Reviewed by Patrick F. O'CONNELL, Gannon University, ERIE, PA 16501
Despite the subtitle, none of the three pieces in this collection by the author of The Diary of a Country Priest is a story in the generic sense. The first is an essay, the second a (fictional) sermon, the last and longest, a play (more specifically a screenplay). What links these otherwise disparate works, which span almost the entire course of Bernanos' writing career, is the author's preoccupation with sanctity, in fact with a certain kind of sanctity represented by the title The Heroic Face of Innocence. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (translator of Hans Urs von Balthasar's massive Bernanos - An Ecclesial Life) observes in his fine Foreword, "Bernanos proposes that the way to genuinely fruitful heroism,sanctity, and joy is the way of radical interior childhood, which is to say the way of the gospel of Christ, where the Savior states categorically:'Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'" (p. ix).
In the first selection, "Joan, Heretic and Saint" (1929), the Joan in question is of course Joan of Arc. (The English title does not quite capture of the nuances of the original "Jeanne, relapse et sainte," where"relapse" suggests the legal, in fact legalistic, connotations Bernanos intends much better than the more straightforward and less accurate"heretic.") Though marked, perhaps marred, by occasional notes of a militant, even militarist, spirit, such as the scornful reference to"distinguished pacifist prelates, dazzled by the dollar rate and impressed by the solidity of the good Burgundian coins" [p. 2] or to "certain pious folk of the tearful species, whom the least act of political violence drives to frenzy - a frenzy of streaming eyes and protruding tongues" [p. 9], the essay concerns itself only indirectly with the fifteenth-century military and political conflict between France and England. Its main focus is the more personal yet ultimately more significant confrontation between Joan and her accusers. Bernanos concentrates exclusively on her trial, in which the innocent wisdom of a young peasant girl is pitted against the overwhelming weight of authority vested in bishops, theologians and canon lawyers, a tribunal that Bernanos takes pains to emphasize was properly constituted and conducted its proceedings with due respect for all legal proprieties. For Bernanos, this encounter embodies the perpetual challenge of sanctity to security, of generosity to respectability, of love to calculation, of innocent self-gift to jaded self-interest. "The whole vast machinery of wisdom, strength, supple discipline, glory and majesty, is of itself nothing unless it is animated by love. Yet the lukewarm turn to it only for a guarantee against the risks of the divine" (p. 20). The essay represents a radical challenge to all authoritarian complacencies, to a facile assumption that the divine will is better discerned by the powers of this world--whether political or ecclesiastical, and especially both in combination--than by those ignored or despised or even condemned by the mighty because in their simplicity and purity of heart they are free enough to love without counting the cost, like the "little heroine who one day passed quietly from the stake of the Inquisition to Paradise, under the noses of a hundred and fifty theologians" (p. 20).
It would be difficult to conceive of two saints whose external lives resemble each other as little as those of Joan of Arc and Th‚rŠse of Lisieux, yet Bernanos clearly regards them as kindred spirits, each in her short life an incarnation of that "spirit of childhood" that "shall judge the world" (p. 23). "Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Th‚rŠse,"the second selection, was originally part of Les Grands cimetiŠres de la lune (1938), Bernanos' long meditation on the failure of Christian witness in the context of the Spanish Civil War. While that war receives no explicit mention in this essay, which stands quite well on its own, the failure of Christian witness certainly does. Bernanos invents a rather well-informed non-believer and places him in the pulpit of a typical parish church to hold up to the as usual, rather inattentive congregation a pitilessly accurate mirror, which paradoxically turns out to be the mirror of the Gospel. "Aren't you a little disturbed," he says, "by the fact that God should have reserved His most stringent maledictions for some of the very 'best' people, regular church-goers, never missing a fasting day, and far better instructed in their religion - excepting yourselves of course -than the majority of parishioners today? Doesn't such a huge paradox attract your attention? We can't help noticing it, you know" (p. 27). It is not the distinctiveness of Christians that exasperates the disappointed agnostic, but precisely the opposite, their failure to make the beliefs they claim to hold come alive: "Because you do not live your faith, your faith has ceased to be a living thing. It has become abstract - bodiless.Perhaps we shall find that the disincarnation of the Word of God is the real cause of all our misfortune" (p. 36). Gathered together to celebrate the feast of a saint who transformed the ordinary into the heroic by embracing the radical simplicity of the Gospel, they are completely oblivious to the ways in which the example of Th‚rŠse exposes the pathetic routines that pass for faith among them. The only hope for humanity, according to this singular homilist, is for Christians to be reborn in the Spirit of St.Th‚rŠse, the spirit of wise innocence that refuses to accept the world's claim that ideals are impractical and irrelevant: "The Saint of Lisieux,whose prodigious career is sufficient token in itself of the tragic urgency of the message entrusted to her, asks you to become as children. . . . I cannot help feeling that this is your last chance. Your last chance - and ours. Are you capable of rejuvenating our world or not?" (p. 35). Writtenon the eve of the Second World War, which provided its own stark reply to this question, this sermon is at once an outsider's harsh yet just indictment and a passionate believer's prophetic confession of Christian responsibility for the horrors about to be unleashed on an unrejuvenated world.
