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The Heroic Face of the Innocents

November 15, 2021


We are the Church of the Saints.” This simple declaration is at the crux of two “stories” and one screenplay in The Heroic Face of Innocence (Eerdmans, 1999), written by the late Georges Bernanos. He is the French writer probably best known as the author of the classic book The Diary of a Country Priest. Though Bernanos has been dead for more than half a century, these three compiled pieces exude an undeniable freshness that makes them apropos—if not absolutely filled with urgency—for our time.

From a reflection on the trial of Joan of Arc to an imagined agnostic’s sermon on the feast day of the Little Flower to a play in which a young novice, with the telling name of Blanche de la Force, finally decides to accept the mantle of martyrdom, the heroism here is suffused with innocence. These are three examples of the small, powerful conviction to be felt when one looks into the face of saintly innocence. We can feel no stronger conviction coming from the loud, the large, the imposing; only the heroism of innocence can cut to the heart with such searing precision.

In St. Joan, we find a heroism beyond the traditional image of a young girl arrayed for battle, for the greater sign of heroism here is in her innocence without guile. Her strength when facing those who would try her was in this innocence. We are reminded that “there is not one of us shouldering his burden–his country, his job, his family–not one of us with our grief-worn faces and roughened hands. . . . There is not one who will ever have enough theology to become even a Canon. But we have enough to become saints.”

It is the good people of the Church on the feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who are put on trial by the agnostic: “We are waiting to share with you a gift which you proclaim to be priceless, and we don’t want to know whether God entrusted Himself to you; we want to know what you are doing with Him!” Of the three stories here, all applicable to the Christian of today, it is the truth delivered by the agnostic–who, in a certain sense, is one of the innocents in his own right–that resonates so abruptly as an examination of conscience in 2021. Not only does he challenge the catechesis of the congregation, asking if they would be able to write twenty lines on their patron saints. He challenges them at the core of their Christian lives. “A state of grace . . . are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?”

The Dialogues of the Carmelites, written at the end of Bernanos’ life, is based on the true story of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne. Bernanos introduces a fictional character, Blanche de la Force, a timid aristocrat new to the religious life. Despite her timid nature, she is drawn on by an attraction to the heroic life. None of the tension of this story is lost on the reader, despite the fact that we already know just how heroic Blanche and the other sisters will be called to be. Suspense builds as we follow the ups and downs and of Mlle. de la Force–Sr. Blanche of the Agony of Christ–until the moment when her saintliness shines in the shadow of the guillotine with a white, hot strength.

Small Joan, the Little Flower, and meek Blanche are all innocents whose legacy is a large, living challenge to us. In the words of the agnostic preacher, “The Saint whose festival it is this day will not mind my speaking as a child. For I am but a child grown old and burdened with inexperience, and you haven’t much to fear from me. Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants teribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so urgent and so direct that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.” The agnostic offers no easy challenge. Here there is an offer of grace–but this is no “cheap grace” that he offers the believers.

Our Church is the Church of the saints. Look to this fine volume—with its foreword by the always exceptional Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis—for inspiration from the small, the meek, and the boldly heroic innocents. “Let others look to the spiritual side of things, argue about it, legislate about it; it is the temporal that we hold in both our hands: we hold in both hands the temporal Kingdom of God. We hold the temporal heritage of the saints.” We are indeed the Church of the saints, and those who wear the heroic face of the innocents are examples who are not to be ignored. They are to be studied and emulated as they point us to our heritage. And then perhaps we can answer this question: What is our joy? And where the devil do we hide it?

This piece was originally published on October 24, 2014 on the Word on Fire Blog.