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Living According to the Gospels in a Hostile, Materialistic Community

January 19, 2002|NICK OWCHAR

THE DIARY OF

A COUNTRY PRIEST

A Novel

By Georges Bernanos

Translated from the

French by Pamela Morris

Carroll & Graf

$14, 298 pages, paper

*

French novelist Georges Bernanos was obsessed with the ways in which science and capitalism challenged the Catholic Church in the early 20th century. He wrote about these enormous issues not in epic novels with casts of thousands, but in terms of the private crises of individuals.

Of all his books, it was his third novel, in 1936, "The Diary of a Country Priest," that captivated readers (and inspired a film by Robert Bresson) with its story of a sickly young priest in charge of a gossipy, hardhearted parish in the French countryside.

A reissue of Bernanos' splendid story invites new readers to witness the priest's efforts to live according to the Gospels in a hostile, materialistic community; it may even offer hope to people who face similar struggles.

"It would be hard to find such another place from which to overlook the whole village, gathered together, as it were, in the palm of a hand," he writes from a hilltop. "I look down, but it never seems to look back at me. Rather does it turn away, cat-like, watching me askance with half-shut eyes. What does it want of me? Does it even want anything of me?"

Viewed through his young, inexperienced eyes, the parish of Ambricourt is rife with behavior not unlike ours. The people are just as vain and secretive; hatreds arise from the same private traumas that today, thanks to shock TV, are made grotesquely public.

And for Bernanos, the devil and his minions are present, though he doesn't write about bat-winged ghouls or spirits. It's their sinful power that is visible. People are bitterly cynical, delighted by scandal. (When the priest faints on a country lane, a rumor spreads that he's an alcoholic, though we later learn that it's caused by a tumor.)

On his daily rounds, the priest notes how the taunting faces of catechism students look "hard and avid." The grocer tricks him into buying expensive wine without a pang of guilt; such small acts of lying, he reflects, "can form a crust around the consciousness."

In answer to such displays of contempt, the priest is compassionate, reserved and nonjudgmental. He even forgives Chantal, the rebellious spoiled daughter of the count and countess, writing how her angry, tear-streaked face has an "almost unusual, almost alarming nobility of expression [bearing] witness to the power of evil."

"I shouldn't think there's another softy like you in the entire diocese," his friend, the Cure de Torcy, tells him. "Really, His Grace must have been very hard up for priests to have given you the handling of the parish. Luckily a parish is solid enough--or you might break it."

And yet, Bernanos wants us to value the priest's soft, generous nature. He is full of innocence, which troubles his colleagues who urge him to be tougher.

In some ways, "Diary" is a failed novel of education, a genre in which various figures share their wisdom with an idealistic young man.

Here, those figures offer only cynical or desperate philosophies of life that pale beside the priest's burning piety. Torcy is too pragmatic, too jaded, while the diocesan dean is more concerned about what our day calls "spin." Monologues of a young soldier and the priest's old friend, a defrocked priest, are poignant examples of modern stoicism and despair. And yet, for all these speeches, "Diary" never bogs down.

There is great suspense when the priest confronts the haughty countess about Chantal. His firm but gentle questioning chips away at her defenses until she reveals the painful secret that has poisoned her and her family's emotional life.

The reader also watches the priest's own illness and, as he nears death, hopes for a small miracle that never comes.

Novelist Remy Rougeau's introduction emphasizes the book's continuing relevance. What might shock modern readers is the way in which this priest cultivates humiliation and innocence.

Most of us would assume that these qualities must be overcome, not welcomed, to be successful. And this, perhaps, is why Bernanos' tale is needed more now than ever.

"Ours is an age of doctors, lawyers and CEOs who must not appear weak," Rougeau explains. "Americans think themselves capable of nearly anything, certainly of shaping the future. We are not particularly good at recognizing our nothingness in face of the universe."

The priest certainly recognizes his "nothingness," but that doesn't mean his efforts are futile. His sweat is worth a great deal. Bernanos, Rougeau notes, admired St. Therese of Lisieux, a saint probably easier for most of us to understand than, say, Joan of Arc. Therese was the saint of small gestures, of 9-to-5ers like many of us, sweeping halls and quietly dying of tuberculosis.

The church's canonization of her in 1925 signified how God's grace works everywhere, in every corner, even in Ambricourt.

And this is why, as the young priest lies on his deathbed, this vital truth spills from his lips: "Grace is everywhere." That's a balm for people feeling overlooked or forgotten, a solace for any stuck in uncreative jobs; the simplest truths are often the sweetest.

*

Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review.

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