What was it about?
An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.
What did I think of it?
The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.
Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.
“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”
[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.
“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”
[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!