The Devil’s Advocate

            In “The Devil’s Advocate”, a 1959 novel, Morris West tells the story of the English priest, Blaise Meredith, who discovers the faith he had long forgotten.           

                                   The Major Players of “The Devil’s Advocate”

 

            In Calabria, Southern Italy, an unofficial cult has taken shape around the memory of Giacomo Nerone.

Opinions differ, depending on which part of Gemelli dei Monti you travel.  Apparently, Gemello Maggiore supports the idea of Giacomo Nerone as being a saint. Gemello Minore doesn’t seem to support the same ifea. One would profit from the sanctity of the deceased, while the other holds the key to the life and death of Giacomo Nerone.

             Bishop of Valenta of Gemelli dei Monti, makes a request with Eugenio Marotta, the Cardinal of the Congregation of Rites to consider the nomination of Giacomo Nerone for beatification. His true reason is the exact opposite. According to the Bishop of Valenta, “we have too many saints and not enough sanctity, too many cults and not enough catechism, too many medals and not enough medicine, too many churches and not enough schools”.

Bishop of Valenta professes a positive attitude towards sanctity to get the exact opposite from his fellow priests in Rome. As he well points out “it’s a principle in Rome. You always get the opposite of what you ask for”.

            At Bishop Valenta’s request, Eugenio Marotta, has to appoint a Postulator and a Promoter. One has to build the case and present it. The other has the duty to destroy it. The Promoter of Faith is the Devil’s Advocate. His role is to “keep the Faith pure at any cost of broken lives and broken hearts”.

           

“The Advocate”

 

           Eugenio Marotta chooses Blaise Meredith as the Devil’s Advocate. Monseigneur Meredith is a dutiful assistant of the Congregation of Rites, the Vatican congregation that formerly governed both liturgy and the canonization process. He is meticulous and precise, a bookworm who has very if any contact with the outside world. His faith revolves around the books he studies, and he has no contact with the world of believers.

            In the first pages, we learn that Meredith has inoperable cancer in the gut, which will kill him in less than a year’s time.

            Ironically for a priest, in the face of death, Meredith admits not knowing either mercy towards his human fellows or passion for anything in his life.

            To the view of Eugenio Marotta, Blaise Meredith would be the perfect candidate to act as the Devil’s Advocate. Despite being a priest, he seems to lack all the qualities that make up a good one. This will ensure his tendency towards precision to the detriment of truth, his mercilessness to the detriment of compassion, and empathy. Little did he know the surprising change of events Blaise Meredith was about to go through.

 

The Devil’s characters”

 

            Blaise Meredith takes up lodging with the Bishop of Valenta, a kind man whose views as far as faith and religion are concerned to defer from what Blaise Meredith is accustomed to. He is full of compassion and believes that spirituality lies in bettering human lives from within.

The Bishop uses his villa to grow an orange farm and vineyard. “If reason and revelation mean anything, they mean a man works out his salvation in the body by the use of material things”.

            His friendship is so overwhelming that it introduces Blaise Meredith to feelings he had long forgotten. The more he listens to the Bishop, the more Meredith realizes how little does he know what faith truly means. He admits, if only for a moment, that the more he spent studying the faith, the farther away he stranded from it. After having known the warmth of friendship, Meredith has to leave it to pursue the purpose of his travels.

            He takes up lodging in the villa of a beautiful dowager, Contessa Anne Louise de Sanctis. Despite her exterior beauty, the Contessa is a cold-hearted woman, who cannot satisfy her desires. Her narcissism pushes her into the hands of treason, as far as her role in the damnation of the innocent Giacomo Nerone is concerned. She is a ruthless character, nurturing feelings of hatred behind a mask of beauty. If she cannot have it all in life, she won’t let others have their way either. The more unsatisfied she seems with her life, the more damage she wishes to cause others around her.

            Her companion, a failed painter, whom she wishes to support as a distraction from her own failed existence, is Nicholas Black. Twin to an accomplished brother, Nicholas Black embodies the traits of a failed male as well as an individual. His wishes related to Paolo Sanduzzi, the illegitimate son of Giacomo Nerone, are not of the purest nature. On the one hand, he seems attracted to the Paolo Sanduzzi, on the other, he wishes to make him the man he had failed to become.

           

The two sides of “faith”

 

            At opposite poles, we find Doctor Aldo Meyer, an agnostic Jewish physician and a barely educated parish priest, father Anselmo.

Even though one is outside of religion, he displays more faith in the support of the community he enters than the one who is placed specifically among his flock to guide it to light. Father Anselmo is the official face of the church while the Jewish doctor is the embodiment of it.

One fights for the people while the other fights only for himself. Doctor Meyer sacrifices everything to be accepted and support his fellow men of the community. Father Anselmo fights to stay alive, to support a dream of something he was never meant to be in the first place.

Above all is Nina Sanduzzi, who stands proud above the norm imposed on women. She defies the rules and pays the consequences. Her closeness to Giacomo Nerone changed her spirit and revealed her true strength to herself and those around her. Even though people refer to Nina as the “Saint’s whore”, they hold her in great admiration and respect. She is a defender of truth and righteousness and the only remaining guardian of Giacomo’s legacy: her son. Nina protects her son to the limit, sometimes even despite his wishes. She commands respect through her presence and resolves.

 

                The epiphany in “The devil’s advocate”

 

Giacomo Nerone was an English deserter from the British army, who was executed by the Communist partisans towards the end of War World II.

Although Blaise Meredith’s role is to poke holes into the cause of Nerone’s canonization, the action takes an unexpected turn. The more he investigates Nerone’s life and the people in it, the more Meredith discovers his true nature. Giacomo’s role is vivid in the lives of the people he helped, in the community, he became a part of, in the heart of the woman who bore his child. His influence is vivid in the lives of his enemies, who played an important role in his demise.

The revelation is not as much as the life and deeds of Giacomo himself but the influence he had in the lives of those he knew and lived among. Though Gemello Maggiore praises him as a saint, it was the people of Gemello Minore that are the evidence of his faith. Giacomo is the embodiment of the church, “who is a family of faithful, not simply a bureaucracy of believers”.

Blaise is reminded of what he had forgotten behind his desk in the high office in Rome, that Christianity is found in the concrete, every day. Only through tactical empathy, as prescribed in “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, that Meredith gets to the core of people’s character and his own. 

It is among these people that Blaise Meredith experiences true spiritual fatherhood, for the first time in his life.

 

Takeaways from “The Devil’s Advocate”

 

Like Blaise Meredith, a lot of us learn the lesson late in life while it’s not too late to do something about it. For some, it may well be too late.

A life spent in theory is an accomplishment, but an experience of that theory is the ultimate goal.

We seek the divine in the character of one person, when, in fact, is in the characters of the people whom that “divine” touched.

When we read about great men and women, we see not only the great character but the overflowing of that character in the lives of those around them.

Faith is not on the inside but in the exterior work of an inner belief. Its signs are in each of us, every day.

It’s in

  • the choices we make and what we choose to become in the lives of other people
  • the simplest form of love and dedication
  • the respect we show other people
  • the principles we stay behind and
  • in the strength of character in the face of adversity
  • what we choose to be every day to us and to the world around us

                            

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