Reading The Diary of a Country Priest
I've just finished reading the classic Catholic novel The Diary of a Country Priest, written by Georges Bernanos in 1936. Bernanos's moving tale of the spiritual battles of a sickly young priest tending to a small French parish is so densely packed with wisdom that rather than trying to capture its brilliance in an essay, I'm going to present some of my favorite passages in a series of installments.
The quotes in the succeeding articles will be divided according to theme, but in this first one I will share those that didn't fall under any particular topic. Since the novel is in the form of a diary, any passages not in quotes are the protagonist's narration, while those in quotes are from conversations he relates, for which I will provide attribution.
- The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then any fool who comes along sets himself up as judge of this lifelong effort. If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less—a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find until their dying day, I won't even say such great "comfort"—since they put no faith in the solace of the senses—but sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy in prayer? Oh, of course "suggestion," say the scientists. Certainly they can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgement, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!
- Lust is a mysterious wound in the side of humanity; or rather at the very source of its life! To confound this lust in man with that desire which unites the sexes is like confusing a tumour with the very organ which it devours, a tumour whose very deformity horribly reproduces the shape. The world, helped by all the glamour of art, takes immense pains to hide away this shameful sore. It is as though with each new generation men feared a revolt of human dignity, a desperate revolt—the sheer refusal of still unsullied human beings. With what strange solicitude humanity keeps watch over its children, to soften in advance with enchanting images this degradation of first experience, an almost unavoidable mockery. And when, despite all this, the half-conscious plaint of flouted young human dignity, outraged by devils, is heard again, how quickly it can be smothered in laughter! What a cunning mixture of sentiment, pity, tenderness, irony surrounds adolescence, what knowing watchfulness! Young birds on their first flight are hardly so hovered around. And if the revulsion is too intense, if the precious child over whom angels still stand guard shudders with invincible disgust, what cajoling hands will offer him the basin of gold, chiselled by artists, jewelled by poets, while soft as the vast murmur of leaves and the splash of streams, the low-pitched orchestra of the world drowns the sound of his vomiting!
- [Protagonist, speaking to a priest who has broken his vows to live with a woman, but claims intellectual motives for leaving the priesthood:] "If I ever had the misfortune to go back on the vows of my ordination, I would rather it were for the love of a woman than as a result of what you call 'intellectual evolution.'"
- [An atheist doctor:] "When I happen to come across an injustice walking alone and unprotected, and I find it about my own weight, not too strong or too weak for me, I jump on its back and twist its neck."
Next in series: Reading the Diary of a Country Priest: Stagnation
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