But at more than 220 pages, you’ll have to DVR Masterchef Junior and Downton Abbey for the next few nights.
To give you a sense of what’s inside, we’ve compiled some of the most striking quotes on a variety of themes from the text. (The numbers in parentheses refer to the document’s numbered sections where the quote can be found.)
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.
Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the…
Here are the ads that inspired my response, over at doyougotinsurance.com. Scroll to the bottom and you will see them.
In the spirit of Pope Francis’ urging us toward a deeper theology of woman, and as a way to respond to these Obamacare ads, I repeat my first question: what do women really want? The way you answer this question will reveal what you think about women and ultimately how you view the human person as such. (Read the rest)
If you think about it, Charlie Brown is always confronting the problem of Job.
He always suffers, and it is almost never his fault. Lucy and the football is probably the most obvious example.
At different points in our lives, however, all of us are Charlie Brown.
(And Lucy – but we may not be as willing to admit that.)
We all have bad things, sometimes really horrible things, happen to us — either through the agency of another person or through the inexplicable course of natural events.
And so we ask the question: “why?”
And usually, we are not referring to efficient causes here but to formal ones, to use Aristotle’s language.
But I’m not going to try to attempt to explain the problem of suffering here, though. It’s been attempted many times and by people far more learned and holy than me:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris 13)
If you want something like that, though, check out Lewis’ The Problem of Pain for an accessible treatment from a (laymen’s) philosophical perspective, or his A Grief Observed for a much more personal approach.
Or if these do not satisfy you, or if you are rather skeptical about reading Lewis, read “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Although, of course, it would be better for you to read the chapter in context (and therefore the whole book). Yet this chapter is very beautiful and very haunting. It does not really address the question in a “here’s the answer” kind of way, but it confronts the real question head-on, as Dostoevsky always does.
“No signs from heaven come to-day / To add to what the heart doth say.”
Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”
And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. […] They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? (“The Grand Inquisitor” Chapter Five, The Brothers Karamozov)
Read here, I suppose, Liberation Theology. This was the sort of thing taught at my high school, and this is why I bothered to begin reading Church theology in the first place, to see what she actually had to say in response. Acts of charity seem cheap in comparison to “real” social change, in this view.
The problem the liberation theologians and Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor present, however, is very real. What’s the use of talking about heaven if you don’t address the hells present on earth? Or, put more simply, you must give people ordinary bread before you can offer them the bread of heaven.
Of course, this is what Jesus actually did. You see this especially clearly in the Gospel of John, where He multiplies the loaves and the fishes right before offering the Eucharistic Bread of Life discourse (John 7-6).
But therefore, the temptation to make Jesus some kind of political liberator is really quite understandable. The kingdom, in this interpretation, means bringing justice to the poor and oppressed (which is true, as far as it goes). But this interpretation also pushes the question of heaven aside, because it does not seem very relevant except as an “opiate of the people” or a rather shabby hope of future consolation. This liberation theology a la Guiterrez is yet another effort to explain the “problem of pain” or the question of Job..
But I would venture to say that this is the answer some people give who cannot quite bring themselves to encounter the mystery of Jesus’ own poverty and suffering. They would prefer to see in him some kind of political liberator, an overthrower of Roman or Pharisaical oppression. Such an image is easier to swallow than the Suffering Servant – the One who does not come to end or solve our suffering, but instead to suffer it with us.
The Inquisitor continues his cross-examination of Christ:
And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems. (Ibid)
You see the problem?
Dostoevsky begins to push the question disturbingly far. Not only does Christ not give his people (especially the poor) bread, he also does not give them any explanation for His negligence. Rather, He chooses to leave things “exceptional, vague and enigmatic” — you cannot believe in Him without making some kind of radical, sacrificial choice or reason-bending submission. You must give yourself up.
“With a free heart [man must] decide for himself what is good and what is evil,” yet He has caused us an unbearable burden by “laying upon [us] so many cares and unanswerable problems” that most people, even those who outwardly profess to be Christians, cannot bring themselves to really embrace the offer fully.
Anyway, you should go read Dostoevsky’s chapter, and then go read the whole novel to see how Dostoevsky’s Christian character Alyosha deals with it.
Charlie Brown’s answer to suffering, of course, usually comes in the form of Linus — the resident Peanuts theologian. Yet he, too, is often mocked for his sometimes ridiculously “blind” faith. Witness The Great Pumpkin:
But in his most famous role, in the Christmas episode, Linus explains the mystery far better than usual. Charlie Brown, as usual, is upset. He is suffering. Nobody likes his Christmas tree, and everybody ridicules him for choosing it. Nobody understands the meaning of Christmas–and, as he discovers, he doesn’t quite get it, either.
And so Linus addresses Charlie Brown’s suffering by telling an old story:
Job, after hearing the conventional wisdom of his three friends, also hears another, perhaps more reasonable and plausible explanation of suffering, from Elihu (whose name means “He is my God”). From a theological perspective, Elihu’s answers are pretty darn good.
But they do not satisfy Job — just as they do not satisfy anyone who has really experienced suffering and loss. God seems so far away in our suffering. The strange thing is, for many people, intense suffering does not necessarily cause them to doubt God’s existence, but rather His goodness. Their pain cries out for justice and healing, things they know they cannot experience here. But God does not respond.
