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On Bernanos’ “Diary”

‘’The Diary,” as many have learned to call this singularly affecting novel [The Diary of a Country Priest], is the simple story of an obscure, rural French priest who seems virtually overwhelmed by what he judges to be his own inadequacies, not to mention the isolated, woebegone nature of his parish, which he describes in one of his entries as “bored stiff.” This humble cure tries hard against such odds to minister unto his obscure, lowly flock. . . .

As the curé goes from home to home, from situation to situation, we witness his brief, painful, unimportant life, so full of conflict and uncertainty, and finally we begin to realize how spiritually triumphant this life has been, no matter the opinion of the one who lived it. Not that there are any obvious victories in the conventional sense. This young priest dies of cancer, having felt himself to have failed both his church and his own personal ideals. We know otherwise, however, we who have been exposed to this diary, this account of one soul’s arduous ascent toward its Maker.

What we read, of course, is Bernanos at his most brilliant, daring to assert in this century of agnostic, materialistic skepticism a fervent plea for religious faith and also for a humane social ethics that is worthy of the lives Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos lived, the life that Jesus lived. ‘’HOW little we know what a human life really is—even our own” the curé writes. Then he makes this declaration: “To judge us by what we call our actions is probably as futile as to judge us by our dreams. God’s justice chooses from this dark conglomeration of thought and act, and that which is raised toward the Father shines with a sudden burst of light, displayed in glory like the sun.” A little farther on, the cure notes that ”the wish to pray is a prayer in itself,” and he even dares to remark that “God can ask no more than that of us.” Later the temptation to prideful self-righteousness is acknowledged: “He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it.” Then, toward the end, the disillusioned Georges Bernanos (who would wander through Brazil and Paraguay in the late 30’s and, after fighting Hitler as a friend of de Gaulle’s, would leave for North Africa and die at the age of 60 as much a loner as ever) merges with the curé in this fashion: “The Pagan State: the state which knows no law but that of its own well-being—the merciless countries full of greed and pride!”

Nonetheless, despite a few such harsh and grim asides, this novel, with its account of various meetings, incidents and chance encounters, with its small victories and defeats, is steadily true to the essentially forgiving and redemptive message offered the world some 2,000 years ago in the Incarnation of Christ.

—from the New York Times (June 8, 1986)