I return to The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos, (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936) perennially at Easter time. Like Endo’s Silence, it reveals candidly a priest’s suffering and struggles in the midst of a harsh and unwelcome world. Unlike Silence though, light shines through the cracks more warmly. Power through weakness, life conquering death, the essence of Easter.
A young priest comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, filled with humble hopes. 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 inexperience 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 in materials parallels the frailty of his body to take in solid food. None of these though can compare to the sufferings in his spirit. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane, 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 poignant endings of all the films that I’ve seen:
“All is grace.”
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
English Edition of 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.
The Film Review of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951).
Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time
9 thoughts on “Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos”
All is grace, indeed. There’s little more that needs to be said. If we come to understand that, in even the smallest measure, we’re blessed, indeed. A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you, Arti.
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Thanks for your thoughts, especially this line: “in even the smallest measure, we’re blessed” Have to learn to be more sensitive to those moments. They are what Flannery O’Connor called: ‘Intrusions of grace’. Don’t we need such intrusions even more these days.
I know you have written of this before, have you not? Yet this time it seems to resonate with far greater power. Yes, all IS grace.
To you and your family, a beautiful Easter Week.
You’ve brought out a point which I totally agree. Good books and movies, Revisits often bring new insights. Happy Easter to you and yours!
So much depth hidden behind such a benign title. Thank you for this review, Arti. And may we remember this grace as we celebrate Resurrection Day.
Happy Easter to you too and thanks for stopping by the Pond. BTW, it’s snowing for us these few days. Spring comes late this year, but Easter always has its power, regardless of the weather. 🙂
So wonderful you have a book that resonates with you that you can return to it again and again. One of the marvelous things about reading!
Yes this one is a classic. On another note, are you aware there’s a MSP Int. Film Festival April 13 – 29. Here’s their Website. I’ve reviewed some films for AAPress, the online paper I write for. You should check out the lineup since it’s right in the Twin Cities.
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Thanks Arti! I’ll check that out 🙂