Dr. Robert Hickson 6 November 2022
Saint Leonard of Limoges (d. 559)
Josef Pieper (d. 6 November 1997—R.I.P)
“Blessed Be He Who Has Saved a Child’s Heart From Despair”
Some Reflections from The Diary of a Country Priest (1937) by Georges Bernanos
“Don’t let your hour of mercy strike in vain.” (The Paperback 1954 Doubleday Edition, page 48)
“Blessed be he who has saved a child’s heart from despair.” (Ibid., Page 41)
“What is this Sloth which can merit the extremity of divine punishment? St.Thomas’s answer is both comforting and surprising: tristitia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of spiritual good. Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty… but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair.” (Evelyn Waugh, Collected Essays, page 573 of the “Sloth” Essay.)
In view of Georges Bernanos’ 1937 spiritual novel The Diary of a County Priest—first published in French, just before the outbreak of World War Two—we now also come to understand better (and often thus savor) a fresh supernatural Beatitude: about saving a child from despair. Does it not gradually become a binding obligation of our Catholic Faith in its fuller virtue?
That is to say, “Blessed be he who has saved a child’s heart from despair.” Such a Beatitude comes from, and depends upon, Grace—i.e., the indispensable (and gracious) Order of Grace.
My German wife, Maike Maria, was immediately touched by this implicit beatitude—and was freshly inspired—by this effectively proposed new Beatitude; and she thus guided me also at the challenging end of my preparatory, mortal temporal life, too. We shall try to convey in this short essay some of these intimate insights.
For example, it will relate how the sacrament of Extreme Unction channels and prepares a stronger life of grace with clarity and strength. Moreover, there are two forms of hopelessness: despair and presumption. The Sin of Spiritual Sloth is one of the Seven Capital Sins, and an effective preparation for the Sin of Despair. Other interwoven insights will now follow, especially about growing in Spiritual Childhood and letting the Little Ones come loyally and affectionately to Christ.
Indeed, at the core of these reflections is “the concept and reality of spiritual childhood.” We are to live and die supernaturally alive in sanctifying grace. The Lord also spoke of (and to), the Little Ones –unless you become a little one….!
The Diary of a Country Priest ends with the diarist’s words as he died:
“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….” (page 233, my emphasis added).
The priest (Curé) of Ambricourt now thus introduces us to his parish and village:
My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it. Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you.
This thought struck me yesterday on my rounds. It was drizzling. The kind of thin, steady rain which gets sucked in with every breath, which seeps down through the lungs into your belly. Suddenly I looked out over the village, from the road to Saint Vaast along the hillside – miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate, ugly November sky. On all sides damp came steaming up and it seemed to sprawl there in the soaking grass like a wretched worn-out horse or cow. What an insignificant thing a village is. And this particular village was my parish! My parish, yes, but what could I do? I stood there glumly watching it sink into the dusk, disappear…. In a few minutes I should lose sight of it. I had never been so horribly aware both of my people’s loneliness and mine. I thought of the cattle which I could hear coughing somewhere in the mist, and of the little lad on his way back from school clutching his satchel, who would soon be leading them over sodden fields to a warm sweet-swelling byre…. And my parish, my village seemed to be waiting too – without much hope after so many nights in the mud – for a master to follow towards some undreamed-of, improbable shelter.
Oh, of course I know all this is fantastic. Such notions can scarcely be taken seriously. A day-dream! Villages do not scramble to their feet like cattle at the call of a little boy. And yet, last night, I believe a saint might have roused it….
Well, as I was saying, the world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought: you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust. You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it. It is sifted so fine, it doesn’t even grit on your teeth. But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be for ever on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’ Perhaps the answer would be that the world has long been familiar with boredom, that such is the true condition of man. No doubt the seed was scattered all over life, and here and there found fertile soil to take root; but I wonder if man has ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some way like the fermentation of a Christianity in decay.
(Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, translated from the French by Pamela Morris, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1937, 1954, pages 1-2 – my emphasis added)
Despite the many pervasive manifestations of sadness and intimate sorrow, the Curé of Ambricourt touches the heart and affirms almost everyone he meets. For example: experience the betrayed Countess, also young Chantel; and the sensitive French Foreign Legionnaire (and motor-cyclist), and the Curé de Torcy (the faithful mentor of the idealistic and younger priest).
The reader will be profoundly enriched by this text, and he will want to savor its slow wisdom and eloquence—at least more than thrice down the years.
Let there be hope for the Little Ones. And a yearning for sustained Grace.