The third and last selection, which actually takes up three-quarters of the volume, is in fact Bernanos' final work, completed shortly before his death in 1948. Dialogues of the Carmelites is a film script based on Gertrud von le Fort's novella of the French Revolution, Song of the Scaffold, a fictionalized account of the execution of sixteen Carmelite nuns on July 17, 1794, during the final days of the Terror. Though the movie of the same name that was eventually produced owes little to Bernanos' text,his version survived not only on the page but on the stage, and became the basis for the celebrated opera of Francis Poulenc. While dependent for his general conception of the story on von le Fort and on the historical facts,Bernanos reworked his sources to express his own characteristic vision so thoroughly that in the words of Leiva-Merikakis the Dialogues "can serve as a summation of all his works" (p. xii). At the center of the drama is Blanche de la Force, von le Fort's fictional addition to the historical Carmelite martyrs, who is transformed by Bernanos into the last, and least likely, of his adolescent heroines of faith. Like Th‚rŠse, she enters Carmel as a teenager, but her motive seems to be primarily a desire for the safety and security of the cloister walls, which she hopes will protect her from the dangers of an increasingly unstable world; like Joan of Arc, she will die a martyr, but one whose fiercest battle is with her own timidity.Feeling herself incapable of living up to the standards of honor demanded by her noble blood, Blanche enters the convent just at the point when widespread public disturbances erupt into full-blown revolution, and discovers that the cloister can no longer provide a refuge. Forbidden by the authorities to profess religious vows, she nevertheless joins with her sisters in a private vow to offer herself as a martyr, a vow it appears she will fail to keep after she becomes separated from the community, only to emerge from the crowd and ascend the scaffold at the play's end, a victor over her own paralyzing fear. Surrounding this central character are a gallery of others equally finely drawn: Blanche's first prioress, herself an aristocrat who finds saving humility on her deathbed as she acknowledges and confesses to Blanche her own debilitating fear of death; her successor, a practical but deeply wise commoner who tries to deflect her sisters from the"certain exaltation" (p. 106) that draws them toward confrontation with the authorities; MŠre Marie of the Incarnation, the sub-prioress, who must surrender her own desire for martyrdom in a way that mysteriously inspires Blanche to take up her own cross; and not least, Blanche's fellow novice,Sister Constance, who is everything Blanche is not, filled with joy and courage and liveliness yet devoted to Blanche and confident that they will share the same destiny. These and the other women of the Compeigne Carmel create a group portrait of sanctity, exemplifying the contrasting yet complementary ways in which people of faith find their way, together yet alone, to God.
While the final selection is the most complex and the most satisfying, and could well stand on its own, it is enriched by being placed in the context of the two earlier pieces, each of them powerful and effective in its own way. Drawn from three decades of Bernanos' life, the three "stories" of The Heroic Face of Innocence enable the reader to trace in the lives of his three young heroines his "master theme" of redemptive innocence, authentic spiritual childhood, at once a sign of contradiction and a source of attraction for their world and for our own.Eerdmans is to be commended for bringing these selections together and making them widely available once again, as part of its "Ressourcement" series of reprints and new translations of major works of the mid-century European Catholic revival.