God has a destiny for everyone, but he calls some of us to a dead end. Our work comes to nothing and every day is an exercise in restless probing, questions we cannot stop ourselves from asking again and again:
Why am I here?
Why did God put me here, in this fallow field?
So say our hearts when we carry the weight of seemingly fruitless vocation.
In Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, the unnamed priest is burdened by this weight:
One day goes by, and then the next…. How empty they seem! I just get to the end of my day’s work, but I always put off till to-morrow the carrying out of the little plan I had in mind. Obviously I lack method. And I spend so much time out on the road. My nearest boundary is a distance of three good kilometres [sic]—the other, five. My bicycle is not much help since I can’t possibly ride uphill, especially on an empty stomach, without the most horrible pains…. Yet this parish looks so small on the map! When I think of how it takes a teacher well into the second term to get to know a class of thirty or forty children of the same age and type, brought up and educated alike—and even then he won’t always understand each one separately…. I feel that my life, all the sap of my life, will flow to waste in sand.
Placed in the small French parish of Ambricourt, the priest finds the country air heavy with ennui:
My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it. Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves—become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you.
Hardly anyone has much use for him. The church is near empty during mass, and the children in his catechism class play jokes at his expense. He doubts if God has much use for him either:
Somehow I can never quite believe that God will really employ me—to the utmost: make complete use of me as He does of the others.
The priest has ideas. He draws up small plans for the betterment of his parish, but when he tries to carry them out the results are meager. With little to show for his efforts, he despairs of having any impact on the parish:
Is this the showing of a leader, the head of a parish, a guardian of souls? For I ought to be master of my parish, yet I give myself away to them for what I am—a pitiful beggar, going from door to door with outstretched hand, not even daring to knock. Oh, yes—I’ve worked hard enough! I’ve done my best, and what’s the use? My best is nothing. A leader is not judged by his mere intentions: once he has assumed responsibility, he must answer for his results.
We take stock of our present, and from it we reckon the significance of our days. But who can profess to know the meaning of a story without knowing the ending?
It is through the priest’s due diligence to his parish obligations that God uses him. Without meaning to, the priest one day finds himself privy to an old, rich woman’s bitterness, accumulated over years of pain from the premature death of her son and mistreatment by her unfaithful husband.
The priest—who normally struggles to string words together—confronts her with her own sin of bitterness and hatred, and urges her to open her heart to God. After much internal torment, she does so. She dies the very next morning.
The priest is left to mourn, in awe of how God used him after all:
It’s all over now. Already the living picture has begun to fade, and I know that my memory will keep nothing save the image of a dead woman upon whom God has set His hand. What could I expect to retain in mind of such strange happenings, through which I tapped my way like a blind man? Our Lord had need of a witness, and I was chosen, doubtless for lack of anyone better, as one calls in a passer-by. I should be crazy indeed to imagine that I had a part, a real part in it. Already it is too much that God should have given me the grace to be present when a soul became reconciled to hope again—those solemn nuptials!
We can believe there is nothing to be done where we are—that our field is barren and fruitless—but God has practice at making something out of nothing:
Oh, miracle—thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling [sic] in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever was given back to her by God and—who can tell—perhaps in my name! Lord, I am stripped bare of all things, as you alone can strip us bare, whose fearful care nothing escapes, nor your terrible love!
However, even a God-granted success may not be the glory we await. No one else knows of the old woman’s reconciliation with God. By all appearances, the priest somehow upset her into an untimely death. The dead woman’s husband warns him not to meddle in his family affairs any further, and the villagers’ muttered suspicions that their priest is an alcoholic grow louder. (In reality, his stomach is too weak to handle much more than bread and wine).
After vomiting blood, the priest goes to see a doctor in a neighboring town. He is told he has stomach cancer and will not live much longer.
Though the priest is faced with the prospect of dying in ignominy within his own parish, he resolves to serve until the end:
During the last weeks or months that God may spare to me, while I can still look after a parish, I shall do my best, as always, to be careful. But I shall give less thought to the future, I shall work in the present. I feel such work is within my power. For I only succeed in small things, and when I am tried by anxiety, I am bound to say it is the small joys that release me.
He, too, dies the very next morning.
Was there glory in his life? Is there glory in our lives as we work where God has placed us, to what end we know not?
The weight of vocation with no fruit in sight threatens to overcome us now, but the weight of that eternal glory will be beyond all comparison.