Holiness comes through humanness, not in opposition to it

Claude Laydu stars in a scene from Robert Bresson's 1951 film "Diary of a Country Priest." (CNS/courtesy of Rialto Pictures)
This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."


The Diary of a Country Priest
by Georges Bernanos
The Thomas More Press, 1983 (originally published 1936)

"Does it matter?" Grace is everywhere…" (Qu'est-ce que cela fait? Tout est grâce).

These are the final words of the Curé d'Ambricourt, a thirty-year-old priest, dying of stomach cancer. He is in Lille to see a doctor. This happens not long after being assigned to his first parish in Ambricourt, a forlorn parish in rural France. He takes his last breath in the dingy apartment of a seminary classmate and former priest, now fallen on hard times. Such is the story of The Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'Un Curé de Campagne) written in 1936 by Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos. These three words — "all is grace" — have echoed in my consciousness, prodding me to plumb the theological and spiritual meaning of the world's holiness — Incarnation — one third of an inseparable trinity of doctrines that includes creation and Holy Spirit.

As a French major in college in the '60s, I first read The Diary in a course on 20th-century French literature. I recall a pall descending on me that term, darkening otherwise cheerful days. Reading Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, André Gide, and François Mauriac was a heavy load for a 20-something. It was also the birth of important questions about the human condition.

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A close re-reading of The Diary undertaken for this essay reminded me of the critical ways in which fiction and poetry inform my theology. Jewish author and critic Cynthia Ozick describes literature's goal: "to light up the least grain of being, to show how it is concretely individual, particularized from any other." The Diary of a Country Priest sheds such light on one particular world, built around Christianity's call to love others and trust in the divine presence in history. The literary conceit of a journal orients us toward the very "stuff" of everyday life, the daily round of concrete events and feelings.

Bernanos's life (1888-1948) was marked by creativity, intense commitment to ideals, and puzzling contradictions. He was a Catholic monarchist, who, until 1920, supported the ultra-nationalist movement, Action Française. In his pro-royalist, impassioned youth, he fought in the streets, manned barricades, and defaced public monuments. He was a crusader in search of a cause worthy of self-sacrifice. Surrounded by the devastation of war, he deplored what he saw as the empty rhetoric of religion and politics. Bernanos was wounded and decorated in World War I. He witnessed from close range the suffering of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Due to financial problems in the '30s, he moved his family to Majorca, Paraguay and then Brazil. After 1940, he spoke out against the evils of totalitarianism and the wealthy Catholics who opted instead for their own social preservation. At de Gaulle's request, Bernanos returned to France in 1945. In much of his writing, he railed against the eclipse of the glories of a Catholic France. He saw secular society — indeed, the church itself — as propagating empty, abstract rhetoric and pseudo-intellectualism, fueled by the illusions of money, science and progress. Lost in the fray was awareness of God's radical incarnational activity in the world. He labelled these developments a kind of reverse incarnation or "disincarnation" — a process against which we must be on guard to this day.

On one level, the story of the Curé is simply depressing. The unnamed Curé ministers to a wretched parish — "miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate November sky" — whose indolence and cruelty provide a sterling argument for original sin. He writes in his journal: "I still do not know my parish and my parish have pretended not to see me;" "Sometimes I fancy the village has nailed me up here on a cross and is at least watching me die." Bernanos compares the aura of boredom in the village to a persistent, cancerous growth, a leprosy of despair, Christianity in decay. The playing field for a cosmic battle between good and evil is level. On page after page Bernanos describes the "thin steady rain which gets sucked in with every breath, which seeps down through the lungs into your belly." Stomach pain and human cruelty relentlessly erode his physical, emotional and spiritual strength.

As an author, Bernanos was drawn to social outsiders, individuals who were not at home in their own skins, much less in society. Shame, self-hate, feelings of inferiority, and suicide are frequent motifs in his fiction. The Curé contrasts his poor peasant upbringing with the social pretensions of his fellow priests. He describes himself as awkward, inept, clumsy, poor of speech — a foolish idiot who never knows what is really going on. He lives in constant, realistic fear of being mocked: "As usual, my inexperience and foolishness, combined with a kind of absurd bad luck, always seem to complicate the simplest matters." By most measuring rods, he was a "loser."

But once again, I was drawn into the compelling, elusive world of Bernanos's art and theology. The novel presses readers to confront the dark underside of humanity in psychological and theological terms. Through the daily struggle to pray and be faithful to self-sacrificing love, and in spite of his tortured self-condemnation, the Curé discovers, and eventually applies to himself, the truth that God wants us to be merciful to ourselves as well as to others. It is hard-won enlightenment. No "cheap grace" here. The final grief for Bernanos is to stand impenitent under the merciful eyes of God.

