Diary of a Country Priest
Genre: Religious Life
Date Published: January 9, 2002 (First published in 1936)
Number of Pages: 304
Print Price: $10.85
eBook Price: $
“Mine is a parish like all the rest."
This novel, small and unassuming, catches one off-guard: the perceptive country Curé, in the opening pages of his diary, speaks of the “stale discouragement” of his small parish; of loneliness; of parishioners who are “bored stiff”; of a “cancerous growth.” And from the first this small, quiet French village and parish of Ambricourt takes on a universal character: the village is the world, in miniature.
At first the Curé sounds almost cynical, hardened. And yet it is not so: we soon sense in the young priest who writes these lines an ardent spirit in a fragile body; a man who has been weighed down, but not not crushed, by the staleness and despair of the world around him. He continually fears to succumb to it. “The bad priest,” he reflects, “is the mediocre one.” Here, in his child’s copybook (the first of many an hommage in the novel to Thérèse of Lisieux), he resolves to keep a diary for the next 12 months. He desires to “show no mercy”; to “discover [his] own truth”; and then to burn it when finished.
He traces not only his own thoughts with complete openness (“I will…force myself to write exactly what comes into my mind, without picking and choosing…”), but records the many events and conversations with fellow parishioners, priests, and others. Indeed, the conversations are nearly monologues. Recording faithfully the essence of what was said to him, he shows his utter humility—indeed, guilelessness —in trying to understand not only himself, but those around him; to pluck the mysterious heart of God’s workings in the world.
The entries address a variety of issues—poverty, industrialization, lust, despair, joy, the Cross, the Mother of God—in a musing way; a randomness like life itself, from both the Cure’s mind and that of others of many different viewpoints, quoted at length. And yet strangely, mysteriously, by the end of the novel there is such a clear sense of wholeness, of an unbroken worldview, that one senses in the thrust of the priest's obscure life a divine purpose; an unfolding of a flower; a life beautiful in its very hiddenness, its seeming poverty.
Among those whose words he records is the older, wizened Curé de Torcy, who sums up the world’s lethargy by lamenting that man “has lost the soul of childhood.” (Again, a strong current of Thérèse of Lisieux’s doctrine runs throughout the novel.) We have lost the daily sense of the need of God, and man’s inevitable state of powerlessness, which might and should be the wellspring of his joy—a childlike abandonment into the hands of the Father—is turned into bitterness and despair.
The priest’s utter frankness in confessing the struggles and humiliations that he faces daily, captures the reader's heart: his failing attempt to start a sports club (he himself is anything but athletic, and has no interest in sports); the mocking flirtations of the young girls in his catechism class, in response to his attempt to inspire them with ardor for Holy Communion; reproofs and rebuffs from his superiors; his “superhuman clumsiness,” as he calls it; his naïveté and impracticality in financial matters. He tries to hide the fact that his cassock has become too large for him, that he is losing weight and cannot eat (stale bread dipped in wine is nearly all that he can stomach), and he continually battles stomach pains which he calls “mere discomforts.” In short, his health is failing.
He faces, too, the challenge of anger and despair in the souls of individual parishioners, and with varied success—but always with an intense empathy and understanding—helps them in their struggle. He himself feels this turmoil, from within. It is this dark obscurity of faith which is a continual—and, perhaps, the dominant—thread in the Diary.
* * *
“I breathe, I inhale the night…”
This darkness—perhaps as striking (or more so) than the recurrence of the theme of joy, of childlike simplicity—is particularly Thérèsian. It is the hairsbreadth between the abyss of despair and the summit of hope. Sleepless nights, interior darkness, incommunicable physical and mental anguish; such is his lot now. He fears his heart is being hardened against all, against God himself, who is his life: “I can feel no compassion…My solitude is complete and hateful. I can feel no pity for myself. Supposing I were never to love again!”
Nor can he pray as he feels he ought. Will he ever be able to pray again? “A void was behind me,” he writes. “And in front a wall, a wall of darkness.” This wholly echoes Thérèse: God became, for her, no longer hidden only by the thin veil as formerly; now it is a wall, a thick wall that reaches to the heavens, blocking out the stars.
And yet this very anguish shows his extreme warmth and sensitiveness; his actions show how deeply his heart reaches for others, how deeply it loves. Without consideration for himself or others’ perceptions, he tries to bring comfort to the lost sheep, even when he feels nothing reciprocated. And, when there is finally a spark, a conversion, it is radiant, as in the passage about Madame la Comtesse, after her death:
‘Be at peace,’ I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it for ever. It will be I that gave it her. O miracle—thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever was given back to her by God…Lord, I am stripped bare of all things, as you alone can strip us bare, whose fearful care nothing escapes, nor your terrible love! I lifted the muslin from her face, and stroked her high, pure forehead, full of silence. And poor as I am, an insignificant little priest, looking upon this woman only yesterday so far my superior in age, birth, fortune, intellect, I still knew—yes, knew—what fatherhood means.
It is the Curé’s simplicity, his dauntless truth-telling in spite of feeling his immense powerlessness and insufficiency, that unwittingly provokes a deep response in those with whom he is in contact—the readers of his diary included. “Your simplicity,” Monsieur le Comte says perceptively, “is a kind of flame which scorches them. You go through the world with that lowly smile of yours as though you begged the world their pardon for being alive, while all the time you carry a torch which you seem to mistake for a crozier.”
The Curé seems to bear within his own soul the cross of the despairing lethargy of mankind, its incurable sadness—incurable, that is, without the Father, from whom even Jesus was estranged in his last agony.
“You’re sad,” observes the girl who had formerly teased him during class, with whom he was finally resolved. “You’re sad even when you smile. I think if only I knew why you was sad—I shouldn’t be wicked no more.” He responds: “I’m sad…because God isn’t loved enough.” (Again, an echo of Thérèse's lament, of Aug. 7, 1897, less than two months before her death: “Oh, how little God is loved on this earth…! No, God isn’t loved very much.”)
And in his body, too, he bears this “cancerous growth”, literally: his young life is being consumed by a cancer of the stomach.
* * *
“I only succeed in small things…”
“For,” George Eliot reflects in Middlemarch, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Here, perhaps, is the greatness of Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest; its frightening and poetic penetration into the very life of things—into ordinary life—and the greatness of the soul, however hidden, unknown to himself. The writing is both lucid and poetic, and conveys an intense realism. Of special note is the Curé de Torcy’s astounding reflections on Our Lady in Chapter Six, which seems to summarize the very greatness of those like the poor priest of Ambricourt.
The closing pages, expressing the reconciling peace within himself, are astounding. The victorious acceptance of his utter insufficiency is a paradoxically liberating echo of his French sister of a generation earlier: “As for me,” Thérèse remarked to her sister on August 13, 1897, “I have lights only to see my little nothingness. This does me more good than all the lights on the faith.” On death, too, his reflections have this liberating beauty, ending on the note that “human agony is beyond all an act of love,” however insufficiently borne; Bernanos captures in the finale a harmonizing of all that has gone before. One feels that this one soul has had a far greater impact in the divine landscape than many whose lives were far noisier in the world, whose names are remembered in history books. As for this country priest, it is fitting that even his name remains unknown to the end.
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.8 inches
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