Monday, 5 September 2011

God of Smallness: The Little Way in Literature

by Georges Bernanos

I was only slightly surprised when one of my superiors said that they "didn't like" The Diary of a Country Priest, despite its status as a "Catholic classic". After all Jesuits are meant to do great things, aren't we? Jesuit saints go out and baptise the Indies, die in the most gloriously gruesome manners in the Americas, or bring back to the faith to heretic Europe. It is a spirituality of the Magis, "the more" that inspires people to do great things for God. So the diary of a simple parish priest in a French backwater is just less interesting than the lives of many of our brothers in Christ. And I suppose that is the whole point of The Diary.

Bernanos' novel came about at the nadir of Catholic fiction, when Waugh and Greene were at the height of their literary powers. Both authors were extremely interested in Bernanos' writing; Waugh being rather more similar in religious outlook. Unlike Waugh though, Bernanos does not write about the great; instead he chooses to write about the good. And the good is what is of interest in this literary rarity.

Not much can be said about the plot of this novel, and all that can be said is mentioned in the the title; it follows the day-to-day goings-on of a parish priest in rural France. He does not seem to be doing terribly well, especially with some difficulties with a family of the local aristocracy. His health worsens, and much of the book meditates on the sufferings of a man wasting away from a fatal disease. It is dreary, gloomy, painful, but yet it transcends all the gloom. As the life of priest fades, a splendour ordains every backbreaking word with new meaning; the holiness of his prayer rises and, phenomenally, we the readers begin to share his insight into the nature of things.

Our priest owes a lot to the most influential Catholic writer of the modern age, St. Therese of Lisieux. Offering a vision of life so dramatically opposed to the harsh Jansenism of her times, Therese saw in all creation not a stumbling block on the pathway to the perfectionist Father but instead found the instruments through which God's love and mercy can transform life. Her faith in grace is so pervasive that it overwhelms any sense of the futility or the smallness of the human endeavour. As the awareness of God's grace in the priest's life becomes apparent, his daily sufferings become the stepping stones of a salvific Little Way.

A possible problem with Therese's theology and, by extension, Bernanos' s book for the anti-Catholic is that too much value is given to the afterlife, that it allows for the mediocre living of "real life" because suffering is weakly accepted, when it should be fought against, so that its causes could be eliminated. This criticism is one that is often leveled against Christianity, and the "Little Way" is perhaps the apex of popular spirituality of the last century that caught the imaginations of the masses. It typifies the opium-like effect of hope in the next world. However, this criticism is based on only a partial understanding of Theresian spirituality. While indeed forward looking in its valuing the afterlife as our true existence, this value floods over into the experience of the everyday. Our life on earth then can be of real weight because it is impregnated with the love that comes to fruition in unity with God. The dividing line between life and death becomes vague because the substance of a saint's life is the beginning of the being that they will truly know in heaven.

While the article began with the alleged clash between the Ignatian and the Theresian visions, in truth the latter simplifies and completes the former. When Ignatius speaks about God's desire for the Magis, for more, from us, the Jesuit is not taking on a worldly understanding of success. Instead, he shares Therese's belief of the heavenly values that must fill all things of the earth. Therefore, the more is not related to an earthly (and neurotic) form of perfection but instead lies at the place where heaven meets earth, in the human heart that touches the sacred in a prayerful and responsive life. Love is that value that determines the worth of life both in heaven and on earth.

Read it if: you want some literature with Carmelite themes, or if you need some perspective on your mundane life.

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