To become a saint, what bishop would not give up his ring, his mitre and his crozier; what cardinal his purple; what pope his white robe, his chamberlains, his Swiss Guard and all his temporal power? Who would not want to have the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure; it is indeed the only adventure.
I have seen the devil, as I see you, since my childhood.
Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest has been one of the most influential books I have ever read. And one of the most troubling.
But it didn’t begin that way.
After all, Bernanos’ main character, a priest for the parish of Ambricourt, was young, innocent, and tending to his newly assigned parish in the romantic French countryside. One could almost feel the gentle breeze, smell the freshly baked bread, and hear the crush of loose gravel beneath the Catholic shepherd’s imperfectly polished shoes as, house after ivy-weathered house, he visited his flock. Surely, you would think this was a setting for cheering goodwill and healing sacramental graces, right? I anticipated a charming but ultimately forgettable tale.
But that is not how it turned out.
From the very beginning, Bernanos’ priest observed that his parish was spiritually endangered. It was “eaten up by boredom.” Boredom, he observed, is like fine, imperceptible dust—ash even. “To shake off the drizzle of ashes,” he continued,
you must forever be on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’ . . . I wonder if man has ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some way like the fermentation of Christianity in decay. Naturally I keep these thoughts to myself. But I am not ashamed of them.
This was spiritual acedia. And with such a suffocating listlessness dominating the parish, the earnest shepherd know he had work to do. Still in a state of formation, he wondered if he might find wisdom and inspiration from elder brothers in the faith. More often than not, he would be disappointed.
Our superiors are no longer official optimists. Those who still profess the rule of hope, teach optimism by force of habit, without believing in what they say. You need only raise the mildest objection and you find them wreathed in knowing deprecating smiles; they beg you to spare them.
And so armed with a humble faith, this man of God ambled through the village attempting a deeper engagement with his parishioners. As he did, however, he found that beneath the blanket of boredom festered unexpected anger and suspicion, manipulation and faithlessness. Darkness consumed his spiritual children and increasingly they recoiled at his approach wanting nothing to do with him. Undeterred, the priest from Ambricourt earnestly grappled with the blithely hellbound souls in his care.
Before long, however, darkness began to consume him. The priest started to suffer in body and spirit. Abdominal pain and dizziness seized him. Nausea and vomiting convulsed him. At times, he would pass out unaccountably in the rain and street muck only to limp home bloodied, disheveled, and alone to spare and unwelcoming quarters. There, in dark solitude, his physical agony would be compounded by doubt and uncertainty. His wayward flock disdained him. His diseased body defied him. Evil, he understood, was afoot.
Night after night, The Diary of a Country Priest unsettled me. It placed me in an unfamiliar darkness. But I couldn’t put it down.
I soon understood why: this was a novel that I needed to read.
Time and again, what Georges Bernanos has taught me in his novels (The Diary of a Country Priest, Under Satan’s Sun, The Imposter, Joy, Mouchette, and Monsieur Ouine) and his polemical essays (Diary of My Times, Plea for Liberty, Tradition of Freedom, and Last Essays, among others) is that suffering is real and often inescapable. Raw and gritty, fearsome and offensive, it is part of our troubled human condition. Denying it is foolish. Romanticizing it exacerbates it. Enduring it is just damned hard. To borrow from Flannery O’Connor, a walk of faith is not an electric blanket but the cross.
But is Bernanos’ grim portrayal of suffering gratuitous and unnecessary? Is it simply a bottomless blackness out of which nothing good can emerge? In other words, do we need to watch every lash, feel every piercing, witness every blow, and endure every agonizing breath of the Passion to appreciate how horrible the Passion truly was? In some ways, no. But in some ways, perhaps, the answer is yes.
Why would that be so?
Bernanos would reason that we have willfully and excessively anesthetized ourselves. While it is appropriate to have a reasonable aversion to suffering, we have made it desirable and necessary to avoid suffering at all costs (even if the suffering may be edifying). As such, we have placed ourselves in a defensive crouch. In protecting ourselves from suffering, we have pursued the tepid and the bland, the harmless and the meaningless. Consequently, we have succeeded, but in an unfortunate way. Pain, to be sure, is less painful, but joy is also less joyful. We are more comfortable, but less inspired. Lacking true courage, we preserve ourselves while risking less for others. We wade in the safe shallows and avoid the wonderful, perilous deep. The natural consequence is a self-imposed acedia. In sum, we become less like Christ and, thus, only merit the meager fruits of mediocrity instead of the sumptuous banquet of sainthood.
It was this cowardly tendency that Bernanos understood in his marrow… and he reviled it. And he shouted at us to wake up. A veteran from World War I, a grieving father of war-removed sons, a disabled victim of a car accident, and a furious expatriate railing against his country’s spiritual capitulation to the Nazis, Georges Bernanos knew that to live as Christ called us to live is to risk valiantly, to suffer tremendously, and to immerse ourselves in God’s oft-missed but ever-present graces. Modernity, Bernanos recognized, disagreed, and has become selfish and spiritually atrophied. Bernanos spoke of “spiritual exhaustion.” “The misfortune and shame of the modern world,” he warned, “is that it disincarnates everything, that it is re-commencing the mystery of the Incarnation backwards.”
In what have been among the most influential pages I have ever read, Bernanos’ priest of Ambricourt foretells what we risk becoming if we fail to emerge from the thick haze of boredom, distraction, and self-satisfaction to embrace the difficulty of our calling and the wondrous grace of God:
I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth. They live on the surface, and yet, so rich is the soil of humanity that even this thin outer layer is able to yield a kind of meagre harvest which gives the illusion of real living. I’ve heard that during the last war timid little clerks would turn out to be real leaders; without knowing it, they had in them the passion to command…How many men will never have the least idea of what is meant by supernatural heroism, without which there can be no inner life!…Therefore when death has bereft them of all the artificial props with which society provides such people, they will find themselves as they really are, as they were without even knowing it — horrible undeveloped monsters, the stumps of men.
For years after reading The Diary of a Country Priest, I have grappled with the unrelenting sufferings of Bernanos’ priest of Ambricourt. In fact, the story and its brutality has forced its way into my consciousness at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times. And I’ve only just begun to understand why. It is because Georges Bernanos shocked me out of my comfort and complacency. He made me question my own courage, my own vigor, my willingness to suffer, and my faithfulness to God. He helped me to see beyond the sheer anguish of his priest to the incomparable graces that I never expected. Georges Bernanos reminded me of what I once knew, but had long since forgotten: the profound wisdom in a life fired free of superficiality; the sense of enduring purpose amidst unforgiving trial; the strange relief found in an abject dependence on God; and the gratitude that floods a heart that has regained honest and humble perspective.
The Diary of a Country Priest has changed me because it is so damned honest. The reality of suffering is to be accepted (ameliorated, yes, but accepted as a part of life) and countered with courage and faith in the mysteries and unfailing grace of God. In sum, Bernanos’ harsh honesty has forced me to be a bit more honest about how I am to live.
In 1948, as Georges Bernanos lay dying of cancer, he penned a letter to a friend saying, “May you feel the sweet presence of Jesus Christ who makes into one reality sorrow and joy, life and death.”
And in his last breath, Bernanos’ suffering, dying priest of Ambricourt weakly uttered with joy amidst pain, and hope in consuming darkness, “Grace is everywhere.”
In the end, and through the darkness, it is.