Bernanos strove to recover the concrete, historical, active, embodied substance of the language of faith and holiness. He saw bourgeois Catholic piety as empty and lukewarm. Instead, he proposed an all-or-nothing commitment to become Christ by loving the "other" — no matter how insignificant or repulsive. Thérèse of Lisieux hovers in the background. In strange, yet compelling ways, The Diary lays out a blueprint for incarnational living — no matter your state in life.   

Bernanos reminds us that through Incarnation, divinity enters the physical, making them one. The Diary chronicles a journey that leads the Curé to a humble embrace of his own humanity. At the end, he reflects: "I have not lost my faith…I have found it again, though not in my poor brain…nor in my feelings, nor even in my conscience. It sometimes seems to me that it has withdrawn, that it lives on in a place where I certainly would not have looked for it, in my flesh, in my miserable flesh, in my blood and in my flesh, in my perishable, but baptized flesh."

The Curé's life is marked from childhood by isolation and estrangement. In spite of his deep suffering, he carries on, often in doubt and confusion, because of his sure, yet elusive, conviction that we are loved by a God who also suffered rejection and loss. Incarnation points him toward community and the world — love, kindness, and respect for everything and everyone. In a transforming dialogue with the Curé, Mme la Comtesse, the wife and mother in a powerful local family, is able to abandon her lifelong resentment and hate of God. She had lost her only son as a child and had never forgiven God for the loss. The Curé convinces her that the state of her soul matters because it affects others for good or ill. He tells her that we could not live if God had given us clear knowledge of how closely bound we are to one another in good and evil. The Christian vocation to love is a universally inclusive community affair. His flirtations with despair alert him to the true meaning of hell, which is to give up on love. And so he chooses love — over and over again — in daily concrete ways in the face of pain, rejection, and despair.

Bernanos lamented that the church had lost its way, abandoning the trenches of everyday life for abstract empty words devoid of concrete embodiment. For him, the ideal church is not afraid of sin (her own or that of others) but takes it upon herself as Christ did. The church's central work is to preach the miracle that everyone is a blessed child of God; to keep the soul of childhood alive by offering — for free — joy, candor and the freshness of youth. The risen Lord is "a marvelous and living friend, who suffers our pain, takes joy in our happiness, will share our last hour and receive us into His arms, upon His heart." The real tragedy of sin and evil lies in ignorance of this one essential reality of the Christian life. The childlike Curé looked forward to teaching catechism to the children. It was a setting in which he hoped to be able to be himself and speak honestly of God and joy. But the children are already filled with cynicism and malice. For them, love was something to ridicule. They play cruel jokes on him rank with sexual innuendo. And yet he is incapable of responding in kind and refuses to give up on them.

The Diary of a Country Priest was conceived and created by a French artist, in a pre-Vatican II world. It was a world in which the meaning of clergy, laity, church and holiness was markedly different from our own. On the surface, it is not a book likely to resonate with the twenty-first-century American Church. The dark world of Ambricourt is calculated to baffle and shock (as was Flannery O'Connor's). But by painting evil in its quiet, depraved starkness, Bernanos lifts up the sheer power of God-with-us in the ordinary and extraordinary events of life; the alarming call to become other Christs; the possibility of genuine trust and hope rooted in divine presence. The story is an antidote to cynicism. It is a reminder of the childhood gifts of simplicity and trust. It opens a window onto the difficult, beautiful, elusive presence of grace in the concrete, physical, "real" world.

In The Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos imagines the Christian life as a story of innocence and vulnerability; death and loss; fidelity to loving action; and surrender to good so that evil might be transformed. While I would not have shared Bernanos's politics, I am moved and enlightened by his theology — in Christ humanity becomes the essence and vehicle of divinity. The Diary of a Country Priest is more than a carefully wrought work of art, a probing analysis of human psychology, or a moving, life-out-of-death meditation on the cross — although these it certainly is. It is, above all, a novel about the mysticism of everyday life. It is a reminder that holiness comes through our humanness not in opposition to it. Flesh as well as spirit is made glorious in Christ. The Diary of a Country Priest is an important way station on the road to ever more radical understandings of Incarnation. "All is grace."  

[Elizabeth A. Dreyer is professor emerita, Fairfield University, and adjunct professor, Hartford Seminary. She recently served as general editor for the eight-volume series Called To Holiness: Spirituality for Catholic Women. She wrote the inaugural volume for the series, Making Sense of God: A Woman's Perspective.]


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