31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 21: “Prince of Darkness” by J.F. Powers

May 21, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

From The Stories of J.F. Powers

I recall getting a letter from William Carlos Williams in which he said that writers have each their own natural breath. Some take short breaths, others long. Whitman took long breaths, Emily Dickinson short ones. It required talent to judge what your natural form of breathing was. I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story. He tried for the longer breath of the novel twice because, I assume, he wanted to deal with a bigger cast of characters and a wider screen. But I think his talent was happiest in the concentration, the focus, of the short story. It was as if he thought life most clearly disclosed in the telling anecdote.

– Dennis Donoghue

J.F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests

– Headline in The New York Times, June 17, 1999

Both of those assessments are correct, but the Times headline seems unbearably reductionist, even for a newspaper obituary. Powers’ great subject was the priesthood: novelist Mary Gordon said, incorrectly, “He had one subject and that was priests,” and Joseph Bottum called him “the greatest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century,” a contentious assessment on its face (as anyone who has ever read Flannery O’Connor will recognize). Gordon’s statement was obviously meant as hyperbole, but it manages to ignore stories such as “Renner,” which Donoghue points out is “entirely secular.” Still, his interest in the priesthood was abiding over the course of his career, and formed the subject of much of his best work.

“Prince of Darkness” is about one day in the life of a corpulent, cynical, unambitious priest named Ernest Burner. Far from an example of spiritual piety, Father Burner embraces the secular world: he meets with an insurance salesman named Thomas Nash Tracy (T.N.T., an acronym that Father Burner attaches to his own assessment of Tracy as a B.C.L. – a Big Catholic Layman) to discuss the purchase of a life insurance policy, skips out on his rounds to visit the sick so that he can take flying lessons, indulges in hamburgers and a bottle of beer at a local diner, putts golf balls into a hole fashioned out of his roman collar, and jettisons the butt of a cigarette in the church’s holy water font. Burner is fodder for much comedy, especially regarding his weight, which is excessive. He is known as “the circular priest” because a journal to which he once submitted an article misprinted the word “secular” as “circular,” a telling error in Powers’ story of squelched piety, and gets ribbed by his own Dean when a young girl approaching confirmation pays the priests a visit:

Then tell me, young lady, what are the seven capital sins? Pride, Covetousness … Lust, Anger. Uh. The child’s mother, one of those tough Irish females built like a robin, worried to death, lips silently forming the other sins for her daughter. Go ahead, dear. Envy. Proceed, child. Yes, Monsignor. Uh … Sloth. To be sure. That’s six. One more. And … uh. Fear of the Lord, perhaps? Meekness? Hey, Monsignor, ain’t them the Divine Counsels! The Dean, smiling, looking at Father Burner’s plate, covered with chicken bones, at his stomach, fighting the vest, and for a second into the child’s eyes, slipping her the seventh sin. Gluttony, Monsignor!

“Sloth. To be sure.” The girl’s words are not as idle as they appear, tapping into Father Burner’s nature even as she remains blithely unaware how close to the mark she has come. Father Burner’s foibles – sins seems too strong a word, really – arise largely out of his complacency, his lack of motivation to strive for much of anything, despite his most fervent desire to one day have his own parish so that he can hire his mother as his housekeeper.

Father Burner’s lackadaisical spirituality is contrasted with that of the local Vicar General, whom Burner feels to be “troubled with sanctity,” a condition “which might lead to anything else, the cloister or insanity.” By contrast, Father Burner feels that “the mark of the true priest” has eluded him, despite his conviction that his vows have locked him into a permanent association with the priesthood:

The mark of the true priest was heavy on the Dean. … It was on every priest he could think of, including a few on the bum, and his good friend and companion, Father Desmond. But it was not on him, not properly. They, the others, were stained with it beyond all disguise or disfigurement – indelibly, as indeed Holy Orders by its sacramental nature must stain, for keeps in this world and the one to come. “Thou art a priest forever.” With him, however, it was something else and less, a mask or badge which he could and did remove at will, a temporal part to be played, almost only a doctor’s or lawyer’s. They, the others, would be lost in any persecution. The mark would doom them. But he, if that dies irae ever came – and it was every plump seminarian’s apple-cheeked dream – could pass as the most harmless and useful of humans, a mailman, a bus rider, a husband. But would he. No. They would see. I, he would say, appearing unsought before the judging rabble, am a priest, of the order of Malchizedech.

It is not that Father Burner spurns the priesthood or fails to take its implications seriously, simply that as a fallible human being he is prone to indulge his baser urges and shirk his more vaunted duties. It is this self-satisfied complacency that Father Burner’s Archbishop identifies in refusing him the parish he desires and transferring him instead to another diocese where he will act as assistant to the pastor. “I trust that in your new appointment,” the Archbishop writes in his letter to Father Burner, “you will find not peace but a sword.” Father Burner’s spirit may be willing, but his flesh is weak, and only the kind of righteous anger that Jesus advocated in Matthew’s Gospel will shake him out of his spiritual stupor.

(This one’s for Nathan Whitlock, who got there before I did.)


2 Responses to “31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 21: “Prince of Darkness” by J.F. Powers”
  1. Nathan says:

    I got there first, meaning I went nuts for Powers first or that I was the first to become corpulent, cynical, and unambitious?

    Or both?

  2. Alex says:

    No way you were corpulent, cynical and unambitious before me, so he must have meant you went nuts for Powers first.