Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Georges Bernanos: The Diary of a Country Priest

The French author Georges Bernanos (20 February 1888 – 5 July 1948) was sharply critical of modern society and its inroads into personal liberty. He penned many novels on the subject of good and evil, many with a Catholic theme.

One of his most famous works was Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936)[Diary of a Country Priest] It was made into a film by Robert Bresson in 1951

Five lengthy extracts of the film courtesy of YouTube are below

Diary of a Country Priest
Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

In his diary, the priest records feelings of inferiority and sadness that he cannot express to his parishioners. And as he approaches death the priest's saintliness remains unclear to him, but becomes undeniable to the reader.

"How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity--as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ."

Rachel Murphy in Catholic Fiction discussed the novel in detail with its particular emphasis on the doctrine of St Therese of Lisieux

She writes;

"[The priest`s] actions show how deeply his heart reaches for others, how deeply it loves. Without consideration for himself or others’ perceptions, he tries to bring comfort to the lost sheep, even when he feels nothing reciprocated. And, when there is finally a spark, a conversion, it is radiant, as in the passage about Madame la Comtesse, after her death:

‘Be at peace,’ I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it for ever. It will be I that gave it her. O miracle—thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever was given back to her by God…Lord, I am stripped bare of all things, as you alone can strip us bare, whose fearful care nothing escapes, nor your terrible love! I lifted the muslin from her face, and stroked her high, pure forehead, full of silence. And poor as I am, an insignificant little priest, looking upon this woman only yesterday so far my superior in age, birth, fortune, intellect, I still knew—yes, knew—what fatherhood means.

It is the Curé’s simplicity, his dauntless truth-telling in spite of feeling his immense powerlessness and insufficiency, that unwittingly provokes a deep response in those with whom he is in contact—the readers of his diary included.

“Your simplicity,” Monsieur le Comte says perceptively, “is a kind of flame which scorches them. You go through the world with that lowly smile of yours as though you begged the world their pardon for being alive, while all the time you carry a torch which you seem to mistake for a crozier.”

There is a beautiful passage in The Diary where Bernanos speaks through the character of M. le Cure de Torcy about the Virgin Mary:

"She is our Mother, the mother of all flesh, a new Eve. But she is also our daughter. The ancient world of sorrow, the world before the access of grace, cradled her to its very heart for many centuries, dimly awaiting a virgo genetrix. For centuries and centuries those ancient hands, so full of sin, cherished the wondrous girl-child whose name even was unknown. A little girl, the queen of the angels! And she's still a little girl, remember! . . .

The simplicity of God, that terrible simplicity which damned the pride of the angels. Our Lady knew neither triumph nor miracle. Her Son preserved her from the least tip-touch of the savage wing of human glory. No one has ever lived, suffered, died in such simplicity, in such deep ignorance of her own dignity....

For she was born without sin—in what amazing isolation! A pool so clear, so pure, that even her own image—created only for the sacred joy of the Father—was not to be reflected. The Virgin was Innocence ....

The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sorrow . . . they are not indulgent for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience—they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a Mother by grace, mother of all graces, our little youngest sister."

Others have found inspiration in the writings of Bernanos. In February 2009, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, in an address at the University of Toronto said:

"Seventy years ago the great French writer Georges Bernanos published a little essay called "Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Théresè."

Bernanos had a deep distrust for politics and an equally deep love for the Catholic Church. He could be brutally candid. He disliked both the right and the left. He also had a piercing sense of irony about the comfortable, the self-satisfied and the lukewarm who postured themselves as Catholic -- whether they were laypeople or clergy.

In his essay he imagined "what any decent agnostic of average intelligence might say, if by some impossible chance the [pastor] were to let him stand awhile in the pulpit [on] the day consecrated to St. Théresè of Lisieux."

"Dear brothers," says the agnostic from the pulpit, "many unbelievers are not as hardened as you imagine. … [But when] we seek [Christ] now, in this world, it is you we find, and only you. … It is you Christians who participate in divinity, as your liturgy proclaims; it is you ‘divine men' who ever since [Christ's] ascension have been his representatives on earth. … You are the salt of the earth. [So if] the world loses its flavor, who is it I should blame? … The New Testament is eternally young. It is you who are so old. … Because you do not live your faith, your faith has ceased to be a living thing."

Bernanos had little use for the learned, the proud or the superficially religious. He believed instead in the little flowers -- the Thérèse of Lisieuxs -- that sustain the Church and convert the world by the purity, simplicity, innocence and zeal of their faith.

That kind of faith is a gift. But it's a gift each of us can ask for, and each of us will receive, if we just have the courage to choose it and then act on it. The only people who ever really change the world are saints. Each of us can be one of them. But we need to want it, and then follow the path that comes with it.

Bernanos once wrote that the optimism of the modern world, including its "politics of hope," is like whistling past a graveyard.

It's a cheap substitute for real hope and "a sly form of selfishness, a method of isolating [ourselves] from the unhappiness of others" by thinking progressive thoughts.

Real hope "must be won. [We] can only attain hope through truth, at the cost of great effort and long patience. … Hope is a virtue, virtus, strength; an heroic determination of the soul. [And] the highest form of hope is despair overcome."

Anyone who hasn't noticed the despair in the world should probably go back to sleep. The word "hope" on a campaign poster may give us a little thrill of righteousness, but the world will still be a wreck when the drug wears off.

We can only attain hope through truth. And what that means is this: From the moment Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life," the most important political statement anyone can make is "Jesus Christ is Lord."

We serve Caesar best by serving God first. We honor our nation best by living our Catholic faith honestly and vigorously, and bringing it without apology into the public square and its debates. We're citizens of heaven first. But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so the glory and irony of the Christian life is this: The more faithfully we love God, the more truly we serve the world."

For more about Bernanos and The Diary of a Country Priest you might want to listen to a podcast on EWTN`s site of a discussion between Fr. John C. McCloskey with Dr. Ralph McInerny on the novel at here (Number 9)


  1. A fascinating paper.
    I love reading your writing
    I got a lot of input
    thanks and encouragement to keep writing.

  2. A fascinating paper.
    I love reading your writing
    I got a lot of input
    thanks and encouragement to keep writing.