Have you ever fancied a priest? Lord knows I have (and I don’t use that term lightly, He knows all about it!). There’s something incredibly alluring about a man dressed all in black who is unattainable and seemingly incorruptible, something so attractive in the concept of a man devoting himself so wholeheartedly to God that he is willing to give up all worldly pursuits. That is my “spiritual” explanation, but in reality I suspect that women see a priest as the ultimate challenge — after all, it is no mean feat to steal a man from God!
I think that may be what the author of The Thorn Birds had in mind when she wrote her controversial novel about a young and ambitious priest who finds himself in for more than he bargained for when making a bid for control of an Australian sheep ranch. Ralph intends to charm the widow, Mary Carson, into leaving it to the Church, knowing that will earn him the approval and notice of Rome. But Mary is far more cunning than he anticipated and does everything in her power first to frustrate and thwart his intentions, then to cast temptation in his path through giving him an impossible choice — he can have Drogheda and fulfill his ambition, but in doing so, he must part the woman he loves, Meggie, from her rightful inheritance.
Remarkably, although seemingly insignificant, it is this decision that sends Ralph down a self-destructive path, the first in a long line of consecutive mistakes that reveal he is nowhere near the “perfect priest” he strives so hard to become. Novels about a sequence of bad choices on the part of all involved (and believe me, Meggie also makes her fair share of mistakes) are not unusual, but what is unique about this tale is the formidable Mary Carson, who represents profoundly the influence of evil in their lives. It is Mary who brings Meggie to Drogheda in the hope of tormenting Ralph into believing he may not inherit after all; Mary who notices the fondness Father Ralph has for the shy, plain little girl and wonders if some day, distant in the future, it might not develop into a love deeper and more passionate than the priest has ever before experienced; Mary who candidly admits in the miniseries that she has quite a fondness for Satan since he is far more powerful than the Pope — and also claims that she is indeed after Ralph’s very soul.
But Mary could not have accomplished her magnificent success in destroying Ralph alone — nor is it Meggie who is to blame. It is Ralph who makes these decisions, who does not know himself as well as Mary knows him, who makes that fateful first decision to pursue his ambition rather than choose a more loving, selfless course. Ralph’s ambition and pride are his greatest weaknesses, his mightiest faults, the one place Mary can successfully aim her arrows of temptation. Time and again, ambition and pride bring him down… with Mary, with Meggie, with Dane. His inability to admit that he is fallen, that he has sinned, that he is incapable of resisting temptation. He is alone, isolated, distant but always contemplating, considering, weighing his options…
His eagerness is to be a man of God… or is it? Does he truly devote himself to a higher calling or does he see this merely as a means of obtaining power and authority, notoriety, affirmation and devotion?
One of the most frustrating aspects in the series is that it is all so pointless, that under different circumstances all of them could have been universally happy. But all of it ties into “Had Ralph not been a priest…” and the fact remains that he was. He chose that life, and while I do not think God would fault him for abandoning the priesthood to marry Meggie (that certainly is better than fornication!), he did make a vow to God first and should have been obliged to live by it or give it up. He should not have remained a priest, torn between his natural desires and his devotion to the Church. In an unusual twist, the author brings us full circle in the presence of their son Dane, who is a far better priest than his father could have ever hoped to be. Dane is devoid of Ralph’s ambitions and weaknesses, devoid of his mother’s lack of faith and contempt for the Church. To him, it is all about loving God — voluntarily! He does not struggle because he has chosen and has no other thought, no doubt, whereas Ralph’s journey is that of a man uncertain of his pursuits. Dane is the ideal Christian, Ralph a more reluctant one. Dane finds it easy to succeed in the pursuit of God, because he wants God most of all, whereas Ralph covets more human desires and thus is more human as a result.
Many thoughts remain upon reaching the conclusion of this story, not the least of which pondering its subtle messages… is it a controversial plot about a priest who breaks all of his vows? Is it a love story? A story of torment? Is it a condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church, of or fallible mankind who strives for perfection but is incapable of achieving it? Is it a cautionary tale against the sins of ambition, pride, greed, lust? Is Meggie in a sense Ralph’s temptation and salvation and is Mary the devil?
What I learned from it, amidst my mingled horror and fascination, is that an enemy who knows our weaknesses is far more formidable than one who doesn’t. I am not speaking of individuals, but of the very real threat that surrounds us. Evil treats us as individuals rather than a group of Christians. It knows us well enough to sense in which areas we will be most tempted, and if we cannot comprehend what they will be, it leaves us vulnerable to its corrupting influence. Ralph failed in his godly pursuits because Mary knew him so well and he was not prepared for what she had in store for him. He failed due to his weaknesses, which he indulged rather than relinquished. It is no different in our own lives: we can hide our faults, run away from them, never admit them, not think about them, but that doesn’t mean our enemy is not aware of them and continually seeking ways in which to exploit them.
Would Ralph’s story turned out differently with a mentor in which he could confide? I believe so, yes. It would have changed all their lives. Ralph would not relinquish his ambition, nor would he trust his dark secrets to another, which left his individual choices up to the moment rather than having been made in advance. Things don’t “just happen.” We choose to participate in events that lead to situations that bring us into temptation. It’s not about just choosing not to go there, it’s about choosing not to follow a natural course, about having the foresight to see where a path leads and the wisdom to abandon it.
If nothing else, we can consider The Thorn Birds a valuable warning to choose carefully, for you never know where a particular decision will lead. Our greatest mistakes are never the result of just one decision. It all starts somewhere.