Excerpts from The Diary of a Country Priest

A selection of quotations from Georges Bernanos’ 1937 novel

On alienation

Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest
Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

“Every day I become more aware of my own ignorance in the most elementary details of everyday life, which everybody seems to know without having learnt them, but a sort of instinct. Yet I don’t suppose I’m really more of a fool than most people, and if I stick to easily remembered rules of thumb, I can look as though I really understand what was going on. But all those words which seem to have such precise meaning for some folk, and pretty nigh indistinguishable to me, like a bad card-player to whom one lead seems as good as another. Whilst they were discussing the savings-banks I felt like a child strayed into a room full of gabbling grown-ups. […] I fear I shall never be practical, and I don’t improve with experience.”

“I left the Château late—far too late. I am also very bad at taking my leave. Each time the clock goes round I make a tentative move, calling forth much polite protestation which I have not the courage to resist. It might go on for hours!”

“My nervousness has lately become a real obsession. It is hard to conquer that childish unreasonable terror, which makes me turn with a jump whenever I feel the eyes of a passer-by. My heart comes into my mouth, and I can’t breathe freely again until I’ve heard his ‘good morning’ in answer to mine. When at last it comes I’ve ceased to hope for it.”

On teaching

Words spoken by M. le Curé de Torcy: “Teaching is no joke, sonny! I’m not talking of those who get out of it with a lot of eyewash: you’ll knock up against plenty of them in the course of your life, and get to know ’em. Comforting truths, they call it!”

On the limits of language

“It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and every changing, alas, as words.”

On modern warfare

“The cleverest killers of to-morrow will kill without any risk. Thirty thousand feet above the earth, any dirty little engineer, sitting cosily in his slippers with a special bodyguard of technicians, will merely have to press a button to wipe out a town, and scurry home in fear—his only fear—of being late for dinner.”

On prayer

“The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare to speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then the 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’—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 are 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!

“This seems a very daring comparison. I apologise for having advanced it, yet perhaps it might satisfy many people who find it hard to think for themselves, unless the thought has first been halted by some unexpected, surprising image. Could a sane man set himself up as a judge of music because he has sometimes touched a keyboard with the tips of his fingers? And surely if a Bach fuse, a Beethoven symphony leave him cold, if he has to content himself with watching on the face of another listener the reflected pleasure of supreme, inaccessible delight, such a man has only himself to blame.

“But alas! We take the psychiatrist’s word for it. The unanimous testimony of saints is held as of little or no account. They mightily affirm that this kind of deepening of the spirit is unlike any other experience, that instead of showing us more and more of our own complexity it ends in sudden total illumination, opening out upon azure light—they can be dismissed with a few shrugs. Yet when has any man of prayer told us the prayer has failed him?”

On keeping a diary

“Yet more than ever I need the diary. It is only during these snatched moments that I am aware of some effort to see clearly into myself. Nowadays thought comes so slowly, my memory is very bad—I mean for recent happenings, not others!—my imagination so sluggish, that I must tire myself out with work in order to shake off some vague, uneasy daydream which, alas, prayer alone cannot always dispel. As soon as I stop, I feel myself sinking into a coma which blurs into misty, pathless landscapes, in which I completely lose my bearings, the perspective of the last few days. If I keep to it strictly, morning and evening, my diary breaks up this wilderness, and sometimes I slip the last few pages into my pocket, to read them again on my long bull tramps from one end of the parish to another, when I am tempted to give way to this strange mesmerism.”

“I have watched all night: day is beginning. My window has been open, and I am shivering. I can hardly hold this pen, but I seem to be breathing more freely, to be calmer. Though I got no sleep, this cold which goes right through me does just as well. An hour or two ago when I was praying, swatting on my heels with my cheek against the wooden table, I suddenly felt such a hollow emptiness, I thought I was going to die. It made me happy.”

On physical pain

“I should have gone home. At home, alone in my room, experience has slowly taught me many dodges which some might laugh at, yet they have helped me to tackle my pain, to ease it. Anyone in constant pain will soon realise how it has to be got around, how cunning will get the better of it. Each pain has its particular personality and method, but they are all stupidly spiteful and a defence which has worked once can be repeated again and again. At all events, thought I knew this was no trifling attack, I made the mistake of trying to hold out against it. Which God allowed. But I was the loser.”

On death

“At my age, death seems to far away that the daily experience of our own mediocrity does not as yet convince us. We do not wish to believe that such a happening will be in no way unusual, that it will probably be neither more nor less ordinary than ourselves, made in our image, the image of our destiny. It doesn’t appear to belong to our familiar world, we dream of it as of fabulous countries whose names we have discovered in books. It has just occurred to me how my agony was that of a cruel, sudden disappointment. What I had believed was so far away, beyond imaginary seas, stood out before me. My death is here. A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feeling of a very commonplace, very ordinary man. It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life. I shall be just as clumsy and awkward. So often I have been told to be ‘simple’. I do my best.”

“They alone shall be young, really young, whom He has chosen never to survive their youth. I belong to such a race of men. I used to wonder: what shall I be doing at fifty, at sixty? And of course I couldn’t find an answer, I couldn’t even make one up. There was no old man in me.”

“Of course, during the last weeks or months that God may spare me, while I can still look after a parish, I shall do my best, as always, to be careful. But I shall give less thought to the future, I shall work in the present. I feel such work is within my power. For I only succeed in small things, and when I am tried by anxiety, I am bound to say it is the small joys that release me.”

“I can understand how a man, sure of himself and his courage, might wish to make of his death a perfect end. As that isn’t in my line, my death shall be what it can be, and nothing more.”

The motorcycle ride

“I climbed somewhat clumsily on to a small rather uncomfortable seat, and the next minute the long slope we were facing flashed behind us, whilst the roar of the engine rose continuously higher and higher till it gave out one note only, wonderfully pure. It was like the song of light, it was light itself, and I felt I was watching, with my own eyes, the huge curve of that stupendous ascent. The country side did not come towards us, it opened out on all sides, and just beyond the wild skid of the road, seemed to turn majestically on itself, like a door opening on to another world.”

Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest (trans. Pamela Morris) is available from Da Capo Press.

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