Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors. I’ve written about him a couple times before on this blog: here and here. I just finished reading his A Burnt-Out Case and applaud this one as I have the others. Greene has a way of showing the complexity of life situations, which are otherwise commonly mistaken as black-and-white issues. What’s more, as I wrote in one of the earlier posts, he tells a story all the while showing broken people in whom a religious sensibility exists at once as a weight and a saving grace.
In A Burnt-Out Case, a world-renowned architect, Querry, a man who no longer cares about anything or anyone, travels deep into Africa to escape his life, or perhaps to save his life. He goes to live and work at a leper colony. He encounters a physician, several priests and nuns, a palm oil factory manager and his young wife, a river boat captain, a journalist, and many lepers, including one who is his servant. Lepers are who the other characters orbit around. They are each there either by choice, by default, by orders, or by necessity. Death is never far away.
This is a novel about vocation. I don’t want to put words in Greene’s mouth but this is a novel that explores vocation that has become unhinged from faith or love or both. In the economy of this leper village, love is the most important vocational anchor – not some kind of abstract love, but love for human beings.
There are so many passages that I’d like to copy out here, but I’ll go with just this short conversation between Collins, the doctor, and Querry:
“Your vocation is quite a different one, doctor. You are concerned with people. I wasn't concerned with the people who occupied my space – only with the space.”
“I wouldn't have trusted your plumbing then.”
For readers who are tempted to think that finding and traveling one’s path is as simple as identifying your passion on a vocational questionnaire and then never losing sight of that passion, this story may cause you to think again.