Bernanos's novel shows life as a battle between hope and despair

The next choice for our all-woman book club is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Last time we discussed The Outsider by Camus. There are nine of us: three Catholics, one Quaker, two Anglicans and three atheists. Generally speaking, questions of religion don’t arise in our discussions, except obliquely. I think I commented that I found The Outsider a book about despair, a state of mind that interests me theologically but not the other members of the club. The Solzhenitsyn, which I first read at my convent boarding school, is about survival and reflects its author’s own experiences in the Gulag – not his later Christian beliefs.

I mention these books because I would love to introduce to the club my own favourite book: The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. I have hesitated to do so thus far partly because none of us likes something we hold dear to be trashed by others but mainly because it is a brilliant novel about the clash between theological hope and despair and I demur at offloading my own preoccupations on my friends. Now my love for Bernanos has just been rekindled by reading “What Georges Bernanos Taught Me about Saints”, an article in by Tod Worner. I do recommend this article (and of course the novels) to readers of this blog; with Bernanos, you enter different territory from the average Booker Prize novel, that’s for sure.

Worner quotes Bernanos’ biographer, Peter Hebblethwaite: “In spite of his sense of hell in our midst, Bernanos does not despair, because saints have existed and do exist. They are the living witnesses to the truths he holds. Christianity is not for him an ideology, but a life, begun in baptism, the incorporation into the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.”

This puts it very well. Again, quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict that “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event”, Worner reminds us that no-one can be argued into the Church (though reason has a critical part to play). This is the message that Pope Francis is constantly emphasising: that Christianity is about a relationship of love, with Christ; that must come before the rules and teachings, essential though they are (isn’t that what he means about not being “obsessed” about particular moral issues?); otherwise we have lost the whole meaning of Pentecost, celebrated yesterday, and being “kindled” by the fire of the love of God.

Worner admits, and he could be speaking for me, that “any time I want to piously over-intellectualise my faith into an ideology instead of a personal relationship with Christ, I need to look at a picture of St Joan of Arc, St Peter, St Thomas More, St Maximilian Kolbe or read Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest…and be still.”

For Bernanos reminds us (as does Pope Francis) that Christians are caught up in the battle between good and evil, God or Satan; this is the real issue in our lives. He poses the critical question: do we want to be saints – or not? Bernanos wrote: “Our Church is the Church of the saints. If one approaches her with distrust, one sees only closed doors, barriers and fences, a sort of spiritual police force. ..To become a saint, what bishop would not give up his ring, his mitre and his crozier; what cardinal his purple; what pope his white robe, his chamberlains, his Swiss Guard …? Who would not want to have the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure; it is indeed the only adventure.” The adventures of the heroes of fairy tales, about which I wrote in my last blog, pale into insignificance besides this real-life adventure. Thank you, Georges Bernanos, for reminding me of this; perhaps I will introduce you to my book club after all.