“The last-born of their ancient race, celestial hostage round which demons howl.”
Image: Nesterov’s Annunciation
The following two extracts about Our Lady are taken from Georges Bernanos’ 1937 novel The Diary of a Country Priest.
This novel is about the short ministry of a young, newly-appointed parish priest in the French countryside. As the novel progresses, he suffers more and more with the problems he faces, both in his ministry and with physical pain and medical problems.
The first extract is an excerpt of a conversation between the young priest and the older, more experienced priest, Abbé de Torcy, in which the latter describes the innocence of Our Lady in very striking terms, and tells us how we should approach her.
Soon after the conversation, whilst making evening rounds of his parish, the young priest is overcome with pain and faints. The second extract consists of some of his semi-conscious experiences as he tries to make his way home. Are they hallucinations, or something more?
Line breaks added by The WM Review.
The Diary of a Country Priest
Translated by Pamela Morris
“And what of Our Lady? Do you pray to Our Lady?”
“We all say that — but do you pray to her as you should, as befits her?
“She is Our Mother — the mother of all flesh, a new Eve. But she is also our daughter.
“The ancient world of sorrow, the world before the access of grace, cradled her to its heavy heart for many centuries, dimly awaiting a virgo genetrix. For centuries and centuries those ancient hands, so full of sin, cherished the wondrous girl-child whose name even was unknown. A little girl, the queen of the Angels!
“And she’s still a little girl, remember! The Middle Ages understood that well enough. They understood everything. But you can’t stop fools from reconstructing “the drama of the Incarnation”, as they call it! People who seem to think it adds to the dignity of a simple magistrate to dress him up like Punch, and plaster gold braid over a station-master’s sleeve, are too nervous to tell unbelievers that the one and only drama, the drama of dramas — since there is no other — was played without scenery, was never really staged.
“Think of it! The Word was made Flesh and not one of the journalists of those days even knew it was happening! When surely their experience should have taught them that true greatness, even human greatness, genius and courage, love, too — that “love” of theirs — it’s the devil to recognize ’em! So that ninety-nine times out of a hundred they have to take bouquets of rhetoric to the graves. The dead alone receive their homage.
“The blessedness of God! The simplicity of God, that terrible simplicity which damned the pride of the angels . Yes, the devil must have taken one look at it, and the huge flaming torch at the peak of creation was plunged down into the night. The Jews were certainly pretty dense, or they’d have known that God-become-man, achieving man-made perfection might well pass unnoticed — you had to keep your eyes skinned.
“That triumphant entry into Jerusalem, for instance — so lovely! Our Lord deigned to taste of human triumph, as of other things, as of death. He rejected none of our joys, He only rejected sin.
“His death! What a good job of it He made, not one thing lacking!
“But His triumph is one for children, don’t you think? There’s a painting of Epinal with the baby donkey and its mother, the palms, and country folk clapping their hands. A charming, slightly ironical parody of royal splendour. Our Lord seems to smile. Our Lord often smiles. He says to us:
“‘Don’t take all these things too seriously, though there are permissible triumphs: as when Joan of Arc shall ride again into Orleans under flowers and banners, in fine cloth-of-gold — I don’t want her to think she’s doing wrong. As you’re so keen on it, My poor babes, I have sanctified your triumph, I have blessed it, as I blessed the wine from your vineyards.'”
“And it’s just the same with miracles. He performs no more than necessary. Miracles are the pictures — the pretty pictures in the book.
“But remember this, lad, Our Lady knew neither triumph nor miracle. Her Son preserved her from the least tip-touch of the savage wing of human glory. No one has ever lived, suffered, died in such simplicity, in such deep ignorance of her own dignity, a dignity crowning her above angels.
“For she was born without sin — in what amazing isolation! A pool so clear, so pure, that even her own image — created only for the sacred joy of the Father — was not to be reflected. The Virgin was Innocence.
“Think what we must seem to her, we humans. Of course she hates sin, but after all she has never known it, that experience which the holiest saints have never lacked, St. Francis of Assisi himself, seraphic though he may be.
“The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sorrow.
“Yes, lad, to pray to her as you should you must feel those eyes of hers upon you: they are not indulgent — for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience — they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something which makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a mother, by grace, Mother of all grace, our little youngest sister.”
[Some time later…]
I had to pay some more calls on the outskirts of Galbat, where the roads are very bad. […] A little further on I must have fainted for the first time. I thought I was still struggling on, yet I felt the icy clay against my cheek. At last I got up. I even hunted for my rosary amongst the brambles. My poor head was played out.
Visions of the Virgin Child as M. le Curé had described her kept on appearing to me, and however hard I tried to regain complete consciousness, my prayers merged into dreams which at times I realized were absurd.
Impossible to say how long I had been walking thus. Happy or otherwise, these ghosts were no good to the terrible pain, doubling me. This alone, I believe, kept me from sinking into madness, it was the one anchorage in this tide of vain phantasies.
Here as I write they still pursue me, but fill me with no remorse, thank heaven, since my mind would not accept them, refused such boldness… How powerful are the words of a man of God! Not that I ever believed in a vision in the accepted sense: I can swear that I did not, since the memory of wretchedness, of indignity clings to me still.
Yet the picture shaping itself in me was not of those that can be welcomed or repelled at will. Dare I even write it down?
(Ten lines crossed out here.)
… the sublime being whose tiny hands hushed the thunder, hands full of graces — I watched her hands. I kept seeing them and not seeing them, and as the pain surged up in me and I felt myself reeling again, I caught one of those hands in mine.
It was a child’s hand — a child of the poor — rough already from the wash-tub.
And then — how can I express it?— I didn’t want it to be a dream, yet I remember closing my eyes. I feared, in opening them, to look upon the face before which all must kneel.
Yet I saw it. And it was the face of a child, too — or a very young girl — only without the spark of youth. It seemed the very face of grief, but a grief I had never known, which I could in no way share. It was so near to my heart, the wretched heart of a man, and yet out of my reach…
There is no human sorrow lacking bitterness, but this sweet sorrow lacked even strife — it was only surrender. It made me think of a vast soft night. It was infinite. Sorrow, after all, springs from experience of human wrong, and such knowledge is never pure: this sorrow was innocent.
I understood then some sayings of M. le Cure which had seemed obscure at the time.
In some miraculous way God must have veiled that virgin sorrow, for blind and callous though they are, men would surely have known their beloved daughter: the last-born of their ancient race, celestial hostage round which demons howl. Humanity would have thronged to shield her, made for her a rampart of their mortal flesh.
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