Spirituality As A Disinterested Living

What is the position of the saint in the world teeming with the most complicated, the most sophisticated forms of evil?
Thomas S. Molner, “Bernanos: Hos Political Thought and Philosophy”

The spiritual man is not a strictly religious phenomenon: he is, rather, a man with a positive life whose being is heavy with the weight of God in him. He may be a simple peasant, a public figure, a young girl or a priest; in each case his life is centered on an Existence that is infinitely higher than his own.
Thomas S, Molner, Ibid.

What wonder, that one can give what one doesn’t possess! Oh, miracle of our empty hands!
Cure de Ambricourt (Priest of Ambricourt)

Make order. Make order all day long. Make order while thinking that disorder will take over the following day, because it is precisely within order, unfortunately, that the night will blow away yesterday’s work.
Cure de Torcy (Priest of Torcy)

Robert Bresson is not a Catholic, is not an agnostic, not a believer and not a non-believer but a deeply and irredeemably spiritual man

The way of the priest

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The small town’s prosaic main street is the only road the country priest can use to visit his parishioners of various ages, and sometimes he oversteps his conventional duties by adding psycho-therapeutic accents to his advices

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The intentionally ambiguous composition of this still emphasizes the ambiguity of the main character’s psycho-social situation. Is the young priest represented by Bresson “behind bars” because he is outside of the regular human life (outside the prison of the fallen world) or because this outside is a kind of solitary confinement that isolates him from the plenitude and exuberance of the created world? The painful split in the very essence of our hero’s destiny is his burden of simultaneously belonging to Christ and to the human kingdom. But Bresson’s “little vicar’s” situation is unique because he writes a diary – he has the need to report not only to God but to other human beings.

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This shot refers to the silent confrontation of the film’s protagonist with his raging illness and nearing death. The vicar’s task is how not to become obsessed with the inevitable –how still to keep perspective on life and on other people.

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To deal with parishioners means to permanently question your ideas about them in order to serve them better not only as a consoler but as the one who is obliged to say the painful truths.

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Casual meeting with a young man exposed to the experience of military service during the war, opens vicar to the fact that many priests die on the front line, but is his coming death different, and if it is, how? Composition of this shot suggests that the young man, as if, represents the whole world, while the priest occupies only its corner, but Bresson stimulates the viewers to decide whether the geographical aspect of the world is so decisive for defining the meaning of life.

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How not to die indifferent to life, how to die while still caring about the world of the living – disinterestedly, regardless of one’s personal situation – these feelings tormented the young Curé, also were awakening him for life of death.

The diary of the life’s soul

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It is incredible to see that the vicar of the local church is not appealing to god (is not praying enough) – he internalized god’s expectations, but he appeals to human beings, he looks for their attention and appreciation – through his diary.

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The priest of Ambricourt doesn’t (analytically) understand what he is writing – his life knows this and shares it with future readers of the diary. His diary then is an image of the soul of his life.

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His hand processes confessions of his life filtering them only by the grammar, without any self-censorship. Diary becomes a sacred mediation between human souls amidst the soul of Creation

The Count and Miss Louise

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The Count – one of the parishioners who, if to consider his influence on other people, can be called something like chief parishioner, hires Miss Louise as governess for his daughter. But he is still a healthy and an energetic man not alien to beautiful and engulfing romantic games.

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Indeed, why should he sacrifice his natural desire to sincerely love a beautiful woman?

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Miss Louise is young, attractive and lonely, and, of course, is ready to respond to the Count’s feelings with plumage of noble intentions

Country priest and Chantal, the count’s daughter

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But such is the condition of this world – the most natural and normal desires meet obstacles, sometimes very thorny ones.

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In this case the obstacle is the very existence of the count’s daughter, Chantal who perceives her father and her governess’ mutuality as intrusion of animosity into her world

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The situation is banal enough, but not to the eyes of Christ. Our priest delicately tries to stop the process of growing jealousy, resentment and vengefulness in Chantal’s soul.

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This is by no means an easy task – to reason a teenage girl, especially because the priest is too genuine of a believer to use dogmatic clichés about what’s happening in the human soul. For him right words are not what can influence life.

Martyrdom

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But how to curb the energies of hate in Chantal, in her father and in his mistress? How to stop Thanatos at work? Wars are Monsters that are not stoppable. Wars roll onto the point of maximum destruction.

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Vicar is shuffling and axing through his internal world trying to find a solution

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Vicar over-exhausts himself, and his body collapses right on the street full of puddles and mud

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Through physical pain and fear the priest gets the power to persevere

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Vicar’s illness became a magic cloak that made him endure

Priest of Torcy – a mentor, a tough friend and an admirer of the young priest

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Vicar of Torcy (Adrien Borel), priest of a neighboring, much bigger church, is a rare friend who tells the truth (what he really thinks), but with a sincere desire to help his young colleague by non-biased analysis of his shortcomings and by realistic recommendations.

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Vicar of Torcy criticizes the young priest but understands the godly origin of his inspiration. The presence of the bottle of wine between them and the filled glass is teasingly (intentionally) misleads viewers in order to emphasize that the obvious, visible reality contradicts its essential truth.

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The composition of this shot emphasizes, as if, the contrast in the positions of the two priests, while in reality it addresses the unity between them – the elder priest is encouraging the main character to continue, to leap ahead in spite of all the difficulties and not to lose confidence in his ways.

