The big, state-sponsored idolatry, as far as its claim (Isaiah 44's idol claimed to tell the carpenter what to do if he prayed to it) today goes, is that none of us can engage reality with a whole heart, so it's not our fault. Now that is hard on the political and legal order, for people to believe like that, but what does it do to your prayer life? What does it do to your religious community?
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
I've just submitted a reply to your remarks and been told by this website that it's "queued pending moderation" or something. This is a test message to see if it also gets queued: am I generally under suspicion or did I use some forbidden word in the other statement? Maybe I talk too much. So if this message also gets queued, please, Moderator, don't publish it, though I certainly hope you publish the other one. Well, this one showed up immediately. I'll get to the nub of the other comment, by saying that Powers' novel is about Martha and Mary, that Martha deceives herself by thinking that God needs her stew more than her prayer, and that we can understand this tension in current terms by noting that Pope Francis leant his head on the separation wall in Palestine, a very moving photograph, but most if not all major outlets published instead the photo of him resting the palm of his hand on the wall. You can search these allusions on line, perhaps I should not have mentioned the name of one search engine, which starts with G and ends with an e. What is prayer? Is it not responding to one's confusion in a crisis ("time of sifting") by dumping one's guts on God's hands? In this way we commend our spirits into God's hands all the days of our lives if we're smart.
MaryMargaret Flynn
4 years 5 months ago
John McLeod Campbell Crum, 1872-1958 wrote the hymn, "Now the Green Blade Rises". Last line of each stanza is "Love is come again like the wheat that spingeth green" and the refrain is "alleluis allelu, when we die we will rise with You" Refers unless a grain of wheat die, it bears no fruit. And then of course Holy Thursday, Jesus gave us our Eucharist, "the bread of Life". It is a marvelous Hymn. Usually sung in Easter season.
Kevin Spinale
4 years 4 months ago
Ms. Flynn, Thank you for the information regarding the title. It seems apropos that Powers would choose such a hymn for the title as the main character's development reflects the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ - ultimately Joe finds redemption in the Cross. The Eucharistic aspect also makes sense.
MaryMargaret Flynn
4 years 5 months ago
opps The man's last name is Crumb.
Irene Gendron
4 years 4 months ago
just got the book. thank you for the recommendation. there is perhaps not much activity in the comments section, but I think many people are reading the book that just don't comment. since I just started, I'll probably not finish until you're well into the June selection. I appreciate, also, the Loyola Press Classics series. I've read Helena by E. Waugh, House of Brede by R. Godden, and several others from that series. Also enjoy Graham Greene. Hadn't read Powers before, although I'd heard of him, and I'm on page 10 of "Wheat" and really liking it. Grew up in NY, NJ, Boston in the 1950s/1960s, and many of these "Classics" are giving me more insight into those times. I'm glad this part of our collective history is not getting lost.
Kevin Spinale
4 years 4 months ago
Ms. Gendron, Greetings. Thank you for your posting. I agree that not only does Powers provide a delightful portrait of American Catholicism in the 1950's and 1960's, he offers a wonderful example of clean prose that so many modern critics have praised. His books are enjoyable. They can be read for diversion or to stimulate deeper thought. When you finish the novel, do not hesitate to offer some comments. I will be checking these pages during the summer.
ELIZABETH MALONE
4 years 4 months ago

Much as I was left with a sense of futility at the end of Morte D’Urban, I finished Wheat That Springeth Green smiling and feeling more hope for church and culture than I actually would have at the time this novel was published (1988). Whatever happened to the promise of Vatican II and the Great Society?
…..Father Joe’s parish reminds me of today’s parishes in the suburban bubble where I’ve spent most of my adult life and of which I have remarked many times “We’re too rich, too self-absorbed and too ignorant of the hard-scrabble reality that most people outside the bubble wake up to every day. “
….Once a missionary from pre-earthquake Haiti came to our parish to make an appeal for help. He described the wretched conditions of those who lived on the garbage dump of Port-au-Prince where he worked and surprised us with concluding words to this effect: Give what you can but understand that it won’t help no matter how much you put in the basket. The only way you can really make a difference is by creating heaven in your own life, each one of you….teach your children that it’s not all about designer labels, name-brand degrees and prime real estate. The good life has nothing to do with those things.”
But I don’t think he ever said just what it was that would make a heaven on earth for us and the poorest of the poor.
…..Powers, through the characters of Urban and Joe, shows us that the yearning was at least his (Powers’) constant companion and preoccupation--as it is not for so many living in the bubble who are too busy trying to get more of what they already have.
