Who knows what will have come across your path, painful and otherwise, that as yet is not? Who knows what life-changing experiences will become yours that as yet are not? Who knows what the world will be like? I wonder where and how those experiences will leave you, in what shape you will find your heart and mind. One thing is sure, God will not have left us.
Perhaps you are familiar with George Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest (1936). It has incredible power to speak to our own human experience. God become US in Jesus and took all that is US to the cross with him, therefore nothing which is US excludes God. Incredible but true! Let’s look at where we might find ourselves and God in this novel.
Set in northern France the story concerns a young French priest beset by all sorts of woes, not the least being his own stomach problems which the locals attribute to drunkenness. Yet worse than that perhaps is the judgement he faces from others. The parish to which he is sent, Ambricourt, is notoriously lacking in faith, bored and ‘out to get’ this young idealistic priest who lives on potato soup and bread dipped in wine. Their need to know the love, forgiveness and understanding of God is glaringly obvious but they fight it off in every way possible. This young curate is laughed at by the Catechism class and criticised by the parishioners; his naivety and plain good will annoy them and his fellow priests object to his ascetic way of life.
He is not well born, is unattractive, a terrible homilist, socially inept, scrupulous and over-sentimental. He is a timid soul, terrified by the experience of his own dark night. His self-perceived inability to pray, his emotional weakness and his ineffectiveness in the care of souls torment him. He is a trial to himself and to others…and he keeps going.
Have you found yourself anywhere here yet? If not maybe you have found shades of someone you know.
The book continues and one begins to see that this man could very well identify with Isaiah’s suffering servant, “a man of sorrows, familiar with pain” 53:3. His life is so wretched one could almost think God too was out to “get him” yet he is firm. “God is not a torturer” and “all is grace” this novel says. One gets the sense that this curate and God have their own understanding relationship, faithfully confided to a diary.
On the outskirts of the town is the Chateau of M.le Comte, his wife the Comtesse and their daughter, Mlle Chantal. The Comte is having an affair. The daughter is consumed with anger and jealousy. The Comtesse is caught in terrible grief for her long-dead eighteen-month-old son, hatred for her daughter whom she blames for his death and a terrible bitterness toward God. The curate visits the Comtesse and with a tear running down his face says,
Hell is not to love any more, madame.
…But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.
He (God) is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don't place yourself beyond love's reach.
The Comtesse is changed and writes him a letter. His response is telling,
Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! One can’t help but think of Jesus on the Cross.
The Comtesse dies and her daughter spreads the rumour that the priest contributed to her death. Still our priest keeps going, bringing peace to both the daughter and the child who taunted him in the catechism class.
Finally he is diagnosed with stomach cancer and cared for by an old seminary friend who is lapsed and living with a woman out of wedlock. As he was dying the young man wrote:
Even from the cross ….. He did not own Himself a victim of injustice. ‘They know not what they do’….words some would like to call childish, but the spirits of evil must have been muttering them ever since without understanding, and with ever growing terror. Instead of the thunderbolts they awaited, it is as though a hand of innocence closed over the chasm of their dwelling.
Now let us consider this. Today, where are we? where do we want to be? Are we childish enough never to give up on God? Are we childish enough to believe in the God who can never and will never give up on us? Are we childish enough to forgive?
Croatian Protestant theologian and pastor, Miroslav Volf, once said, “I am not who I tell myself I am. I am not who other people tell me I am. I am who God tells me I am, and He tells me that I am His beloved.” Despite all to the contrary, our country priest knew this.
May this be the time of your life when despite all that happens, you will know it too.