Two priests in the wilderness

Unusually in this series on fictional clergy in twentieth century English fiction, I feature here both an Anglican in England and a Catholic priest in France. They both appear in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950. Set in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, it features three locations, two of which are counterparts in ruin. One, central London, is literally in ruins, as the young girl Barbary runs wild and free in the rubble of the City. (I’ve written elsewhere on the ruined church in fiction and Macaulay’s engagement with ruins.) The other, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, appears outwardly unchanged, but the Abbé Dinant sees societal ruin in prospect, and does what he can, in his compromised way, to avert it.

The abbé is compromised, as many were, by the recent history of Vichy government and German occupation. Faced with a choice between resistance and acquiescence, he chose the latter, as did his bishop; the two both rebuked the local curé for advocating resistance. Like other local notables, the abbé accommodated himself to the brute fact of German occupation, seeking to make the best of the situation while betraying no-one. A restraint on the violence of the Resistance during the war, he has saved many collaborators from vengeance since its end. ‘A man of good sense’ he is, according to a sympathetic, similarly compromised neighbour after 1945: ‘in these days, as before, his chief foe is Communism; he sees it as the devil, and as France’s first enemy, and he is right.’ (ch. 21) Though the Nazis were ‘barbarians and interlopers and the enemies of France, they were at least fighting the worst enemies of religion, civilisation and the true France, those impossible Bolsheviks.’ (ch. 2)

Part of the Communist threat the abbé thinks he sees is to the family, indeed to all the cultural markers of a Catholic France. The national vitality which had helped France recover before was now misdirected. ‘Work, country, family – those great ideals held before us by the old Marshal during the black years – are discredited by his disgrace, and held of little account now that those who always hated him are dominant. [But] they are great ideals, and always when we have turned our backs on them we have deserted our true role.’ Though he rarely expounds them as such, these values are religious ones; the true France – a Catholic France – is in graver danger in 1950 than ever it was in 1940. So, though he restrains himself from talking in explicitly religious terms to his worldly, unbelieving friends, the abbé tries (though without always succeeding) to preserve the outward face of a kind of consensual public morality, to keep all within the house of faith, however loose their attachment to it. ‘To sin in our Father’s house, that, though sacrilege, has its own blessedness. To stray in the wilderness outside, that is to be lost indeed.’ (ch. 20)

St Dunstan in the East.
Image: Peter Webster

While the abbé seeks to keep the roof on the house of faith, in London there is little left of it at all. Barbary and her friend have found in the ruins of a City church a place of play, of inversion and a kind of idle sacrilege; a transistor radio plays jazz, they decorate the walls, and sing distractedly from a torn hymn book (ch. 23). In their ritual they are joined by a thin and grey clergyman, with a ‘lost look in his deep-set eyes, and his mouth was set in lines of pain.’ He proceeds to celebrate communion and, standing where the pulpit once stood, proceeds to preach. But here was no message of reconstructive hope in the ruins, of Christian persistence in a time of trial. ‘We are in hell now’, his oration begins, and it spirals downward in despair and recrimination. ‘Fire creeps on me from all sides; I am trapped in the prison of my sins’. At last he sinks to his knees, shuddering, face in hands. ‘It was true, then’, thinks Barbary in tears, ‘about hell; there was no deliverance.’

Presently Father Roger is fetched by the young priest with whom he lives in a clergy house. We learn that the older man wanders the ruined churches of the city trying to find his own, in the burning rubble of which he was trapped for two days. ‘We all love him, but we can’t always save him from his nightmares.’ Between Father Roger’s derangement and his young brother’s charity, there is yet some small Christian life in the ruins of London and of Christian civilisation.

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