… I think Joe is probably onto something when, in solidarity with the down and out, he decides to sober up and opt out of the bubble in favor of a slum parish, Holy Cross. We are given to believe by the author that this cross really will be Joe’s longed-for conduit to God, his redemption….where the tension between love of God and love of neighbor is finally reconciled in a single striving.

Kevin Spinale
4 years 4 months ago
Ms. Malone, Once again thank you for your comments. To the Great Society, one might add - the Catholic Worker. I find it interesting that this is where Joe regains a sense of genuine vocation. At the Catholic Worker in Montreal, he reunites with the young man that he advised to follow his conscience and avoid the draft. He stays sober for 12 days. The reader finds out only later that after the trip Joe seeks reassignment to Holy Cross, taking up an asceticism that does not resemble the spiritual asceticism by which he prided himself in the seminary. He accepts the consequences of making moral stands - against commercialism, against greed, against clericalism, against war, and against an economy dependent upon war. I certainly agree that "Wheat" ends on a hopeful note. Joe seems to be healed somewhat of the constant fear of being slighted, undermined, or ridiculed. Such fear has only intensified the anguish he feels at what he has become - a mediocre, alcoholic, self-conscious parish priest that exhibits a modest talent for administration. Ultimately, Joe recognizes that it is the Cross that saves, and he will attempt conform himself to the Cross to live more fully.
ELIZABETH MALONE
4 years 4 months ago
Thanks, Father, for pointing out significant aspects of Joe’s journey that I overlooked, particularly the redeeming action in taking a moral stand. I suspect one of the heaviest crosses we can bear is when we must stand in opposition, like Greg, to those we especially care about. Maybe it’s here, in the stamina, prayer and charity this situation requires of us, that the heaven our missionary spoke of can take shape. To speak for a moment of the previous novel, it was actually something of a relief to understand (after reading your remarks) that all is not in vain for Father Urban at the end. He has, indeed, come to value the uncomplicated goodness of Wilf and the others at St. Clement’s Hill even to the extent that he now thinks of this outpost as home. And of course, by implication, these men are now family to him. On the last page of Wheat , Powers seems to have given us some kind of metaphor about watching punters warm up before the game. I don’t know enough about football(?) to get the reference at all. I’d be grateful to anyone who can elucidate.
Irene Gendron
4 years 4 months ago
test comment. first time I posted it went online right away. I just wrote a long comment that I tried to post and it says it's in moderation. I'm going to see if this comment posts right away or goes into moderation. thanks for patience with me.
Irene Gendron
4 years 4 months ago
Well, this last one didn't go into moderation, so I'm now attempting to re-post my review that said it was in moderation: Irene Gendron | 6/1/2014 - 12:18pm Was up half the night finishing Wheat. Wow, Powers can write. I agree with one commenter that many of the chapters can stand alone as perfect short stories, yet this is truly a novel, with each chapter speeding us along to the uplifting end. I was a college student in Boston during the VietNam era. My friends either had student deferrments or were drafted or burned draft cards and fled to Canada. We protested and shut down Univ.Mass.Boston along with the other schools. However, I didn't know any true conscientious objectors who were Catholic. Greg's story in the novel made me cry, and, yes, I think that Joe's seeing him at the Catholic Worker House in Montreal was a turning point for Joe. Greg was the real deal, and Joe realized what could be possible for him, and he acted. The "Arch" was a bit of a mysterious character, obviously part of the establishment, but he did realize the sanctity of Joe's following his conscience and heart, and he did let Joe transfer to the Cross. Fr. Felix was my favorite character. He was so in the now/go with the flow. He loved his monestary, but he was a bit like a puppy, happy to go for a car ride and to hang out with new friends. I suspect that he and Fr. Antoine (think that was his name) were in the book to give Joe a contrast between monastic life and active life, and it was clear that active life was more fitting to Joe, and an inner city Cross the correct solution for his tempermant and personal history. Ultimately an uplifting book that we can overcome through the cross.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
Let's talk about loneliness. It's easy to say, with Henry Nouwen, that you must choose between loneliness and solitude ("Reaching Out"). Doesn't the "here and now" mean you're standing there in your kitchen making a cup of coffee, thinking about how you might post a comment on the internet, and the general appraisal of your situation that floods you is that this is all a very barren existence? The absence of God, etc.? Wasn't Felix the guy from the order, the monk, who seemed, to me, to be a pillorying (sp?) of orders because he seemed to turn every question to one of his own comfort? Amazingly two-dimensional in turning monastic hilarity or levity (whatever the classical term was for monastic cheerfulness) into bourgeois banality? If prayer is getting in touch with the here and now, he didn't seem to pray. I'm going to stick with my "orders of knowledge" analysis and define the cross as the process/experience of letting go of one's sentimentalized/romanticized view of personality, such as whereby one's Bishop's approval is one's be-all and end-all. The despair that that experience can lead to, the emptiness, why, we have a word for that: kenosis: emptying. I think Joe experienced an emptying in his visit with Antoine, a realizing that if he "let go and let God", not only did his world not fall apart, but things started happening. So that when he got to the Worker House, Powers didn't need to spend even a couple of sentences on how Joe suddenly stops the booze or what exactly happened with Greg (who'd not gotten a very clear just-war-pastoral counseling from Joe the first time around)--but enough happened there to give Joe the idea that he was ready. "Readiness is all," says Hamlet at the end: meaning, we grow up when we grow up, and suddenly we're ready to deal with the here and now, in the sense of treating it as a joint project with the absent but all-the-more loving God. A reformed drunk and brain-injury victim of the Korean War told me a story in the '80's about the optimist and pessimist. You put the pessimist in the biggest toy store in the world saying, "Take your pick, they're all free," and this kid will figure out which toy they don't carry. You put the optimist in a barn full of manure, and this kid grabs a shovel and starts digging, saying, "With all this manure, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere." Let's fix the facts of that and say an optimist is ready to meet people as they are. That is worth getting crucified for.
