Reading The Diary of a Country Priest: Hell
[This is part of a series of articles collecting insightful passages on various themes from Georges Bernanos’s classic novel The Diary of a Country Priest.]
In the following two passages, the protagonist tries to give a member of his flock some idea of the true horror of hell, much worse than most people imagine.
“All sins are alike. There is only one sin…. There is not only a communion of saints; there is also a communion of sinners. In their hatred of one another, their contempt, sinners unite, embrace, intermingle, become as one; in the eyes of Eternal God they will be no more than a mass of perpetual slime over which the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly. Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are as two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries—spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions—yes, companions for all eternity.”
“And what have you laymen made of hell? A kind of penal servitude for eternity, on the lines of your convict prisons on earth, to which you condemn in advance all the wretched felons your police have hunted from the beginning—‘enemies of society,’ as you call them. You’re kind enough to include the blasphemers and the profane…. Hell is judged by the standards of this world, and hell is not of this world, it is of the other world, and still less of this Christian society. An eternal expiation—! The miracle is that we on earth were ever able to think of such a thing, when scarcely has our sin gone out of us, and one look, a sign, a dumb appeal suffices for grace and pardon to swoop down, as an eagle from topmost skies. It’s because the lowest of human beings, even though he no longer thinks he can love, still has in him the power of loving. Our very hate is resplendent, and the least tormented of the fiends would warm himself in what we call our despair, as in a morning of glittering sunshine. Hell is not to love any more, madame. Not to love any more! That sounds quite ordinary to you. To a human being still alive, it means to love less or love elsewhere. To understand is still a way of loving. But suppose this faculty which seems so inseparably ours, of our very essence, should disappear! Oh, prodigy! To stop loving, to stop understanding—and yet to live. The error common to us all is to invest these damned with something still inherently alive, something of our own inherent mobility, whereas in truth time and movement have ceased for them; they are fixed for ever. Alas, if God’s own hand were to lead us to one of these unhappy things, even if once it had been the dearest of our friends, what could we say to it? Truly, if one of us, if a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner…. To share his suffering! The sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”
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