Masterpiece portrays angst of a priest's spiritual struggle


Rite and Reason: Recently in this column Brian Maye wrote of the religious context that provided the inspiration for The Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Flies, two of the best-known English novels of all time, writes Eamon Maher.

His comments brought to mind one of the masterpieces of French literature, George Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest. When reading this book one cannot avoid being struck by the rare capacity of a lay writer to get inside the head of a priest - several priests working on the ground have noted the authenticity of his portrayal.

Published in 1936 during the depressing inter-war years, and set in rural Normandy, the novel uses the diary form to allow us "commune with" the angst of a priest struggling with himself and the outside world. He arrives in the parish of Ambricourt full of enthusiasm and ideas and finds the inhabitants hostile to all his initiatives.

He is tricked by local traders, ridiculed by some of the young girls in his catechism class and suspected of alcoholism because of his sickly appearance that comes from an enforced diet of bread dipped in wine - the use of the symbols of the Eucharist is not coincidental.

In the opening page of his diary he claims that his parish is being eaten up by boredom and adds, prophetically: "Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves - become aware of the cancerous growth within us."

The priest appears, in fact, to take the cancer all around him and to make it his own.

His one friend, the Curé de Torcy, is as efficient in governing his parish as Ambricourt is inept in his. He urges the young man to be firm, not to let his parishioners trample all over him. For all that he sees his failings as an administrator, Torcy respects the "grit" of his clerical colleague.

His outwardly prosaic life hides from his parishioners an intense spiritual struggle. He ends up bringing comfort to the Countess - who rebelled against God after what she considered the unjustified death of her son - while he himself remains in the throes of pain.

The cancer that invades his system is one and the same time physical and metaphysical: "A void was behind me. And in front a wall, a wall of darkness." Sleepless nights follow one after another as the cancer worsens.

Nevertheless, he persists in visiting his parishioners and tending to their spiritual needs. Apart from the Countess, no one offers him a word of thanks. However, there is about him a quality that bears witness to a strong interior life. He also reveals a capacity to read into souls, which shocks the Countess and her disillusioned daughter.

The latter is so taken aback when he asks her for the letter she has written (and about which he could have known nothing), that she exclaims: "You must be the devil!"

Bernanos wrote at a period when France had moved far down the path of secularism. Since the time of the Revolution, there had been a strong republican tradition that sought to curb the power and influence of the Catholic Church.

To speak with such obvious passion and conviction about sin and grace, the Sacraments, the Communion of Saints, might have seemed a sure way of switching off French readers.

But the opposite proved to be the case - his words appeared to answer a thirst for the transcendent among his readers.

Even today, in "post-Catholic" Ireland, his novel still has a special resonance. We regularly read about spiritual despair, moral degradation, the marginalisation of priests and religious in this country.

In his famous interview with the Countess, the priest says: "Void fascinates those who daren't look into it. They throw themselves in for fear of falling."

He has no such fear himself, which is just as well given the desperation he stumbles upon.

Alone in the streets of Lille, after receiving the news that he has an incurable cancer, he does experience a momentarily weakness: "I was alone, utterly alone, facing my death - and that death was a wiping out, and nothing more." He makes his way to the apartment of his friend, the ex-seminarian Dufréty. There he recovers his composure and resigns himself to his fate.

His dying words, as related by Dufréty, were: "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere . . ." What he is saying essentially is that great suffering is often a prelude to spiritual enlightenment and that grace is sometimes found in the most unlikely circumstances.

Dr Eamon Maher lectures in humanities at the Institute of Technology Tallaght. His most recent book is John McGahern: From the Local to the Universal (Liffey Press).