The Tears of a Cleric

November 2015By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

The Diary of a Country Priest.

By Georges Bernanos.

In The Diary of a Country Priest, first published in France in 1936, Georges Bernanos presents the secret history of a year in the life of a nameless young priest who is serving in his first parish. Unaware that he will die of stomach cancer before the year is over, this priest decides to record in a diary the details of his “ordinary” life as pastor and then destroy the diary at the end of the year. His life, however, is anything but ordinary.

A true priest, he writes, is one who has accepted, once and for all, the “terrifying presence” of God in each instant of his life. Of course, there are “mediocre” priests all around him — for example, the retired bishop with literary pretensions who is “as scrupulously careful of his diction as of his hands,” and his own superior, the Dean of Blangermont, who humiliates him for his supposed “lack of charity” toward the shopkeepers who “rob us” but at least “respect us.”

The priest arrives in Ambricourt with a “soaring love” for his parish, which he wants to cherish as a “living cell” of the Mystical Body of Christ. But he soon experiences physical and then spiritual pain — a keen sense of God’s abandonment. He suffers a Christ-like agony as he discovers how far his people are from real Christianity and how powerless he seems to be to convert them.

When, after six months, he reflects on the confessions he has been hearing, he laments that the people skim the “surface of conscience” and disguise the “petrification” beneath. A little while after recording his disillusionment, he experiences a night of desolation, as though his soul were “bleeding to death.” He even fancies that the village has “nailed me up here on a cross and is at least watching me die.” As the story unfolds, the priest finds that he cannot keep anything in his stomach but bread and wine — the implication being that only his reliance on the Eucharist will enable him to survive in the spiritual desert of Ambricourt.

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