iguel de Unamuno y Jugo, a nineteenth-century Spanish philosopher, wrote a short story, “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” about a parish priest in an impoverished village whose selfless devotion to the physical and spiritual needs of the people had turned him into a saintly figure all but worshipped by his parishioners. “He treated everyone with the greatest kindness; if he favored anyone, it was the most unfortunate, and especially those who rebelled.” “In winter he chopped wood for the poor.” “Everyone in the village went to Mass, even if it were only to hear and see him at the altar, where he appeared to be transfigured, his countenance lit from within.”
The story was told as the memoir of 50-year-old Angela, who as a young teenager had discovered Father Don Manuel’s deepest secret, namely—he didn’t believe in the things that he had preached. Heaven, an afterlife, atonement for sin—all that he had fervently taught for decades in order to comfort, cheer, and encourage the poor folks of Valverde de Lucerna he regarded as fables. “There is no other life but this,” he whispered to Angela’s brother (the only other one who knew), “no life more eternal . . . let them dream it eternal . . . let it be eternal for a few years.”
There were hints, all along. “The most important thing,” the priest would say, “is for the people to be happy. . . . To be satisfied with this life is of first importance.” When asked if hell was real, he refused to answer, saying instead, “Believe in heaven, the heaven you can see,” and pointed to the sky, the mountains, and the lake. As Angela’s mother was dying, he said, “The peace in which your mother dies will be her eternal life.” Finally, as Don Manuel himself rested on his deathbed, he told Angela’s brother: “Watch over my poor flock; find some comfort for them in living, and let them believe what I could not. . . . And now farewell; until we never meet again, for this dream of life is coming to an end.”
It may be that faith without love is dead (1 Cor. 13), but love without faith? Sure, Don Manuel comforted his flock, but with what? Lies? Or at least what he believed were lies? If he stopped believing, shouldn’t he have stopped preaching? Shouldn’t he have stopped living a lie, because isn’t to preach what you don’t believe a lie (even if, by chance, what you’re preaching happens to be truth)?
I can understand somewhat what motivated Don Manuel, at least a lot better than I could have in my younger incarnations. Why not give these impoverished souls a little comfort and hope in the only existence they’ll ever have, even if that hope and comfort’s a lie. Once dead, they’ll never know the difference, so what does it matter?
I don’t know, but even in my atheist/agnostic days, the idea of truth seemed “sacred,” even “holy.” It didn’t matter what it was; it mattered only that it “was,” that it existed; and to discover just what it “was” seemed to me to be the most important thing I could do, even if the truth were that our lives were meaningless flukes of the cosmos. (Which would be self-refuting, because then my desire to know truth would be meaningless as well.)
I could never do what Don Manuel did. If I lost my faith, I couldn’t pretend, even if my pretending encouraged, cheered, and helped others. Of course, you say, We should never purposely tell a lie, but that’s only because we believe in a moral God who forbids lying. But when you don’t believe in God, don’t believe in anything beyond this life, then why not lie if the lie makes life better for folks here? From that perspective, I can understand what Don Manuel did.
From my own, if I ever believed that this life was all that there was, then I couldn’t preach that it wasn’t, regardless of how many folks that preaching might comfort and cheer.
I just couldn’t do it, even if I can’t give a good reason why.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.