Note:This piece is one of a series on great Catholic fiction writers that I penned for Ligourian Magazine several years ago. My word count limit was - get this - 540 words. Unbelievable. Well, it was good money for the number of words,I'll say that. So if you're annoyed by the brevity of this piece, at least you know why it's so short now. Of course, there is much more to say on this book, as well as the very interesting life of Bernanos himself.
In the late 19th and early 20th century a philosophical perspective called positivism ruled the intellectual climate in France. Positivists like Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte claimed that all one can know about human life is what can be observed and that the laws of behavior and society discerned from these observations should be used to organize human life.
Into this scientifically-based and utterly materialistic mileu stepped, one by one over the decades before and just after the First World War, a group of writers who formed what we now call the French Catholic Literary Revival. Francois Mauriac, Charles Peguy, Julien Green and Leon Bloy rejected positivism and reclaimed a vision of human beings essentially defined, not by scientific law, but rather by our relation to God and struggle with evil. One of the finest writers of this group was George Bernanos, author of Diary of a Country Priest.
Diary of a Country Priest, first published in 1936, is just what the title suggests: the fictional journal of a young curate in rural France. The premise may seem simple, but in Bernanos’ hands it emerges as a rich work in which the reader encounters the injustices of French society, the emptiness of an intellectual system that rejects God, the failure of the Church to fully embody Christ’s love for the poor, and above all, the power of a life dedicated to God.
The young priest whose life absorbs us in this novel has come from a background of poverty through seminary into this, his first parish experience, to which he is utterly dedicated. Besides conducting his sacramental duties, he commits himself to visit every family in his parish. He teaches catechism classes and attempts to organize a club for young men. He visits the sick, buries the dead, lives at a substistence level and is bedeviled by a serious illness that is ultimately diagnosed as stomach cancer, but not before it is mistaken for alchoholism by gossipy villagers.
Aside from these daily ministrations and struggles, Bernanos offers us his view of French church and society through the conversations the priest has with a variety of people, ranging from the atheist physician Delbende, the troubled child Seraphita who spreads rumors about the young priest at every opportunity, the more relaxed older priest de Torcy and most powerfully the deeply wounded local countess, who harbors bitter anger at God for death of her son.
What makes Diary of a Country Priest a novel that is read just as much for its spiritual value as well as its literary quality lies in the complex, realistic life of faith Bernanos constructs for his main character, a faith which stumbles in darkness at times, but is on the whole fervent, selfless and Christlike, even in the hostile reactions it sometimes evokes.
The final touch that heightens the personal drama in the priest’s soul is that he believes himself, if not a total failure, at the very least a terribly poor instrument of God’s grace. But what the reader discerns through the unaffected words is that even as he cannot see it himself, the effect of his witness and suffering on others is profound and powerfully embodies the words he speaks on his own deathbed: “Grace is everywhere…”