Blessing

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After severely scolding the young priest vicar of Torcy asks him for his blessing

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The young vicar (Claude Laydu) lets his hand make the gesture of… blessing, almost without his mind’s participation in the sacred ritual

Countess

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The countess, who is grieving for years over the death of her small son, was the most difficult case our vicar met on his path. How to relieve her soul from the incredible burden of resentful feelings against injustice God allowed to happen to her innocent child?

Seraphita

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Seraphita (the girl attending the catechism classes at the church) is a combination of spiritual nature and pagan (impish) impulses

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It is Seraphita who nursed the priest when he lost consciousness on the street, and she cleaned him up from his vomit (his stomach cancer was reaching the final stage)

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Seraphita confessed that she lied about the priest to different people and suffers about it. She is a child and for this reason carries the moral ambiguity inside which is not supposed to be matter-of-factly and punitively repressed, that could make her sinful impulses entrenched and revengeful.

________

Like Kenji Mizoguchi in his “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) used the joined (two-leitmotifs) narrative – the story of a concrete family – its destruction and its re-unification, which is simultaneously the story of the realization of father’s moral principle in the world through the heroic spiritual effort of the family members, Bresson earlier – in “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951) uses the same principle of joint semantics, when he combines the depiction of the priest’s everyday work of trying to help the people to keep peace in spite of their proclivity to pursue their greedy and quarrelsome survival, and the story of his untimely dying without bitterness and angry feelings. As a result, it is difficult to say, what Bresson’s film’s main focus – the priest’s spiritual work or the story of his personal life, illness and death.

While God and the place He occupies in the life of the parishioners, naturally, dominates religious dedications and the functions of a country priest as much as his personal feelings and thoughts, his private desire, the imperative of his soul is to write a diary – to appeal to another human beings, to explain himself without really understanding what it is about himself he wants to explain. His writing style is laconic and ascetic – all the sentiments, as if, are left to the blotting paper: Bresson shows this blotting paper again and again even before we witness the country priest making notes in his diary.

As a country priest the main protagonist of the film tries to mediate between god and human beings, but as a human being he is trying to accept his imminent death not because he doesn’t want his worries about it to intervene into his obligations but because any trepidations and vibrations about losing life wouldn’t for him be on the level of his ties with Creation, of his belonging to life and death.

For our young vicar there is no contradiction between his personal dedication to his vocation and his writing a secular document. It is two sides of what the hero of the film is really dedicated to – not to God outside human beings, not to human beings outside God (independently from their mortality), but the very relationships between human life and Creation. He wants to help these relationships, to help to prevent alienation of human beings from God, the possible misunderstanding of God by humans with catastrophic result of degraded human condition.

The semantically joined narration (concentration on the human and over-human) is already announced in the title of the film where the “country priest” shares place with the “diary”. The film starts with an introduction of the fact that the priest writes diary: “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness about the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” The opening of the first page of the diary starts with the blotting paper covering the hand-written text. It seems that what the blotting paper is to the text of the diary, the diary itself is to the priestly obligations of the priest and to his worries about his illness and coming death. As the priest hints in the beginning, “the simplest and the most insignificant things” are the most real and “complicated” (but not mysterious) attributes of human life beyond “mythological mysteries”. It is human spirituality itself without solemn and pompous mythologization. It is spirituality without pride, without psychologically defensive aggrandizement.

On a certain paradoxical level, in other words, the diary is motivated by humanized/ secularized faith, like the country priest’s personal mortality is inseparable from his work to repair human-god relationships.

People like to keep God simultaneously – on the periphery of their soul – at the distance: in the realm of readymade religious rituals and standard prayers, in the secure periodicity of expected sermons, and too close, in a symbiotic connection with themselves which provides security – immediacy of benevolent response. People treat God like they treat other human beings – without spiritual creativity, at once in an alienated way and with over-familiarity. They transform God into an authority to intimately whisper to his ears their requests for favors and for ultimate grand reward. They transform God into a kind of a Commander-in-Chief who explains his despotism by his love for his creatures, as they themselves explain their own parental despotism by their love for their children. And they transform Christ into some kind of a seducer seducing us into obedience through His unconditional love. But the young priest has a different picture of God-man relationships – personal, responsible, creative, serious, intense, and unique, without egoistic expectations, formal arrangement and sentimental evacuations. He wants people to be capable of engaging God in a spiritual mutual love which can transform their life into a sublime dedication to moral ideals.

Most of the people in the local parish take the priest’s “idealism” as a burden on them and even violence against them – they don’t have time and energy for this “excess of expectations”, they have their everyday life to be occupied with. They need God because they believe that God will help them in their everyday survival and rivalry with their neighbors. Like evil flees their gossip bites the priest’s disinterested dedication to his work. Still, there are some people who are able to appreciate the exceptionality of a priest who is dying of cancer amidst the bliss of his faith.

Several exceptional deeds in the midst of a hell of an exploitation of Christ by the nominal Christians, which were able to open the hearts of the spiritually sensitive people to Christ are the apotheosis of the country priest’s life where material asceticism unifies with spiritual plenitude.

The conventional ritualistic prayers to God is defined by the logic of the film’s images as an alternative to much more difficult frankness with other people (the essence of the vicar’s diary) as a contact with god’s image inside them.

Posted on Aug 5, 2015 –   “Diary of the Country Priest” (1951) By Robert Bresson by Acting-Out Politics