Friday, May 8, 2015

Lessons from The Diary of a Country Priest

It is here that the idea of this diary first occurred to me, and I don't feel I could have thought of it anywhere else.  In this country of woods and pastures, streaked with quickset hedges and all grown over by apple-trees, it would be hard to find such another place from which to overlook the whole village, gathered together, as it were, in the palm of a hand.  I look down, but it never seems to look back at me.  Rather does it turn away, cat-like, watching me askance with half-shut eyes.  What does it want of me?  Does it even want anything?...Whatever I were to do, were I to pour out my last drop of blood (and indeed sometimes I fancy the village has nailed me up here on a cross and is at least watching me die) I could never possess it. 

Georges Bernanos wrote The Diary of a Country Priest in 1936, ten years after publishing Under Satan's Sun.  The first book was well-received; the second, even more so--it was the winner of the Academie Francaise's Grand Prix du Roman.  

The novels share many similarities.  The protagonist in both is a young, awkward, unassuming priest who self-sacrifices on behalf of his parishioners.  But I think what primarily sets this novel apart from Bernano's first work is its format.  As a diary, it's a much more intimate, introspective work.  In many ways, it served as a kind of spiritual reading for me.  

Plot takes a back seat in The Diary of a Country Priest.  It is the unnamed priest's struggles, reflections, thoughts, and prayers that fill the pages, frequently in a scattered, seemingly haphazard manner--snapshots of life.  There are several people with whom he interacts and their dialogue is reported at length, but for most of the book, these separate strands of interaction seem unrelated and unresolved.  

Reading the diary is entering into the mind and heart of this priest who sets out to report as candidly and truthfully as possible.  This is unedited, full-disclosure, the opening of one's soul.  The priest writes that, "Petty lies can slowly form a crust around the consciousness, of evasion and subterfuge."  This diary works at combatting the habit we all have of proudly inflating our notion of self-worth.  

The very reality of a diary is the intimate sharing of one's story and person.  But this isn't just any person; it is the diary of a priest, and that does make for a difference.  A priest is someone set apart, marked by the Lord as one of His holy ministers.  A priest is another Christ, Christ Himself even.  The dignity and the demand of that vocation shine through the writing in the diary.  

The author of the diary is a guardian of souls and he has an intimate relationship with his parish.

This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last, since I ask no better than to die here.  My parish!  The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love...But as yet the idea behind them is so confused.  I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction, but a living cell of the everlasting Church.  But if only the good God would open my eyes and unseal my ears, so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice. 

His love for his flock is ardent, but the fervency of his devotion and attachment is far from reciprocated.  The parishioners are lethargic in spirit with a boredom that is rotting their souls.  The priest feels that though he would pour out his blood for his people, he will never possess them.  It is the thirst of Christ on the cross, thirsting for love that will satiate His Sacred Heart.  When a young child remarks on the sadness on the priest's face, present even when smiling, he responds, "I'm sad because God isn't loved enough."

The task is daunting, but the priest commits himself to visiting every family in his parish, traversing the French countryside to make his calls.  He encounters lust, hatred of God, denial of God, sin in its myriad of ugly forms.  

A priest can't shrink from sores any more than a doctor.  He must be able to look a pus and wounds and gangrene.  All the wounds of the soul give out pus...

Like Christ, the priest takes the wounds of the people upon himself.  The spiritual illness that is killing their souls metaphorically becomes the stomach cancer that is threatening their pastor's life.  The priest's diet is reduced to a meaningful bread and wine (heartless rumors begin to spread that he is a drunkard) and as his diary progresses, death looms before him.

Still, the priest continues with his work.  First impressions are not favorable: he is sickly appearing, impoverished in dress, his cassock even at times covered with dried blood.  His social graces are lacking.  When engaged in a discussion with an atheist doctor who expounds the reasons for unbelief, the priest is left speechless, uncertain how and what to respond.  

...what could I have said?  I am no philosopher--Deity's mouthpiece, I am the servant of Jesus Christ.  And I fear the only defense which would have sprung to my lips would have been powerful in one way, is yet so weak in another that I have long been convinced by it, yet never really at peace.  There is no Peace save in Jesus.

Walking through a dark night of the soul, the priest has no inner peace, but devotes himself to bringing peace and prayer to his people.  Bernanos modeled his country priest after St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower who also suffered a night of faith.  

The same solitude, the same silence.  And no hope this time of forcing or turning away the obstacle.  Besides, there isn't any obstacle.  Nothing.  God!  I breathe, I inhale the night, the night is entering into me by some inconceivable, unimaginable gap in my soul.  I, myself, am the night. 

St. Therese also kept a diary, which contains a treasury of spiritual wisdom.  She wrote of her Little Way, the simple and childlike way of drawing near to God.  The country priest is, at his core, an innocent.  He is unassuming and unpretentious--so lowly, in fact, that Bernanos never gives him a name.  He walks Therese's Little Way.

Though the country priest abases himself, it is this seeming incapability and insufficiency that make him strong.  There is great power in simplicity.  When one stands at the lowest rung of the ladder, there is no where else to go--there is, therefore, a great freedom in expression.  When you can't be thought any less than you already are, speaking the truth to another cannot harm you.   

“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.”

As the country priest notes in his diary, it is precisely God's simplicity that damned Satan.  Similarly, Our Lady, Mother of all grace, is "our little youngest sister" in her great innocence.

Whether all of the priest's evangelizing is fruitful is uncertain.  But there are conversions that God works through his hands--souls are saved through his simple, truthful intervention.

In the end, even the priest's death is simple.  

What I had believed was so far away, beyond imaginary seas, stood out before me.  My death is here.  A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feelings of a very commonplace, very ordinary man.  It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life.  I shall be just as clumsy and awkward.  So often have I been told to be 'simple.'  I do my best.  It is so hard to be simple.  Worldly man talk of "simple people" as they do of "humble people," with the same indulgent smile.  But they should speak of them as of kings.

His struggle between despair and hope ceases with joy, with a simple but profound acclamation of St. Therese's, affirming light even in the darkest of places: "Grace is everywhere."

The Diary of a Country Priest is a story of a soul--a priest's soul.  It's an apt reminder to pray for our priests.  Satan attacks them with a particular fury.  Bernanos writes in his book, "The mediocre priest is ugly."  Let us pray, therefore, that every priest be made beautiful in the passionate love of Christ, which thirsts for souls.

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