For instance, I'd long imagined it was the real diary of a real country priest living in nineteenth century France. In fact it's a novel by the twentieth century writer Georges Bernanos who died seventy years ago this year. Its imagined depiction of parish life in the north of France between the wars won him the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française. In 1950 it was named one of the twelve best novels in French published between 1900 and 1950.
I guess the reason it's so famous is the sheer vividness with which the author enters into the life of an impoverished catholic priest. You would have to have been a fervent believer to have written it. Not so much for the passages of theological and philosophical speculation about, say, heaven and hell, or social hierarchy in the countryside, or the nature of sin, but for the light Bernanos shines on the everyday dealings of a priest with his parishioners, his parish and his fellow clergy. And for the inspired guesswork (or maybe I mean detective work?) with which he tries to get inside the mind and soul of a character you speculate he has become intensely fond of. Does the novel represent a vocation Bernanos might once have had?
What I love about the book is its sense of parish. Early on, the country priest muses on the importance of loving your parish. Just three months today since my appointment to this parish. This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last. My parish! The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love....I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction but a living cell of the everlasting church. But if only the good God would open my eyes and unseal my ears so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice....The look in its eyes would be the eyes of all Christianity, of all parishes - perhaps of the poor human race itself.
I found that an arresting passage, given our current preoccupations about the future of the parish system in the Church of England. The words seem chosen carefully. Bernanos could have said congregation or the faithful or the baptised. And maybe he's making all sorts of assumptions about his parish population (what Anglicans used to call "the charitable assumption" that presumes faith and principled motive on the part of those who seek the offices of the church). But I don't think he elides parish and the faithful. There's such a strong sense of sacred geography in the Diary, what Andrew Rumsey in his fine recent study Parish - an Anglican Theology of Place recognises as deeply embedded in our native traditions of public ministry.
Reading it, I was frequently reminded of a book I read in the 1980s while I was a parish priest in a rural market town. It's by Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase to Silence. A priest formed in the gritty realities of urban ministry, his remarkable books, all written in retirement, were the fruit of a rich lifelong experience of “parish” in just such worlds that Bernanos’ curé inhabited. It's not too much to say that Staircase turned round my entire attitude to parish ministry with the idea of which - I freely acknowledge - I was struggling at the time. His book is a study of another Frenchman and older contemporary of Bernanos, the poet and man of letters Charles Péguy. A chapter I recall being much influenced by was one entitled Mes Vieilles Paroisses Francaises. I need to read it again (was it there that I read about how, on a French parish festival, Péguy playfully imagined that Joan of Arc or Theresa of Lisieux had only just left the party a moment ago?). Péguy was writing about the corn fields of the Beauce across which you see the distant spires of Chartres Cathedral - but his spirit pervades Bernanos' world too. New bishops and incumbents could not do better than read all these books (Bernanos, Rumsey and Ecclestone) and ponder them at a time when the Church of England is putting every egg in the basket of growing congregations through project-based evangelism and at risk of starving traditional parochial ministry of sorely-needed funds in the process.
Back to the Diary. The central section focuses on a long and difficult pastoral encounter the priest has with an influential female parishioner. You feel for him as he tries to uncover the truth of her complex life, the courage it takes to "speak truth to power" in circumstances such as this. Most of us in public ministry have been there at one time or another. In the end, after what feels like a Herculean feat of theological and spiritual candour, he gets to an unexpected place of resolution. Here's how the diarist records the outcome. "Be at peace" I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. Oh miracle - thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever, was given back to her by God and - who can tell - perhaps in my name! Poor as I am, an insignificant little priest, looking upon this woman only yesterday so far my superior in age, birth, fortune, intellect, I still knew - yes I knew - what fatherhood means.
That remarkable passage, almost worthy of Dostoyesvsky, shows, I think, profound insight into the paradoxes of public ministry. But how many of us clergy are capable of scrutinising our ministry and ourselves with that degree of honesty? How many of us have sufficient self-knowledge even to understand the questions with which we need to interrogate ourselves? Bernanos writes elsewhere in the book, When writing of oneself one should show no mercy. Yet why at the first attempt to discover one's own truth does all inner strength seem to melt away in floods of self-pity and tenderness and rising tears? Diarists and bloggers, beware of being too kind to ourselves! Not to agonise in front of others necessarily, but to "tell all the truth", as far as we ever can, at least in private before God and ourselves. And even in a more public register, we need surely to be constant seekers after truth, even if we often have to "tell it slant".
I've often spoken to at ordinands' retreats on the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness in any public role. I've found Bernanos to be a powerful impetus to try to practise better what I have been preaching for so long. Perhaps it's about the recovery of the joy and openness of our childhood, the kind of rapturous vision captured in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations. Bernanos says:
God has entrusted the Church to keep [the soul of childhood] alive, to safeguard our candour and freshness... Joy is the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share... What would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?” There have been times in my own ministry as a priest when I've needed to try to recapture what relentless public exposure had corroded. Bernanos understood that.
One last passage from the Diary. It concerns the prayer and spirituality, a matter of recurring concern in the book as we would expect. Again, the author writes with a keen sense of how paradoxical the spiritual life so often is.
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!
If you haven't read the book, you won't know how it ends. No spoilers from me! But Bernanos gives us a profoundly moving and satisfying conclusion to the Diary. I won't say that it's a tidy ending - you wouldn't expect it to be from an author who understands better than many both the "mess" of the parish (his phrase, not mine) and the complexity of human life, not least his own. How could any ending be tidy? Having not long retired from a lifetime of public ministry as a priest, I know how untidy my laying aside that role was at the time, and even more in my subsequent memory of it. This is only one of many insights in The Diary of a Country Priest that I recognise from my own experience of ministry, that I dare to say we all recognise if we are sufficiently curious about God, humanity and our own selves to frame the questions he asks so bravely and follow them wherever they lead, however uncomfortable that may be.
In the end, after a lot of pain and hardship, the Diary ends on a note of thankfulness. Tout est grâce is the conclusion, "everything is grace". That's the spirit that pervades the entire book. Despite everything, Bernanos' struggling, pain-ridden priest has emerged victorious. Which I think makes this marvellous book an inspiration for today's ministers, especially those travelling through dark times. "What will survive of us is love" says Philip Larkin in a famous poem. It could be the epigraph of this book. For everything is grace, and grace is everything.