Those, like me, who enjoyed Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead will undoubtedly be moved by Georges Bernanos’ classic, The Diary of a Country Priest (first published in 1937), which I finished on the plane to Geneva. Indeed, one wonders if Robinson didn’t find a certain inspiration and model in Bernanos’ novel: Robinson gives us a glimpse into the epistolary legacy left by a dying old Reformed preacher in the rural American Midwest; Bernanos steals for us the diary of an ailing young Catholic priest tending a tiny parish in the French countryside.
The Diary is typically French: only about six things ever happen in the book. But the genius of the book is the anonymous priest’s keen observatory powers, turned on both his parish and friends, and turned inward in introspection. All of this is interlaced with brilliant literary theological reflection which seems to capture the spirit (I would say) of le nouvelle théologie. (E.g., the priest remarks: “Paganism was no enemy of nature, but Christianity alone can exalt it, can raise it to man’s own height, to the peak of his dreams.”)
His is an honest faith: grappling with doubt, and yet so strongly tethered to Christ; struggling with prayer, and yet a life bathed in prayer; looking for friendship, and finding it in the most unexpected places; loathing, but loving, his parishioners; frustrated by the institutional church, but not abandoning it. Above all, Bernanos illuminates the sacramentality of the world in the priest’s final words: “Grace is everywhere.”