CLASSIC CATHOLIC BOOK
Diary of a Country Priest
BY GEORGES BERNANOS
An earlier writer of this column, discussing Georges Bernanos’s Under Satan’s Sun, concluded that its author was “obsessed by evil”. I disagree. Bernanos simply sees the human soul stripped of all its worldly masks and postures. He recognises therein the terrifying mystery of malice and its enduring battle with its opposite: goodness.
He reminds me of Van Gogh; like the Dutch painter, the writer was plagued by poverty (he worked, improbably, as an insurance salesman for a time) and then enjoyed a brief, 10-year period of creativity; again, like Van Gogh, he communicates a vision of life that is luminous, intense and disturbing.
In this novel, his most famous work, Bernanos explores the nature of holiness through the person of a young priest as he tries to arouse the sluggish, scheming members of his small rural parish in northern France.
The priest is already mortally ill with stomach cancer, though he does not know it; he struggles with loneliness, scruples and discouragement in the face of contempt, gossip and rebuffs as he goes about his priestly work. The reader comes to understand that holiness is humility, a humility constantly ambushed by pride.
There is also anguish, the fear of abandonment by God: “Sometimes I fancy the village has nailed me up here on a cross.” All this is recorded in the diary – “the very simple, trivial secrets of a very ordinary kind of life”.
There are vivid portraits of the young priest’s associates: Dr Delbende, the local doctor, an atheist in search of God; the Canon de Torcy, his mentor, who informs him that “a true priest is never loved”; the Comtesse at the château who hates God for the death of her only son, yet who dies at peace after “that fight for eternal life from which she emerged exhausted, victorious”.
The priest poignantly discovers two friends in the days before his death: M Olivier, a soldier, who gives him an exhilarating ride on his motorbike, and Dr Laville, addicted to morphine, who diagnoses his illness.
All Bernanos’s characters are charged with grandeur, despite their weakness or misery.
As Canon de Torcy remarks: “The world is full of angels.” “Grace is everywhere” are the dying man’s last words.
I have read this novel many times and never cease to discover new things in it; indeed, along with the Bible and Shakespeare, it is the single book I would take to a desert island.