Old NYT article by Robert Coles on Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, the great French Catholic classic published in 1936 and praised by Simone Weil.
‘The Diary,” as many have learned to call this singularly affecting novel, 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.
It is a stroke of genius, of course, for Bernanos to give him to us through his journal, because the priest is not apologizing or boasting, scolding or excusing. All through Bernanos’s writing life he tried to comprehend saintliness, holiness, and it is in ”The Diary” that he most nearly approaches that complex and forbidding subject with evident success.
Saints, he knew, do not give discourses on saintliness, and authors who attempt to do so risk rhetoric and sentimental bombast. But the literary device of a diary permits a candor, a lack of self-consciousness and self-importance, so that gradually this ailing, seemingly confused, melancholic young priest becomes to the reader a virtual incarnation of divine grace. His unpretentious, stumbling, honestly earnest manner, his mixture of knowing sadness and naivete, his moments (and longer) of self-doubt, followed by quiet spells of prayerful trust in the Lord’s intentions for him and for everyone, all are evidence for the reader of what a true homo religiosus is like inwardly.
As the cure 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.
The cure exclaims at the end: ”How easy it is to hate oneself!” Then he turns himself around: ”True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love ourselves in all simplicity – as one would love any of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.”