Claude Laydu in ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ (Album/Alamy Stock Photo)

Pressure at the Seam

Stories of ministers in crisis

It is sometimes argued that every story has already been told, that all the narratives can be reduced to something we’ve heard before—star-crossed lovers, hubristic self-destruction, disillusionment with youthful ideals. For many, this is the draw of literature and film: the hope that through the embellishments of setting or character we might catch a glimpse of our own plot. Simple reiteration is undeniably a human impulse. We see it in folk tales, myths, and the Gospels.

We also see it in literary fiction. The twentieth-century novel has running through it a thick thread that is distinctly Christian, and one fiber of this thread is a particular kind of story retold in many books and films over the past century—that of a Church leader under pressure at the seam where the modern world and an ancient faith come together like two tectonic plates.

It would be wrong to suggest that any version of this story is an exact retelling of any other. Each reimagines and borrows from earlier versions. The overlaps can be as small and local as an echoed phrase, or as large and general as a character or a theme. But there are some reliable markers: a pastor failing to connect with his or her flock from the pulpit, struggling with lust, alcohol, depression, or bodily illness, and ultimately confronting a crisis of faith.

Among the most recent examples of this kind of story is Hanne Ørstavik’s 2004 novel The Pastor, which was translated into English by Martin Aitken and published last year by Archipelago Books. Ørstavik’s novel begins in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer at a church in a remote fishing village in northern Norway. Despite being a fairly new arrival, Liv, the pastor, is already disillusioned not only with the job but with herself. Her sense of uncertainty is due in part to how she came to her vocation, having abandoned a theology doctorate after the sudden death of an intimate friend, Kristiane. Liv’s self-consciousness is potent: even as she administers the Eucharist to the members of her congregation, she recalls her embarrassment at the boredom she put them through during her first sermon, when she spoke for half an hour until people eventually started to get up and leave.

This scene is familiar: versions of it appear in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light, which begins with Pastor Tomas Ericsson looking out onto a nearly empty church, ready to perform the Eucharistic rites. Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed, opens the same way. Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest begins with its title character reflecting that his parish is “like all the rest. They’re all alike. Those of to-day,” by which he means plagued by the “leprosy of boredom.”

These pastors are balanced on the cusp between hope and despair, and they struggle to keep their balance not with saintly equanimity, but with fumbling, strained humanity.

The plots of these books and films are driven by the pastor’s interactions with his or her parishioners, and it is a given that one of the pastor’s main duties is to quell the anxieties of the faithful by helping them confess their sins to God. But these stories are about a modern age in which the faithful have secular anxieties and approach their pastors not to confess their sins but to demand answers for their questions about a world from which God often feels absent. These pastors, themselves not immune from such doubt, are balanced on the cusp between hope and despair, and they struggle to keep their balance not with saintly equanimity, but with fumbling, strained humanity.

This fumbling is especially painful when the ordained protagonist is called upon to provide solace to the bereaved after a suicide, a plot point that becomes a through line for these narratives. In such moments, we sense that the pastors do not even believe their own empty words of comfort. In Winter Light, Ericsson, in an attempt to reassure a suicidal man, can do nothing but talk of his own doubt: “If there is no God, would it really make a difference?”

The impenetrable solitude evoked by suicide is counterbalanced by a second challenge facing the pastor in the form of a looming societal evil. For Bergman, it’s an ambient dread of the atomic bomb; for Bernanos, the past tragedy of World War I and the imminence of the second; for Schrader, climate change. For Ørstavik, it’s the past and present oppression of the indigenous Sami people by settlers in the north of Norway.

 

Liv feels alienated not only from her parish but also from her past. As a university student, she gave up her studies in social economics because she was unable to find meaning in the subject, as “the variables in the economic models were trucks that drove this way and that, shifting their crates and pallets, great stacks that were wrapped up and sealed, meaning I couldn’t see what was inside.” There’s no sense of her spiritual life before her conversion scene, which is brief and relatively quiet: caught in the rain while walking across campus, she stops for a moment and then heads straight to a lecture in the department of theology, an academic subject for which she admits she does not have a natural aptitude. Even now she has only this to say about why she chose it when she did: “The ground just caved in beneath me.”

Her inner turmoil—insofar as the reader is allowed to glimpse it—has less to do with God than with the few people in her life: Nanna, a woman who lives in the pastor’s residence, and her daughters, a teenager named Maja and a young girl named Lillen, who form a kind of adoptive family for Liv. As they grow closer to her, their own demons become apparent. Liv is haunted by her memories of Kristiane. There are no indications of any intimacy beyond friendship, but there was undeniably an intensity of feeling between them. The relationship (lasting just forty days—a detail rather too on the nose) shaped Liv’s perception of herself as an intellectually driven person unable to connect with people emotionally. Kristiane, an exuberant empath, eventually took her own life, prompting Liv’s departure north.