M. Annette Joseph
4 years 4 months ago
Answer to #1: I liked Wheat That Springeth Green much better than Morte d’Urban. The main character was more likable and the author seemed less distant and formal with his characters. Powers tends to convey information through dialogue, which can be hard to keep up with among all the first and last names and nicknames used interchangeably, not to mention names of parishes. But we see more of Father Joe’s inner life than we did of Father Urban’s, especially in his confession to Father Day (p. 106, Knopf) and his prayers (p. 145). The comedy is stronger also—especially the mini-saga of not knowing his curate’s name, buying bedroom furniture, etc. I could picture the story as a well-done TV series. The transitional time in the Church makes the story more vivid also than the grayness, unchanging vista in Morte d’Urban. With Father Urban, the resolution is too little, too late. Father Joe as a child says he’ll be either a priest or a businessman, and turns out to combine the two roles, if one can describe a parish as a business. But though he sometimes goes against his own conscience to observe obedience to his pastor (Dollar Bill) or bishop (Arch, Big Albert), he ends up quitting drinking and giving up the comfort of his rectory for a slum parish, ending with a more hopeful outlook than Fr. Urban. So finally Joe finds “light and the guts to act from it, the grace to gamble on it” (p. 145). #2, on the image of the cross: I think the image does change from suffering to redemption, but why are you giving away the answer, Father Kevin? The first view of the cross represents Father Joe’s acceptance of futility and failure in his work; the second is Bill’s attempt to make Fr. Joe feel better about what appears to be more of the same (but which may have been some kind of test of Fr. Joe by the archbishop? Since the footnote tells us that the published photo doesn’t include the objectionable Cheerleaders at all?); and the third is a reference to Joe’s new parish, where we’ve been led to believe and I was convinced that he will do more good and have more scope to do good. #3, the novel’s title: I don’t know this hymn but the author may be saying that in Fr. Joe’s search for light and his actions that show the “guts to act from it” he may have found love also. “Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
I looked up that quote. The previous passage, where he's playing like a little kid as a Bosox pitcher, and the fans go wild, etc., and the end of it, where he says he won't bore God with any further attempts to meditate, are the low point of the novel if you look at it as a 12-stepper account of a drunk hitting bottom. On the other hand, thematically, you could say the novel's theme is emerging: what is light? Why can't Joe see the light of the everyday as something sacred?
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
Let me praise Powers for unity of purpose: the playing catch with the baseball was not only the marker of the "hitting bottom" of Joe's fantasizing and feeling alienated, but it was also the start of his getting in touch with his body. Even his sexual career as a fifteen-year-old hadn't done anything for him except let him check an item off his checklist of things a proper upper-class young man did. Playing catch with the baseball and whomever it was would play catch with him was the start of his "getting out of his head and into his belly". It stands to reason that eventually drinking alcohol began to seem a very inadequate form of entertainment and recreation.
Susan Beason
4 years 3 months ago
My comments do not respond to your questions. However, I thank you for introducing me to J F Powers. I read both the Book Club suggestions and then read his autobiography, collection of letters and there collection of short stories. For all the accolades Powers received in literature, I got the feeling he was a Priest at heart. The life of a priest as he portrayed it was not much different than his life: waiting for the Bishop to make decisions vs waiting for responses from editors.

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