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Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)

What happens when a priest loses his faith? Spanish writer, philosopher, and political activist Miguel de Unamuno provides an inspiring look at the dilemma in his short novel, San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, which I just re-read. The book fascinated me when I took a Spanish-literature class at Stanford, and this prompted me to take a second look some 55 years later.

Unamuno was an early existentialist, and often at the core of his writing is the tension between intellect and emotion, between faith and reason. In San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, Unamuno tells the story of a priest, Don Manuel, struggling with that tension. He is intelligent, hardworking, provides volunteer labor, and is so kind that he inspires the members of his parish to be good to one another. Yet secretly he doesn’t believe everything he preaches.

“The imperturbable joyousness of Don Manuel,” says the fictional narrator Angela Carballino, “was merely the temporal, earthly form of an infinite, eternal sadness which the priest concealed from the eyes and ears of the world with heroic saintliness.”

“The marvel of the man was his voice; a divine voice which bought one close to weeping,” the narrator recalls. “How he did love his people! His life consisted in salvaging wrecked marriages, in forcing unruly sons to submit to their parents, or reconciling parents to their sons, and above all, consoling the embittered and the weary in spirit; meanwhile he helped everyone to die well.”

Ironically, Unamuno was known for standing up for his views.

A key section of the novel describes the death of the devout mother of the narrator, Angela, and Angela’s brother, Lazarus, who was a  nonbeliever. “The peace in which your mother dies will be her eternal life,” Don Manuel tells Angela. He then explains to Lazarus, “Her heaven is to go on seeing you, and it is at this moment that she must be saved. Tell her you will pray for her.” When the nonbeliever starts to object: “But…”, Don Manuel responds,  “But what? … Tell her you will pray for her, to whom you owe your life. And I know that once you promise her, you will pray.”

Lazarus, “his eyes filled with tears, drew near our dying mother and gave his solemn promise to pray for her…. And I, in heaven, will pray for you,” his mother replies. “And then, kissing the crucifix and fixing her eyes on Don Manuel, she gave up her soul to God.”

Lazarus later reveals to his sister that the priest had previously appealed to him “to set a good example, to avoid scandalizing the townspeople, to take part in the religious life of the community, to feign belief even if he did not feel any.” Don Miguel was not trying to convert him, Lazarus explains, “but rather [was feigning his conversion] to protect the peace, the happiness, the illusions perhaps, of his charges. I understood that if he thus deceives them — if it is deceit — it is not for his own advantage…. The people should be allowed to live with their illusion.”

Neither Don Manuel’s deception nor his losing his belief in God ever becomes public, and after he dies, his unsuspecting bishop sets in motion the process for beatifying him, hence the name San Miguel Bueno.

In 1901 Unamuno became rector of the University of Salamanca but lost the post in 1914 for publicly espousing the Allied cause in World War I. His opposition in 1924 to General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s rule in Spain led to his being exiled to the Canary Islands, from which he escaped to France. When Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship fell, Unamuno returned to the University of Salamanca and was reelected rector in 1931, but in October 1936, he denounced the fascism of General Francisco Franco and again lost the post. He was placed under house arrest and within two months died of a heart attack.