[Rough Draft]

A weblog about god, doubt, insomnia, culture, baseball

9.12.2004

writings of, and about, flannery o'connor

on writing christian realism in an unbelieving age:
we live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual. there is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself and who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as creator and lord; consequently, he has become his own ultimate concern . . . .

there is another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known analogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally . . . .

and there is another type of modern man who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost god.

@ its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and @ its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live w/ it happily. the fiction which celebrates this last state will be the least likely to transcend its limitations, for when the religious need is banished successfully, it usually atrophies, even in the novelist. the sense of mystery vanishes. a kind of reverse evolution takes place, and the whole range of feeling is dulled.

the searchers are another matter. pascal wrote in his notebook, "if i had not known you, i would not have found you." these unbelieving searchers have their effect even upon those of us who do believe. we begin to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness, to purify them in the heat of our unbelieving neighbor's anguish. what xtian novelist could compare his concern to camus? we have to look in much of the fiction of our time for a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of a god who has revealed himself . . .

what i say here would be much more in line w/ the spirit of our times if i could speak to you about the experience of such novelists as hemingway and kafka and gide and camus, but all my own experience has been that of the writer who believes, again in pascal's words, in the "god of abraham, isaac, and jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars." this is an unlimited god and one who has revealed himself specifically. it is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. there is no way to gloss over this specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought. this god is the object of ultimate concern and he has a name. (69-70.)
on the holy roman catholic church:
i think that the church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of xt and that on this we are fed.

in her correspondence, o'connor often assumed the role of besieged defender of the faith. both as a catholic in the heart of the protestant south and as a believe in dialogue w/ the culture of skepticism, o'connor felt the constant challenge, as st. paul would put it, to "account for the faith and hope w/in her." (73.) her favorite writers were figures like romano guardini, pierre teilhard de chardin, and their counterparts from an earlier era -- baron von hugel and cardinal newman -- who had struggled to enlarge the space for a certain intellectual freedom in the church. @ the same time she was critical of a type of liberalizing pressure to make catholicism more acceptable to the rational mind. that way, she believed, lay the "vaporization" of religion. when the church was stripped of its certainties, she feared, it was liable to become just another "elks club." among her constant themes -- the most perplexing to her liberal friends -- was the importance of dogma. rather than limiting the freedom of the believer, she believed, dogma was an essential safeguard of mystery. it preserved the sense of something "larger than human understanding." (74.)
on the body of christ:
i was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner w/ mary mccarthy and her husband, mr. broadwater. (she just wrote that book, a charmed life.) she departed the church @ the age of 15 and is a big intellectual. we went @ 8 and @ 1, i hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. the people who took me were robert lowell and his now wife, elizabeth hardwick. having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome w/ inadequacy had forgotten them. well, toward morning the conversation turned on the eucharist, which i, being the catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. mrs. broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the holy ghost, he being the "most portable" person of the trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. i then said, in a very shaky voice, "well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." that was all the defense i was capable of but i realize now that this is all i will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable. (76 (-- to "a," dec 16, 1955)).
on the church in america:
you don't serve god by saying: the church is ineffective, i'll have none of it. your pain @ its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to god. we help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it. (83.)
to a young writer @ emory university struggling w/ his faith:
i certainly don't think that the death required that "ye be born again," is the death of reason. if what the church teaches is not true, then the security and emotional release and sense of purpose it gives you are of no value and you are right to reject it . . .

and

mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. it grows along w/ knowledge. (92, 94.)
finally, of joy in her sickness (which untimately killed her @ age 39):
she accepted her condition w/ grace, even coming to see her outward constraints as contributing to her vocation as an artist: "what you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so i tell myself." from teilhard de chardin she borrowed the phrase "passive diminishment." this referred to the fact that our spiritual character is formed as much by what we endure and what is taken from us as it is by our achievements and our conscious choices. this was the same drama depicted in the life of so many of her fictional characters, as they were stripped of their sins and even their evident "virtues" in order to receive a deeper truth.

overall, o'connor understood that her particular vocation as an artist was subsumed in the larger vocation shared by every xtian -- "to prepare his death in christ." in this journey toward what she called her "true country" she was assisted by scripture, the sacraments, and the convictions of her faith, as well as the support and prayers of her friends. many of her greatest stories were written in the last months of her life. but it is clear from her letters, as sally fitzgerald observed , that by the end she had attained not only her form as an artist, but "her personal form as well." (145-46.)
and 2 things @ the last. flannery did not seek to gloss over the costliness of faith ("what people don't realize is how much religion costs. they think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. it is much harder to believe than not to believe (153)), nor did she seek belief and joy w/o a tremendous mesaure of tenacious courage: "picture me w/ my ground teeth stalking joy -- fully armed too as it's a highly dangerous quest. the other day i ran up on a wonderful quotation: "the dragon is @ the side of the road waching those who pass. take care lest he devour you! you are going to the father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." (149 (--to "a," jan 1, 1956)).

but ultimately, something i like to think was written, unconsciously, to me, for i love this great woman:
having been a protestant, you may have the feeling that you must feel you believe; perhaps feeling belief is not always an illusion but i imagine it most of the time; but i can understand the feeling of pain on going to communion and it seems a more reliable feeling than joy. (151.)
quotes are from flannery o'connor: spiritual writings, ed. robert ellsberg (maryknoll, ny: orbis books, 2003).

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