Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lessons from Under Satan's Sun

"His laughter!  That's the weapon of the prince of this world.  He hides away, as he lies, takes on every kind of face, even our own...He never waits, never stays in one place.  He's in the eyes that defy him, the mouth that denies him.  He's in the anguish of the mystic, and the serenity and self-assurance of the fool.  The Prince of this World!  The Prince of this World!"

Georges Bernanos is perhaps best known for his famous work, Diary of a Country Priest.  (Another famous work that, alas, I have yet to read!)  Before that, however, came an earlier book entitled Under Satan's Sun.  

It's a hard book to come by, at least in English.  It's out of print and a used copy online goes for roughly $80 or so.  (The devil clearly doesn't want this book being read...)  However, my local librarian was able to make some calls and obtained a copy for me from Fordham!

Bernanos wrote this book shortly after he returned home from the First World War.  As one might imagine, his experiences in the trenches greatly affected him.  The war made the author directly confront the mystery of evil.  How could one explain such carnage and destruction?  The politicians, economists, and sociologists offered rationals, all of which fell short.  

No, there was something else at play.  

During an interview, Bernanons once stated, "I have seen the devil, as I see you, since my childhood."

In many ways, perhaps without even realizing it, we have all seen the devil since childhood.  


Under Satan's Sun opens with the story of Mouchette, a young, restless girl looking for freedom from monotony: she seeks adventure, risk, and--above all--singularity.  She has an affair with an older man, becoming pregnant, and subsequently goes to visit her lover one evening.  

"Although she would have been at a loss to explain the strange pleasure she felt or to give a name to the mounting tide of confused feelings in her fearless heart, all she wanted at that moment was to humiliate her lover in his poverty and to have him at her mercy...So complete was her disappointment, so quick and decisive her scorn, that the events that were to follow seemed in fact to be already engraved in her heart.  We talk of chance, but the face of chance looks very much like our own."

Mouchette, a volatile personality to begin with, becomes enveloped in a kind a frenzy or mania and the night ends with her shooting her lover dead, at point-blank.  The viciousness within her remains as she soon captures a second lover, who is easy prey to her willfulness and capriciousness. 

As Mouchette's story unfolds, one begins to detect a deeper presence within her, driving her actions and dispelling any reason.  Her life is a tragedy--a story written by the vileness that lived within her.

There are those who seem to be made for a peaceful life, but a tragic destiny awaits them.  We are amazed by the strangeness and unpredictability of fate.  Yet facts are unimportant, for the tragedy was already there in their hearts.


Bernanos then shifts the story to his protagonist, Father Donissan.  The priest is described as a rather tall, clumsy fellow with notably 
large feet and a perpetually unkept, soiled cassock.  He would certainly make an impression upon a first meeting--this not due to any impressive vocabulary, demonstration of depth of knowledge, or polished social skills...but lack thereof.

Indeed, there was nothing impressive about Fr. Donissan that met the eye.  But within--in his soul--there was something entirely singular.  What set Fr. Donissan apart was his vocation in life.  He had determined, in the guileless and innocence of his soul, to offer his life--all consolations from God and even his own salvation--for the sake of poor sinners.  His name suits him well.  Donissan literally means "to give one's blood."  He is truly an alter Christus, another Christ, who offers himself for sinners.

It was a sacrifice offered with a great price: Fr. Donissan places himself in a lifelong battle with Satan.  The former seeks to save souls; the latter, to damn them.

"The concrete sign of an uneasiness that so far had been vague and undefined was almost as frightening as a real and visible presence, of which he now had no more than a sense, a sharp but indescribable feeling.  He was no longer alone, but who was with him?...Ah, how strong and cunning this Other is, how patient when necessary, and as swift as lightning when his time has come!...As the enemy approached, he felt hatred, not fear.  He was born to fight, and at every turn in the road ahead, there was to be blood." 

Bernanos modeled his saint, Fr. Donissan, after St. John Vianney.  Like the Cure of Ars, Fr. Donissan realizes that Satan aims his most vicious attack at those striving most ardently toward God.

"...tiny souls, tiny mouths--this is not for you...the Satan of your strange litanies is nothing but your own distorted image, for he who worships the carnal world is Satan unto himself.  The monster watches you and laughs but has not yet speared you on his claws...But he is to be found in the personal prayer of the solitary, in his fasting and penitence, in the depths of the most profound ecstasy, and in the silence of the heart...His hatred is reserved for the saints."

Sometimes Satan's attack is even physical.

One of the most captivating scenes of the book occurs when Fr. Donissan is en route to a nearby retreat, where he is awaited to hear confessions.  While on the back country roads, however, the priest finds himself inexplicably lost.  He tries to retrace his steps and begin again.  He knows that his destination is simply over the next hill, yet no matter how directly he walks or how quickly he moves, he repeatedly finds himself further and further from his end goal.

"Then, once he had crossed a final ditch, he was on a very narrow, scarcely distinguishable dirt track in the middle of a plowed field that he remembered taking an hour or two earlier.  But then, he thought, he had been alone.  For some time now in fact--why not admit it?--he had not been alone.  Someone was walking beside him.  It looked like a very lively short man, first on his right, then on his left, sometimes in front of him and sometimes behind, hard to make out in the dark, trotting along at first without a word.  Perhaps they could help each other on such a dark night?"

