As a priest, Father Cenabre was a paragon. He was austere in his habits, scrupulous in his adherence to Church precepts, rigorous in his intellectual writings, and freely fluent among fellow Parisian sophisticates. He would earnestly make and hear Confession, meticulously serve his penance, consistently read his breviary, and answer priestly calls. But Father Cenabre jealously guarded one small secret: Father Cenabre didn’t believe in God anymore.
Such is the beginning of Georges Bernanos’ 1927 novel, The Imposter – a tale centered on one man’s (one priest’s) apostasy. Lest one be skeptical that this story risks becoming a trite, billowy tale of a man’s self-indulgent “voyage of self-discovery”, rest assured. Bernanos takes his charge very seriously.
Bernanos paints the canvas of Father Cenabre’s character with fine brush strokes. An academic priest aloof toward his admirers’ accolades, Cenabre was enamored with his own probing mind, and intolerant of mediocrity in others. He reveled in tantalizing his followers by being “suspect” in his writings without being a true “renegade” on matters of faith. Bernanos’ dominant shade in the priest’s portrait is Pride. While maintaining a respectable veneer of decency, Cenabre would suffer no fools – and he privately defined most people as fools.
And yet Bernanos’ story clearly shows that the wages of Pride are severe. It seems that this most ungenerous of vices ultimately consumes Cenabre – first blotting out tenderness and empathy for his fellow-men , then ultimately and intolerably eclipsing the Author of Love Himself. Cenabre finds that his faith, “slowly broken down by a delight in deliberate doubt and the sacrilege of loveless curiosity, had vanished completely, like a hitherto pointless physiological function once an organ has been destroyed.” His only regret seems not to be the loss of God, but the spurned resentment that God died “without a bit of a show, a bit of thunder and lightning.”
And while the dangers of Pride dominate the story, it is not the canned, predictable narrative one might expect. The Imposter is a tale rife with the merciless reckoning that a loving yet just God demands of us when we cling to Pride in spite of His entreaties, His inexhaustible love, and His grace. Bernanos seems to warn again and again that we clutch Pride to our utter damnation. For Pride is the first among sins in that it achieves estrangement and dismisses reconciliation. It is in this writing that Bernanos is at his best.
“No one is cast into Hell unless he has first thrust aside and drawn away from the terrible but gentle hand of God without having felt its grip. No one is abandoned unless he has committed the essential sacrilege of denying not the justice but the love of God. For the terrible Cross of wood may stand at the first dividing of the ways in our life to admonish us gravely and severely, but the last image we see before we take ourselves away forever is that other Cross of flesh, the two outstretched arms of the grievously suffering Friend, when the highest angel turns away in terror from the Face of a rejected God.”
“Many are those who have thought themselves finished with the soul forever and who have awoken in the arms of their angel, having received the gift of tears at the gates of Hell, like a new childhood.”
“In the greatest people, pride [is] disturbingly naive.”
Cenabre’s proud apostasy is even further illuminated by his chief foil, Father Chevance. Chevance is a stunted shadow in the withering presence of the honey-tongued Cenabre. He is a dishevelled, ostracized, and stammering priest called upon to hear Cenabre’s dramatized confession of religious abandonment. However, instead of being dominated by the force of Cenabre’s character, Chevance acts as the classic Bernanosian figure of grace. He demands that Cenabre abandon all pretense and fall into deep and penitential prayer for reconciliation. Father Cenabre, fully captive to Pride, balks and regrets having confided in Chevance. The story tragically unfolds as one priest devotes his last spiritual ounces to redeeming another who falls deeper into the abyss of heresy.
The Imposter is an unsettling work written by a brilliant author. It reminds us that the sin of Pride can be remarkably subtle and can deviously consume us by small degrees. But Bernanos reminds us of the sanctifying grace that can overcome all:
“Nevertheless, however cunning [the devil] may be, even his most ingenious tricks can harm the soul only in a roundabout way, as a town may be taken by poisoning its wells. He clouds our judgment, soils are imagination, rouses our flesh and blood, uses the contradictions in our nature with infinite skill, leads our joys astray, makes our sadness more bitter, and distorts our actions and intentions, but even when he has overthrown everything, he has still destroyed nothing. He needs OUR final consent and can only obtain it if God has not had His say. For however long [the devil] thinks he has delayed divine grace, it will burst forth, and he awaits its necessary and inevitable outpouring with immense dread, for his patient work can be swept away in an instant. He does not know where the lightning will strike.”