Diary of A Country Priest: A Book for Easter

Every year around this time, I come back to my perennial read The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos(Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936). In this book, I find the essence of Easter.

A young preist comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, full of humble ideals. All he wants is to serve the people, to give of himself, to bring God’s love. But as soon as he sets foot in the village, he is engulfed by hatred and rejection. There are dark secrets too sinister to be exposed. The young priest is an unwelcome alien. In a town afflicted by hypocrisy, pride, anger and bitterness, he is despised, taunted and ridiculed. His own innocence is no match even for the children in his catechism class, especially the precocious Seraphitas, a girl ‘with a hardness far beyond her years.’

Ambricourt is a world afflicted by the ‘leprosy of boredom’, a microcosm of the human condition. Bernanos uses diseases to illustrate his point well. The young priest himself is being slowly consumed by terminal illness. The pain in his stomach ultimately defeats his body, cancer. His diet consists mainly of bread dipped in wine which he makes for himself, and some potato soup. Poverty of means, but also frailty of body to take in solid food. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsamane, pleading for strength in anguish. But he faithfully presses on, using his diary to confide his deepest thoughts, a means to commune with his God.

On the outskirt of Ambricourt is the Château of the powerful M. le Comte. The Count needs no priest to know about his adulterous affairs, this time, with the governess Mlle Louise. His wife Mme la Comtesse is totally absorbed by her long-held bitterness and grief from the loss of her young son. And his daughter Mlle Chantal is a deeply disturbed girl eaten up by anger and jealousy. Soon, she will be sent away to England, a most convenient plan devised by her father.

It is with this deep mess of a family that the young priest finds himself entangled. The most intense scene of the whole book, the climatic moment, comes when the priest goes to the Château to meet with Mme la Comtesse. She lost her beloved son when he was only eighteen months old, a child hated by his jealous older sister Chantal.

On his last day they went out for a walk together. When they came back my boy was dead.

Mme la Comtesse is fully engulfed by hatred for her daughter, grief for her lost son, and bitterness towards God.

Hearing her speak, a tear flows down the face of the young priest. “Hell is not to love any more, madame.” The young priest responds. And with miraculous strength, he delivers the following words.

… But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.

Towards the end of some soul piercing exchanges, Mme la Comtesse kneels down, releases her pain, and receives blessings from the young priest. Afterwards, she writes to him in a letter:

… I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again…

And this young child, a priest, consumed by illness, wreaked by frailty of spirit, can only marvel at the power through weakness:

Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Not long after this, he succumbs to his illness. A life too short, a mission seems unaccomplished. But his last words faintly uttered on his deathbed are as powerful as the God who sends him:

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere…

And in the film, these three words leave me with one of the most impressive endings of all the films that I’ve seen:

“All is grace.”

 ***

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to read my film review of The Diary of a Country Priest.

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, translated by Pamela Morris, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 1965, 298 pages.

Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936, was winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review.

23 thoughts on “Diary of A Country Priest: A Book for Easter”

  1. Oh, Arti — this is a book I do not know. I think it is one I must discover. I eagerly await your comments on the film adaptation.

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    1. Jeanie,

      One critic called Georges Bernanos “one of twentieth century France’s greatest novelist and most incisive polemicists.” I highly recommend this book… not just for Easter, but for all seasons. 😉

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    1. Diane,

      I think it’s absolutely right for the Easter weekend. Hope you can get hold of a copy. Like to hear from you after you’ve read it. 😉

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  2. “Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!””

    ‘Tis true, the other way, too, I suppose — i.e, to be able to receive what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands…

    Empty hands waiting to receive and pass along — sweet grace — from the hands of Bernanos to yours to mine. I like it. I wasn’t familiar with this book — or the movie adaption. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Easter, to you and yours, a few days early…

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    1. Janell,

      The book is so rich, best to experience it. In a post, I could only pick the scene that moved me most. I only discovered this book in recent years. Every Easter, I reread or skim through it, and, read all the underlined passages and my notes on the margin. I’m sure you’ll have lots to underline too.

      Have A Happy Easter, Jannell, you and yours!

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  3. I am always surprised to find that there is a book that sounds just perfect that I didn’t know/hadn’t heard of…and part of its joy is the search to find it. And so I promise myself that if I get the kitchen cleaned and the laundry done and the Easter table set, I can run over to the library or bookstore in search of this treasure you share herein.
    What a great thing, to have a book friend, to hear of an annual read, to know of a (book) world into which we can walk and get lost.

    Wishing you a beautiful Easter weekend, Arti.
    (and I will also try to get back on Twitter!!!)

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    1. oh,

      Hope you’ll have time to savour it. It needs slow reading, but it’s time well spent. Have a good one with your family. I’m sure that Easter table is one major attraction. And, hope to hear you tweet soon. 😉

      Happy Easter!

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  4. Wow, this sounds like such a powerful book! I love that you love it, and so it shall be added to my reads. (I’m not sure why it reminded me a little, teeny bit of Chocolat when I read your post, although the later would be more trite than this one appears to be. Still, it was a thought provoking book about people’s pain, and issues with faith, around the Easter time.)

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    1. Bellezza,

      I’ve watched Chocolat the movie, and don’t quite remember the role of the priest there. But, no, this is nothing like Chocolat. I chose this book to read at Easter time, but I think it’s good for all seasons. I mean, we don’t have to find the ‘right’ time to ponder upon issues of faith… unfortunately nowadays this has become more an issue of ‘political correctness’.

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    1. Carrie,

      One of the French classics of the early 20th C. written in a period when they could openly discuss matters of God, faith, sin, redemption without having to beat around the bush. Trust you’ll find it inspiring. Have a good week!

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    1. Litlove,

      You’re just too kind. It’s your view that I would highly regard since you had spent time doing your academic research on Bernanos. Sure hope you’d share your insights in a post on your blog. 😉

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    1. JoAnn,

      This is a book for all seasons, I’d say. But not a light read. I pick it for Easter for its thematic relevance. Hope you’ll have a chance to savour it.

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  5. Isn’t it funny? Easter has suffered the same fate as Christmas – being reduced to a day, rather than a season! I read your post before Easter, but had no time over the weekend for it. Thank goodness the long Easter season stretches out before us, and this year I’m going to do a re-read.

    I still remember when I first read this – how powerful it was, and how healing. I’ve peeked at your movie post, of course, and the cinematography looks marvelous. I think this may be one of the best movie-book pairings ever – there is so much depth in the work, it seems unbelievable that only one genre could capture it all.

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    1. Linda,

      Yes, of course, you must have read it before… to general readership, this may be an obscure title. I’m glad the few who have read it did come by and share their views, you and litlove. I always feel a good book/film should not be limited to a particular season… however long it stretches. This is one such title.

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