Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

Literature is sometimes thought of as a treat, as a dessert, as a delicacy. The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, is instead like a carrot, eaten whole, raw, and unwashed. But as a wise priest says in the book, “Man can’t live on jam.”  This book is a book that can be lived on, however hard it is to digest. Healthy digestion is an apt metaphor for reading this book, a book that is grittily earthy and profoundly spiritual at once, a book that may strike one as crude and even crass, but only because it is following one implication of the Incarnation—an idea, in the eyes of the World, crude and crass. The book further helps us to “digest” the modern world as a Catholic, and to experience some foretaste of heaven in the very ugliness and sorrow that makes this world a veil of tears.

Georges_BernanosIt might seem at first to be a devil’s parody of a nice Catholic novel. The children are afflicted with lust. The peasants are envious and worldly. The servant is prideful. A noblewoman who is outwardly pious secretly plots her revenge against God. The Catholic Church in France of this time (the 1930s) is riddled with careerism, worldliness, and complacency. Yet under all the seeming appearances the work of God finds a way to fulfillment through the weak vessel of a country priest.

Just as his circumstances do not appear to be promising soil for holiness, the “country priest” does not seem to be a saint. He is an unattractive man, with little personal charm, from a low background. He relentlessly analyzes his faults, his tendency to sentimentality, his emotional weakness, and his frequent social blunders. The way in which he keeps his diary might at first repel the reader as something neurotic and self-centered. The country priest is a timid soul, terrified by the experience of his dark night. His perceived inability to pray, his emotional weakness, and his ineffectiveness in the care of souls torment him. Yet as the book continues, one detects hints that this man has shares something with Isaiah’s “worm among men,” “one despised and rejected by men,” a “man of sorrows”—a priest whose suffering brings peace to his little flock.

A key to our reading comes by observing the confidante of the protagonist, the Curé de Torcy, a priest in a nearby village. Guiding the country priest through his difficulties and apparent failures, he is always prepared to point out one of the main themes of the book: that service to God is often experienced as mundane, work-a-day, unfulfilling. “You [should] see a thing without setting it to music, and so there’s no risk of making a great song and dance about it for oneself alone. If ever you glimpse the passing truth, take a good look at her, so as to be quite sure you’ll know her again; but don’t expect her to make eyes at you.” The reader proceeds to realize that these are not empty pious words but the fruit of meditation, meditation on a long life of suffering, a life which his young friend will mirror in a certain way.

While this book could be described as a chronicle of suffering, the fruit which its narrative calls for joyful hope in God’s providence. As de Torcy says, “the opposite of a Christian people is a people grown old and sad.” Children who are “old and sad” spiritually are precocious in sin. The poor who are “old and sad” in spirit are envious of the kingdom of this world, rather than possessors of the kingdom of heaven. Catholics, even Catholics who claim to be orthodox, may take an “old and sad” stance toward the world, refusing to hope that under its sinfulness, God continues to work in hidden ways.

Indeed, all the good that our country priest does remains hidden, and even then, we do not know how many of the seeds he plants actually flower. The very hidden nature of his work places before us a question that haunts the novel: is not the protagonist himself “old and sad?” Isn’t he a jaded hangdog? Even the prophet Isaiah himself did not clear up such mystery, the mystery which envelopes the dark night of the soul.  Isaiah merely prophesied that God Himself, the fullness of joy and youth, would become the “Man of Sorrows.” The Christian accepts that much of God’s work goes unseen.  Much of His work will be encountered under unpromising, even disgusting appearances.  The country priest, in imitation of this God, bears the infirmities of his flock and does not appear to be working happily in response to his vocation. Their oldness can be observed in their sharp dealings, and their sadness in their in the malice they hold towards others.  Yet we must not fail to wonder at their parish priest, so worn and so troubled, yet still possessing deep down the essential quality of his soul: joy.

Paul Joseph Prezzia

By

Paul Joseph Prezzia is a citizen of Pittsburgh and a graduate of St. Gregory's Academy, class of 2002. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now writes in exile from Scranton.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Excellent article that captures th e essence of the book! God is always most hidden and mysterious, doing good quietly, almost anonymously. His followers and saints know that doing good is most humdrum, most unspectacular, and most humble–like a tiny buried seed in the soil that burst forth to amaze at some unexpected moment.

  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Thank you for the great article, Paul. I read the book several years ago and enjoyed it but I remember thinking that it merited a re-read. Your article has provided the inspiration to finally do it.

  • poetcomic1

    Why in heavens name has there not been a new and accurate translation of this masterpiece? The Morris translation is a travesty of both the text and style of the original.

  • Fritz Freleng

    I’m with Mr. Fitzpatrick–I have had it on my shelf for years, so now I will try to read it. Thanks!

  • Mary Keane

    I am not familiar with this book but I now want to read it and get to know this country priest! It sounds like a book for a housewife bogged down in the mundane work-a-day duties of my state in life.

  • Clare

    This sounds like a great read for someone (me) who keeps getting discouraged by the everyday dealings in the quest for knowledge of their vocation. Thank you for the excellent review!

  • Gail Finke

    “…is not the protagonist himself “old and sad?” Isn’t he a jaded hangdog?” That was not the impression I had of this book, which I really liked when I read it a few years ago. To me, it seemed evident from the beginning that the country priest was holy and the only person who was willing (at least at first) to actually LIVE what he professed to believe. He was sad when it didn’t seem to help, disturbed at the extent of evil in the world, and critical of his own inability to do what he attempted, but I never thought he seemed spiritually old or jaded — more dismayed at the extent and power of evil in the world and his own seeming powerlessness. I thought the plot was excellent in that it showed a lot of different kinds of sins and justifications for them, while still being a novel about people and not a didactic “this is one kind of sin, this is another kind of sin, this is a person who sins but pretends to himself he is good” type of story too common in contemporary popular “Christian” fiction and films. Bernanos did an excellent job, I thought, portraying evil and good found in unexpected people and places. I recommend it!

  • Rose

    This is an awesome review! I think that this might (just like your review of David Copperfeild!) inspire me to read another classic! 🙂

  • Martin Snigg

    Two greats in one large book – highly recommend ‘Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence’ by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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  • XYZ Studies Alum

    For Bernanos fans, check out Michael Tobin’s Georges Bernanos: The Theological Source of His Art (2007)

  • steve

    “does it matter…Grace is everywhere”

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