A Reflection on
The Diary of a Country Priest
It’s risky to begin a novel that way – so humdrum, almost cynical, without delicacy or poetry. The Diary of a Country Priest is a novel submerged in ordinary life. One sees a nameless priest walking the muddy French roads through the village. One feels the squish of mud under his boots, the damp and drizzling rain. The priest is a young man, an introvert, not physically strong and not quite healthy. His parish is, in his own words, covered with “boredom” as with fine dust.
There is nothing attractive or enchanting about this village, this priest, or this novel. And that is precisely its glory. I can’t explain why, when I reread this book, I occasionally get tears in my eyes, or an ache in my chest. But hidden within the pages of this book is an overwhelming sense of the world as a gift.
Published in 1936 as Journal d’un curé de campagne, The Diary of a Country Priest was written by Georges Bernanos in 1936. Bernanos, a soldier in WWI and political activist, had grown discontent with his nation’s spiritual apathy, and spoke out strongly against fascism and the nascent National Socialist movement. This book was born out of his search for something more.
It is a commonplace that in order for a novel to “work,” we need uncomplicated conflict – we need good and evil exploding as they come into contact. The Diary defies such easy combustion: on the first page of the novel, the priest makes the suggestion that good and evil “lie one over the other; like oil and water they never mix.”
From this starting point, we are given a series of diary entries, written by this country priest. He chronicles conversations, walks, prayers. Men and women and children, priests and doctors and local nobles, come in and out of his life, patronizing him, mocking him, arguing with him, occasionally encouraging him or confessing to him.
It is no great spoiler to say that good does not triumph over evil in this novel. The sins of this country parish are so commonplace (in both senses) as to completely saturate the life of the priest’s flock. Moreover, this priest is guileless (and knows it), with no charisma, no eloquence, and no “management expertise.” Both he and his parish know this. While he can (and does, beautifully) minister to a few, most people neither need him nor want him around.
And so in The Diary, nothing much happens. The conflict is not good versus evil, but rather “boredom” versus faith: the choice either to take for granted a world of habitual vice, moral compromise, and creeping death, or the choice to open yourself to love. And this conflict takes place in the pages of this diary – a diary kept with some misgivings.
The interior life of this priest is what makes this book so painful at times. One feels the weight of the world – the whole unbelieving world – bowing down the shoulders of the country priest. And you may not find him very likable at first – as I said before, he is a quiet introvert, unprepossessing in public and unflinchingly self-critical in his private diary confessions. Some may find the self-examination excessive, while others may find that, for all his articulacy, the main character is, well, rather thin. Bernanos walks a fine line here, and I think he succeeds. There is a special way where the voice soars free of its introspection and flies toward an incredible hope.
Though the curate’s private reflections on unbelief and the power of death may sound despairing, the despair itself echoes and re-echoes up through these pages, and reaches something higher. “How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget,” he writes. “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.”
One character in this novel, a priest both experienced and worldly, confides in the narrator that “if only they’d let us have our way, the Church might have given men that supreme comfort . . . man would have known he was the son of God.” In a turn that transcends irony, it is only by embracing his mortality and his doubt that the country priest finds himself free to be a child of God. The early church father Irenaeus once wrote that “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” The Diary makes a marvelous paradox from these words: in facing death and taking up the cross, we human beings are most fully alive, and the glory of God shines brightest. Sin and death is but the reflected image of grace and life. “For now we see through a glass darkly…”
Yesterday, as I wrote this review, I ran into a dear friend, and we got to talking about texts. My friend has an idea: there is only one human story, and all texts are only bits and pieces of this one. The full story has yet to be written. This idea fills me with incredible gratitude – what a gift, to be part of this human story.
If such a story is to be written (and I share the hope that it will), The Diary of a Country Priest will have a place in it. These pages communicate the same sense of gift, locating itself in the story of a human being who may be a saint, and who is more like Jesus of Nazareth than he knows. There is something universal in these pages that will reach the reader who, regardless of faith, is willing to listen. I’ll leave you with this. Having read the book, I can never re-read it without hearing the priest’s final words:
“Grace is everywhere.”
Postscript: There is a famous film of the book by Robert Bresson, which has been praised to the heavens by most critics. While I have not seen it, the film seems to be a faithful adaptation.
I’ve also been informed that the only available English translation is inferior. What a terrific impetus to learn French! But that will not stop me re-reading in the meantime, and should not stop first-time readers from plunging in. The spirit of the book is not diminished in translation. If I may quote the confessions of another priest, tolle lege – take and read!
Joe Krall is an ERB intern this summer, and a senior at The University of Indianapolis.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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