Monday, December 27, 2010

Flannery's Fabulous Christian Realism


My husband gave me "Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings" for Christmas and I think I am in love. I have never really "gotten" Flannery O'Connor as a fiction writer. As with my feelings towards St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Flannery loved, I have respected and admired from afar without really understanding what all the fuss was about.

I must be getting wiser in my old age. Last month, for the first time ever, I read one of Aquinas' propositions all the way through; and, at the end, a stubborn door of perception in my mind blew off its hinges and light flooded in. What a magnificent insight into divine reality St. Thomas' mind managed to communicate through pure reason!

I am now finding Flannery a kindred spirit, a soul-mate in her view of the intricacy with which a Catholic writer treads the pathways of a society that does not see the Catholic Church in its beauty as the Mystical Body of Christ but instead views it as fascistic, repressive, and a totally human organization with only delusions of divine institution.

In a letter to Betty Hester (identified only as "A" in The Habit of Being), O'Connor writes:

"I can't concede that I'm a fascist," wrote Flannery. "I am wondering why you convict me of believing in the use of force? It must be because you connect the Church with a belief in the use of force; but the Church is a mystical body which cannot, does not, believe in the use of force (in the sense of forcing conscience, denying the rights of conscience, etc.). I know all her hair-raising history, of course, but principle must be separated from policy. Policy and politics generally go contrary to princple. I in principle do not believe in the use of force, but I might well find myself using it, in which case I would have to convict myself of sin."

The problem for Rae as for Flannery as for all strongly Catholic minds is that the Church we love is a supernatural entity created to carry and communicate the knowledge and grace of Christ's Redemption through time, administered and populated by sinners whose understanding and acceptance of Redemption can be seriously warped and even deliberately perverted.

One bad apple can spoil a whole barrel. Bad apples in the body of Christ can spoil whole batches of potential disciples.

"Of course I do not connect the Church exclusively with the Patriarchal Ideal. The death of such would not be a death of the Church, which is only now a seed and a Divine one. The things that you think she will be added to, will be added to her. In the end we visualize the same thing but I see it as happening through Christ and His Church."

The italics are mine. I think that this is a truth that I very much need to keep in mind as I tiptoe through the minefields of today's culture wars: In the end both sides visualize the same thing. Utopia, in a Platonic sense, or the new heavens and the new earth, in a Christian sense -- a society of endless freedom, bounty, love and creativity for all. I, like Flannery, see it happening through Christ and His Church. But others see it happening through the elimination of the Church and faith in Christ ("Imagine there's no heaven... and no religion too.")

It is not the bad apples that cause the biggest difficulty. Bad apples are easy to spot and to blame. And to use as an excuse for avoiding the larger difficulty, which is that of faith in "all that is, visible and invisible" (as we state in the Creed). The Incarnation is an obstacle greater than the Redemption. Here is where I find that Flannery is my true soul-mate. When Christ heard our pleas and healed my grandson Owen of severe brain injury, He worked the same kind of miracle in front of my eyes that He worked in Palestine during his own lifetime. And, as I have meditated on that healing, and as I compiled the Dossier on Owen that I sent to Rome, I gained an understanding of "miracle" that Flannery O'Connor expresses as I have never been able to express:

"To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature."

That is exactly how I have come to see Owen's healing -- as a suspension of the laws of death, decay and destruction that took my sons Simon and Eric to early graves. Jesus spoke to his disciples about the power of faith, "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him." Such faith existed, in the hearts of those who prayed for Owen, both those on earth and those in heaven. And the death, decay and destruction that are temporary effects of the Fall were suspended, and the true physical laws revealed in the Incarnation and Resurrection re-instated, when Christ in the power of Faith asked His Father to break into our world and heal Owen.

Flannery O'Connor describes herself as many things -- a "hillbilly Thomist" and a "hermit novelist", among others. My favorite of her self-labelings is that of "Christian realist." To the secular mind, the phrase itself is a conundrum if not a downright oxymoron. But Flannery O'Connor gets it in the same way that Frank Sheed did in "Theology and Sanity". A mind that sees the world as God has revealed it is realistic. A mind that does not is living in fantasy. And not in a good way. Flannery is providing much light to my questioning, questing mind this Christmas season.

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