Hanne Orstavik, 2019 (Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is also a faceless character in the novel who persistently agitates Liv’s consciousness. This particular region of Norway is home to the Sami, a community of Norwegians descended from aboriginal people. The Sami have been oppressed by the state’s efforts to force them to assimilate and the Church’s efforts to force them to convert. Liv’s dissertation had drawn on the correspondence between a bishop and a pastor in the time leading up to and during the 1852 Kautokeino Rebellion, when the Sami people of the area staged a violent uprising after years of suffering physical abuse and disruptions to their community caused by the introduction of alcohol. Pages of this correspondence appear in italics between the novel’s scenes, the pastor’s cruel condescension rattling like hollow wind through the text.

Both of Liv’s vocations, pastoring and scholarship, are logocentric in way that bothers her:

I’d always found it silly, the idea that you can make things happen with words alone. There has to be something else, something more. Words need to encounter something other than words if they’re to be meaningful, they have to emerge from something in life, something that comes from within, or at least from some other place, something that can lend them fullness and weight.

Both her sermons and her dissertation—and the letters on which her dissertation is based—are impotent words. They make nothing happen. Liv struggles to reconcile her profession of belief at church with the world as she experiences it.

But is Liv really a believer? Ørstavik carefully rations the reader’s access to Liv’s inner life in a way that makes this question hard to answer. After a frustrating conversation with Kristiane about her research, Liv thinks, “It was more the feeling that I was so alone with it, alone within it. Alone in something that was so important to me. That was the reason for my despair, I’d felt utterly alone. That was what she hadn’t seen.” But readers can only see what we are shown, and much of Kristiane’s experience remains unavailable to us. Ørstavik, like Bergman, makes use of the Nordic landscape to set a frigid emotional tone. “The flat, open vista seemed to make everything so plain, but still felt like I couldn’t get a hold on anything, as if I was so very far away.” Ørstavik’s writing can be like this vista: the untroubled glassy surface of the prose is deceptive; it does not provide a clear window through which to see into the heart or soul of Liv. The unrelenting cold of the novel’s setting becomes a symbol of the barrage of tragedies that confront Liv in her ministry—among them the suicide of an adolescent girl. Liv’s fumbling attempts to minister to the girl’s parents are met with a clipped “We are not church people.”

 

The younger priest isn’t satisfied with comforting his parishioners; he also wants to educate them.

The Pastor’s literary lineage can be traced back to the 1936 novel The Diary of a Country Priest. Near the beginning of that book, the young priest of the title, newly installed at a parish in a remote French village called Ambricourt, identifies the enemy of his vocation: boredom, which settles over everything “like a dust.” He recognizes that boredom has always been a factor in humanity’s dissatisfaction, but wonders if the condition has become more intense in his own time—an acrid apathy rising from the body of “Christianity in decay.”

The young priest is sincere, if more than a little self-serious. He is thrown into relief by M. le Curé, an older priest painted in shades of Falstaff. M. le Curé enjoys telling his younger colleague about a time when priests lived comfortably and ate well. (The younger priest, meanwhile, is sustaining himself on rotgut wine and the occasional hunk of bread, the consequence of poor pay and a familial background of poverty.) But the decadence of priesthood past, M. le Curé argues—in the first of many long speeches recorded in the young priest’s diary—was preferable to current poverty in that it provided a sense of vicarious comfort to those in the pews. And it’s comfort above all, he argues, that a good parish priest provides to his flock. He does this through his daily ministry and through example, not just his preaching. “You don’t expect the church to teach them joy in one wretched half-hour a week, do you? And even if they knew all the articles of the Council of Trent by heart, I doubt it would cheer them up very much.”

But the younger priest isn’t satisfied with comforting his parishioners; he also wants to educate them. He rides his bike from house to house, offering spiritual guidance (often to wearily tolerant listeners). He is able to bring a countess who had strayed from the Church back to her faith over the course of a long conversation, one of the novel’s major set pieces. Yet, like Liv, he has his own doubts. He writes in his diary that he is aware “of an invisible presence which surely could not be God—rather a friend made in my image, although distinct from me, a separate entity.” In his biography of Bernanos, Robert Speaight quotes a letter in which Bernanos says only that his priest “will have served God in exact proportion to his belief that he has served Him badly. His naïveté will win out in the end, and he will die peacefully of a cancer.”