Fr. Donissan finds himself walking with Satan.  And Bernanos captures the scene brilliantly.  Satan appears as an ordinary man--a horse-handler, to be exact.  Too often, I think, we associate Satan with powerful, dramatic scenes of terror.  Consider the movie The Exorcist.  Certainly, Satan sometimes chooses to manifest himself in such extraordinary, frightening ways.

But I think even more frightening is the more common experience of Satan--precisely because it is so undramatic.  A thought, consideration, a subtle insinuation.  How often has Satan been walking alongside us...and we didn't see him?  In my life, I can clearly pinpoint a time when Satan was overtly tempting and attacking me interiorly.  Yet, I find more alarming the myriad of other occasions when Satan was on the offensive and I was unaware...perhaps even an unknowing accomplice.  

Under Satan's Sun was a complex, complicated book, one that I could probably read several times and still not fully understand all the layers of meaning.  It's only fitting, though, since the struggle with evil is itself complicated and complex.  The battle lines of interior warfare are not clearly drawn.  What happens on the interior is shadowed, even from ourselves at times.  Where do I end and the devil's evil influence begin?  Is that particular thought my own, or has the Evil One presented it to me?  Sometimes the devil--the father of lies--even masquerades as an angel of light: there are moments when Fr. Donissan acts, thinking he is being prompted by God, only later to realize he was answering the beckoning of Satan.

"Be careful, Sabiroux, to remember that the world isn't a piece of well-constructed clockwork.  God throws us between Himself and Satan as if we were the last rampart.  It's through us that for centuries and centuries the same hatred has been trying to reach Him, through our poor human flesh that the ineffable murder is consummated.  No matter to what heights prayer and love may raise us, we carry the dreadful companion with us, girded to our loins and bursting his sides with huge peals of laughter." 


In his quest to save souls, God bestows upon Fr. Donissan a great gift, which also becomes a very heavy cross for the priest: the ability to see into the interior of a soul.

Fr. Donnisan awakes from his physical encounter with the devil to the kind, concerned questioning of a local quarryman.  As the man leads Fr. Donnisan to town, the priest first realizes the power God has given to him.    

"The quarryman was still walking on calmly ahead of him...The soul that was opened up to him filled him with respect and love.  It was a simple soul without history, attentive, ordinary, and filled with very ordinary cares, but a royal humility bathed the man in its reflected glory, like a heavenly light.  What a lesson it was for the poor tormented priest haunted by his own fears to discover the mute, inglorious villager unknown to himself and others, bearing the burden of his destiny and his life's humble loves beneath God's gaze!  A thought came to him, unbidden, adding an element of fear to the respect and love: perhaps it was from that simple man alone that the Other had taken flight?"

In sharp contrast to the pious quarryman, Fr. Donnisan is led onward and, as the dawn slowly breaks, he happens upon Mouchette, who is lurking in the morning shadows, awaiting her lover.  

To many, it is the central scene of the novel.  Donissan does not offer Mouchette reformation, but redemption.  As Michael Tobin explains in his book Georges Bernanos: The Theological Source of His Art, Mouchette must be "bought back from her sins."  Bernanos wrote of this scene, "Thus Fr. Donissan did not appear by chance: Mouchette's wild cry of despair called him, made him indispensable."

As they converse, Fr. Donissan tells Mouchette:

"We can never judge ourselves properly, and we often keep up the illusion of certain failings so as not to see the things in us that are really rotten and need to be cast out if we are to live."

It was a sentence that particularly struck me.  If someone were to ask me, "What is your greatest fault?," I would have an answer...but very likely not the correct one.  When we walk under Satan's sun, we are blinded to the truth--even the truth about ourselves.  


Fr. Donissan's life is one of severe struggle.  He passionately empties himself out in his priestly ministry, spending hours in the damp, dusky confessional where his interior sight allows him to bestow peace and healing upon the souls come to him for absolution.  It is a peace he never experiences himself in his constant warfare with the demonic.  

Bernanos wanted to create this kind of saint, a saint in stark contrast to the kind of bourgeoise piety he witnessed around him.  The author sought the shock value that comes from a saintly protagonist who almost fledges himself to death in an extreme effort to banish what is considered an undeserved joy.  I still ponder that scene in my mind, uncertain as to its meaning.  Was Fr. Donissan's self-flagellation a response to the devil, or an effect of the devil?  

A few points were, however, strikingly clear.  The first is the incessant attack of the devil upon all of us (but most especially upon those sincerely striving to live a virtuous life).  We must recommit ourselves to pray especially for our priests, for whom the devil especially harbors deep hatred.  In Under Satan's Sun, Bernanos has the devil refer to priests as "stupid little tabernacles of Jesus Christ."  They are alter Christus and they need our prayers.

Bernanos, in the character of Fr. Donnisan, gives the image of the spiritual soldier--incessantly attacked, sometimes wounded, but carrying the weapon that, through God's grace, will lead to victory.

"For the first time the saint of Lumbres heard, saw, and touched the being that was to be his shameful companion for the rest of his harsh life...tense with horror, his eyes closed as if to concentrate his strength within him, striving to avoid any pointless exertion, with his will drawn out like a sword from a scabbard, strove to go beyond his anguish."