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.
It 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.
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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.