There are two doctors in Bernanos’s novel. Near the beginning, the first commits suicide, and in doing so puts a crack in the priest’s spiritual confidence; he begins to worry about loss of faith, while also deriding the whole concept of losing faith as “one of those sayings of bourgeois piety.” Yet after the suicide, he admits, “In my soul nothing. God is silent.” His fatal cancer is diagnosed by an anticlerical doctor who turns out to be an opium addict. However little solace faith may offer, science, represented by medicine, offers none.

Robert Bresson would adapt Bernanos’s novel to film in 1951. In 1963, Ingmar Bergman made Winter Light, a film with many similarities to The Diary of a Country Priest. Bergman’s Pastor Ericsson is a man made cruel by grief, and wracked by his own religious doubts. Bergman’s plot is far sparer than Bernanos’s or Ørstavik’s; it occurs over a single day and follows one set of doomed parishioners—a pregnant woman and her husband, a man driven to suicide by his despair at the threat of nuclear war. What it means to take one’s own life, and what might lead a person to do so, are questions in the background of all three of these works. The questions are never directly asked—much less answered—but the reader hears their thrum behind much of the dialogue.

Ethan Hawke in ‘First Reformed’ (AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Explicitly remarked upon are the worldly concerns that plague the lonely pastor and his flock, concerns that shift to align with the moment in which these books and movies were released. War’s evil effects, rippling ever outward, are felt throughout The Diary of a Country Priest, which was written on the cusp of World War II. In Winter Light, it’s the atomic bomb. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (which quotes directly from The Diary and borrows heavily from Winter Light) follows a minister and a churchgoer both radicalized by ecoterrorism. One of the protagonist’s final conversations in The Diary is with a veteran of World War I, who savagely dresses Christendom down for ceding to modern politics and the attendant thirst for war, declaring, “You’ve secularized us. The first real secularization was that of the soldier. And it’s some time ago now.”

Like Bernanos’s book, The Pastor suggests that science provides no satisfactory solution to our existential problems. The science that Liv is skeptical of is not medical but social. She has turned away from economics to study theology because the economic model of understanding human behavior seems to her too certain of itself. Ørstavik appears to share this skeptical view of the science, which cannot, for example, correct for the depth of the injustices the Sami people have been made to suffer. Unfortunately for Liv, however, theology also seems powerless to redeem those injustices. “Wasn’t that what the Bible said? That they [the Sami] were equal unto others? Shouldn’t they then be heard?...But it didn’t work that way.”

There is no theology that can articulate with sufficient intimacy and nuance the sense of disillusionment these characters feel.

How best to describe succinctly what these books and films have in common? Is it an argument, a mood, or just a common set of circumstances? The ministers in all these stories are caught in the liminal space between belief and unbelief that we know as doubt. This doubt finds expression through art because there is no theology that can articulate with sufficient intimacy and nuance the sense of disillusionment these characters feel. It cannot be resolved, systematically, doctrinally, or otherwise. Narrative art, whether novels or movies, offers an honest depiction of the spiritual displacement of modernity, and gives voice to its intense loneliness. And though such art foregoes easy resolutions and consolations, it does not refuse hope. Bergman ends his film with Pastor Ericsson once again in his pulpit, though his pews are empty. Bernanos’s novel ends with his young priest’s dying words: “What does it matter? All is Grace.” In The Pastor’s final scene, Liv dons her vestments, “scared that there was no truth,” that she is binding herself in “layer upon layer of something that wasn’t truthful, until at last I’d be unable to extricate myself”—and then extends her hand to the bereaved mother. Winter Light “penetrated certainty,” in Bergman’s words, but what Liv is looking for is not certainty exactly. In any case, certainty is not available to any of these characters; they are all too mired in the muck of this world, no less so than the people to whom they minister.

It’s a troubling tension familiar to many religious believers today, as they try to fit an ancient faith into a modern world that often seems to have no room for it. They look to stories to aid them in this task, and the stories that succeed neither pretty up nor condemn our modern world, but in their honesty continue to hold our attention. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, there is a Dominican church where one of the friars will often stand on the steps smoking a cigarette, dressed in his cassock. Passersby notice him and double-take with a smile at the sight of him, a visible conjunction of the ancient and modern, his nonchalant stance evoking both the relics of Christendom and smoky barrooms. A faint glimpse of all that exists where those two worlds meet lingers like the wisp of smoke from his fingertips.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Lauren Kane is the managing editor of the New York Review of Books.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture
Collections