Against Calculation & Compromise

March 2000By Inez Fitzgerald Storck

Inez Fitzgerald Storck is a freelance writer living in Greenbelt, Maryland, with her husband and four children.

The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories.  By Georges Bernanos. Eerdmans. 150 pages. $13.



The theme of the innocence and purity of childhood is central in the work of Georges Bernanos (1888-1948), French novelist, essayist, and ardent political polemicist, who denounced hypocrisy and impure motives of friend and foe alike.

For Bernanos it is the child and the childlike who have spiritual integrity, who act with their whole being, who are incapable of calculation and compromise. In The Heroic Face of Innocence we have three examples of true selfhood in the personages presented in each of the three pieces (they are not really stories; two are essays and one a drama).

In “Joan, Heretic and Saint” Bernanos reflects on the trial of St. Joan of Arc, where “perhaps only once in the history of the world, childhood stood … before a regular tribunal.” As he points out, this was no irregular court. The eminent personages sitting in judgment were members of the theological faculty of the University of Paris, abbots, and bishops, with the Apostolic Delegate concurring in the monstrous verdict. The same candid simplicity that had moved the peasant girl to obey the voices that guided her (not without a struggle) and to lead armies in glorious battles, prevented her from seeing through the subtleties of her judges. Lacking the theological background to respond adequately to their charges of heresy, she was defenseless before them. How was she to know that from the point of view of dogma the voices she heard could not be as certain as the articles of faith?

And they wanted more than orthodoxy from her. They asked her to abjure her voices, a renunciation which was impossible for the holy girl. Bernanos captures the self-indulgent and petty spirit of the judges: “They surrounded the martyr with a rampart of stomachs, of fat thighs, of bald skulls polished like ivory.” And he addresses to Joan a paean that captures her tender, brave soul: “O sacred face! O dear face of my country, O fearless eyes! … O flower of chivalry!” Her statement at the trial that she expected — she knew not how — a great victory, Bernanos characterizes as “words of victory, these childish words, these words of eternal childhood, like an armful of roses torn from the heart of the night and drenched with the last shower, sweet with their wild fragrance.”

The second piece in the book, “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese,” finds its inspiration in Bernanos’s other favorite saint, the Doctor of Spiritual Childhood. A nonbeliever presents from the pulpit an urgent call for Christians to return to childhood. He addresses a complacent, self-satisfied congregation, intent on material gain, deaf to the words of the Gospel. In an ironic, acerbic diatribe, he takes them to task for ignoring their mission, which only they can fulfill, of “rejuvenating our world,” a world “obsessed by the idea of suicide.” This is their “last chance” — and the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance.

The canonization of St. Joan of Arc in this century “has the character of a solemn warning.” The mission of St. Therese is to the agnostic “an even more serious sign.”

His words are more prophetic in our day than 60 years ago when they were written. For in Bernanos’s time the world could not still boast of agnostics who were “extremely interested” in believers, agnostics who yearned for life after death. So far has our civilization declined that today, rather than thoughtful atheists and questioning agnostics, we have a host of people for whom the issues of God and Heaven and Hell are simply irrelevant. All the more reason why Catholics should make the most of the time remaining to us to live, as Bernanos’s preacher recommends, with the “simplicity, honesty, and audacity” proper to children.

“Joan” minces no words about scandal among the Church hierarchy. The “Sermon” cries out passionately against scandal among the laity. “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” the filmscript with which The Heroic Face of Innocence concludes, is Bernanos’s response to scandal. His last work, the fruit of his maturity, it reflects the serenity he achieved in his later years. The drama explores the reactions of a group of French Carmelites to the terrors of the French Revolution and their own martyrdom (it is fiction, but is based on the true story of the martyrs of Compiegne, who were recently beatified). The central character and the youngest of the community, Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ (the Sacred Agony is a recurring theme in the work of Bernanos), cannot abandon her great fears, which stain her honor both as an aristocrat and a Christian. The various stances of the sisters toward fear, human weakness, death, and martyrdom provoke profound meditations on themes central to Bernanos’s thought. Sister Blanche is terrified of death, but realizes God will work through her weakness. Early in the drama, the elderly prioress dies a death of spiritual poverty with no consolations, obtaining through her poor death a good death for someone else in the communication of goods operative in the Mystical Body. Another nun leads the community in a vow of martyrdom when the new prioress is away; pride motivates her offering, so it is not accepted.

In their conversations the nuns reveal themselves and correct each other, each one adding words of truth to their dialogue about life and death, which reflects their rapid shifts between suspicion and trust, self-interest and abnegation, fear and courage. The principal integrating factor as the tale unfolds is not the renunciation of weakness, but the acceptance of it, as Christ accepted His in His agony.

The translations, from Bernanos’s French, no two of which are done by the same individual or team, are fluent and generally fine. “Joan,” however, loses some of its trenchancy (e.g., in two references to a particular autumn day “hideux” is rendered “dreary” and “glum” when there is no reason not to use the cognate, “hideous”), and in places Bernanos’s jeremiad is just a little toned down. The translators of the “Sermon” opted to give a modern, colloquial rendering, at times translating the spirit more than the letter (“paroissien” they translate as “missalette” rather than “missal,” which gives the text a too contemporary flavor). The translation of “Dialogues” conveys more formality, proper to its 18th-century setting and true to the original French.

These three works serve as an excellent introduction to the profoundly Catholic Georges Bernanos.



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