Pictured: A scene from Robert Bresson’s 1951 film, Diary of a Country Priest.
[At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one a month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about the books. You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.]
Have you ever wondered “Who ministers to the ministers?” Perhaps the loneliest vocation ever is that of the clergy. The expectations placed upon them are extraordinary, often to the point of unrealistic. And by that, I don’t just mean their professional responsibilities (although there is that).
Perhaps the deeper pressure comes from an overall expectation of the congregation, parish and, likely, community-at-large that a minister will have no struggles with temptation, doubts and loneliness, the sense of futility, struggles with a sense of vocation, powerlessness in the face of suffering, depression, clashes with clergy colleagues, and, perhaps, a history of his own family dysfunction– or any of the other spiritual maladies of mere mortals.
When personal shortcomings are revealed, or suggested, often the response of many members of the congregation is critical, judgmental, intolerant. And so the “shepherd” doesn’t know – perhaps, literally, doesn’t have – anyone to whom he or she can turn where they can relax, be open, candid, transparent and vulnerable, seek counsel and receive comfort, acceptance and healing.
This is not a new problem, as is clear demonstrated in The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, published in 1937 (which means this year marks the 75th anniversary of its publication).
As I was researching a bit on the author, I came across a short, but excellent piece about the novel by Amy Welborn Dubruiel, which begins by explaining where Mr. Bernanos fits into the history of literature.
“In the late 19th and early 20th century a philosophical perspective called positivism ruled the intellectual climate in France. Positivists like Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte claimed that all one can know about human life is what can be observed and that the laws of behavior and society discerned from these observations should be used to organize human life.
“Into this scientifically-based and utterly materialistic mileu stepped, one by one over the decades before and just after the First World War, a group of writers who formed what we now call the French Catholic Literary Revival. Francois Mauriac, Charles Peguy, Julien Green and Leon Bloy rejected positivism and reclaimed a vision of human beings essentially defined, not by scientific law, but rather by our relation to God and struggle with evil. One of the finest writers of this group was George Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest.” (emphasis added)
You can find her full article at: http://www.amywelborn.com/catholicwriters/diary.html
The novel is contemporary in many ways, evidenced no later than on page 2, where the priest (whose name we never learn) observes,
“Well, as I was saying, the world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought : you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust. You go about and never notice it, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it. It is sifted so fine, it doesn’t even grit on your teeth. But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be forever on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’”
This is the young man’s (age 30) first parish and his parishioners are quick to decide that they don’t like their new priest. In addition to the fact that he’s young, he’s also physically clumsy and socially awkward. Due to chronic pain in his stomach and its inability “keep anything”, his diet consists largely of bread dipped in sugared wine, giving him an emaciated look. So the parishioners gossip about him as a “secret drinker” and a womanizer.
At one point he receives the following note: “A well wisher advises you to apply for a change of parish. And the sooner the better. When at last you open your eyes to what everyone else can see so plain, you’ll sweat blood! Sorry for you but we say again: ‘Get Out!’”
But the Priest stays, loves and gives of himself to his parish.
The Diary of a Country Priest is not just the story of the conflicts described above. It is also a novel of ideas, as conversations between priest and parishioners, as well as between priest and other priests take place. Two short examples:
“A Christian people doesn’t mean a lot of little goody-goodies. The Church has plenty of stamina, and isn’t afraid of sin.”
“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards. … The Word of God is a red-hot iron.”
And many a Christian believer who has struggled with their faith will feel their heart resonate with:
“I no longer believe, because I have no wish to believe. You know longer wish to know yourself. This profound truth, your truth, has ceased to interest you. …
I wrote this in a moment of overwhelming agony of the heart and of all my senses. A mad rush of thoughts, words, images. In my soul nothing. God is silent. Silence.”
However, some of the ideas that are presented ought to be rejected. One, for example, as simply a lack of understanding:
“Oh, yes – I’ve worked hard enough! I’ve done my best, and what’s the use? My best is nothing. A leader is not judged by his mere intentions: once he has assumed responsibility, he must answer for his results.”
No. Although other people may, the Lord never asks us for results. He calls us to be faithful to the work he’s given us to do. He takes responsibility for the results.
Other ideas in the book are heretical. For example:
“For weeks I had not prayed, had not been able to pray. Unable? Who knows? That supreme grace has got to be earned like any other, and I no doubt had ceased to merit it. And so at last God had withdrawn Himself from me – of this at any rate I am sure. From that instant I was nothing, and yet I kept it to myself!”
No grace has to be earned. Grace cannot be earned. Grace is an unmerited gift. That’s the nature of grace, as opposed to a paycheck. And God never withdraws Himself from one of His children. He has promised “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5)
And then there is the heresy of Mariology:
[To the priest from one of his superiors] “Do you pray to our Lady?”
“We all say that – but do you pray to her as you should, as befits her? … For she was born without sin – in what amazing isolation!”
Mary was not born without sin as is clearly indicated in her prayer, recorded in Luke 1, referred to now as The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (emphasis added).
Nor is Mary to be prayed to. In Acts 1:14 we find Mary, some other women, and the disciples in an upper room praying together. Mary was praying with them; they were not praying to Mary.
Still, The Diary of a Country Priest is a book I recommend. It has some good meat to chew on. One reviewer suggested, “Every person in ministry ought to read this book, but perhaps not until you turn fifty or so.”
For the month of April I intend to read Lincoln, by the late Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald. Join me if you’d like.