Many people think that the biggest obstacle to believing in God is human suffering. Yet, from an intellectual point of view, suffering, even the suffering of the innocent, isn’t really inconsistent with what we know about a loving God. When in the last century, people said things like “after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to believe in God,” I think their pain and horror witness to the fact that the real problem is not intellectual, but personal.
I can see how, theoretically, the Uncaused Cause may allow unspeakable suffering to occur and still be “good” in some real way. Or that, because of human free will and the corruption of all creation by sin, suffering does (and perhaps must) occur.
What is much harder to see is this: how can my Father, this God of Jesus Christ, who (they say) loves me, stand back at a distance and watch me suffer like this, right now, in this moment? Or how can He just simply watch as thousands of people in the Philippines beg and pray for His help–and then not receive it?
You see, once you have some kind of relationship with God, the problem becomes not theoretical, but personal. Just as one can imagine that a family member may (in theory) seem betray you or ignore you, although perhaps for a good reason–but when it actually happens, you are mystified and ask yourself, “why?”
The only response that really helps at all, I believe, is that God did not exempt Himself from our suffering. He becomes one of us and embraces our pain. Jesus did not offer us a philosophy that explained everything in the universe. Rather He chose to experience everything we experience in this universe–even abandonment by God.
Eventually, of course, Charlie Brown and his friends need to stop talking and just play the rest of the game.
And we, too, after reflecting and questioning and doubting, must eventually go back to the business of living. Because when suffering actually occurs, it looks very different from the inside than from the safe theoretical “outside” of the Grand Inquisitor. Those who actually suffer real horror often know God better than we, in our comfortable armchairs, do– because they are on the cross with Jesus Christ.
There are only three short stories that I distinctly remember reading in high school:
“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter
“A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
I have found, in conversations with friends, that at least two of these are very frequently remembered by others as well. The last two. But sometimes the first as well.
High school English teachers often use Porter’s “Weatherall” story to teach “stream of consciousness” when they’re covering a modernism unit. I don’t remember what my junior English teacher told me about any of that, but I do remember being transfixed by the story itself. I was borne through the wandering and failing mind of the protagonist as she shoos away her concerned children at her deathbed. She is an old woman who is dying and remembering fragments of her life–in particular the “jilting” she experienced as a young woman. Ironically, at the end of her life, she realizes she is being “jilted” by another Bridegroom, God. In astonishment at the nothingness that awaits her, she blows out the candle of her life.
Porter wrote this story long before she converted to Catholicism, so it’s treatment of death is particularly arresting. I was haunted by it for years, and still am.
Oddly, though, it’s one of my very favorite stories.
“A Most Dangerous Game” involves a young man trapped by a hunter of big game. The hunter is bored with animals, and eventually settles upon Man as the truly worthy prey. It’s creepy and really suspenseful. Even kids who don’t like to read usually like this story.
I mention these other two stories, despite the subject of my post, because somehow I feel as though they appropriately contextualize what I am about to say even though I could not clearly explain to you exactly why that is.
For, of course, then there is Flannery.
If you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in high school, you probably remember it with unease and distaste.
If you haven’t: Go read it. There’s no use reading what I say here unless you have read it.
Or if you prefer, you could listen to Flannery reading it to you. You may be startled by her voice – I was, at first. Quite the experience:
What bothers people about this story isn’t so much as the violence (we are certainly used to that) as the purposelessness of it. Most readers just don’t “get it.” What the heck is O’Connor trying to say? What’s the message? What’s the theme? And what does she mean by “A Good Man,” anyway?
The feeling often is — why did she put us through all of this?
My answer is: I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know.
I think that if you think you know, you are probably wrong or deluding yourself.
And that is precisely what I have come to love about this story.
When I was in high school, I was pretty ticked off by the whole thing — much like my own students. It puts you through so much humor (if you read it right) and so much suspense (if you read it at all) and then it shoots you in the face.
If you’re Catholic, and you’ve heard of Flannery’s Catholicism, you’re probably thinking you might get it. If you’re an English major, and you’ve read a lot of literary criticism, you’re probably pretty confident you can get something out of this story. I am both of these things, and I have realized the error of my ways.
I would venture to say that if a reader is honest with herself, she will admit to her utter perplexity.
Flannery accomplishes in this story a profound gesture at human nature and its mystery. That’s why it bugs us. It won’t fall into conventional Christian or literary categories. It’s like she saw something and she wrote what she saw, and that was that. It was true and nothing else.
If you read it and think you’re reading propaganda or proselytism of some kind, you are sorely mistaken. You are reading literature on par with Sophocles and The Iliad — literature that does not attempt to explain life and death, but simply to show it.
The Gospel of Mark has a similar feeling, especially if you stop at 16:8, where most scholars think the original fragment ends. In that reading, the Gospel ends the empty tomb and with fear: ἐφοβοῦντο γὰρ, “for they were afraid.”
O’Connor’s story of the family’s miserably comic road trip should ring true to anyone who has been in the car for more than six hours with their parents or siblings:
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother. (O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)
I was reading the Gospel of Mark today and was struck by its similarly matter-of-fact tone. He tells you about the Transfiguration like you would mention what happened to you at work today.
Later, Flannery relates the death of the grandmother in much the same way:
She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them. (Ibid)
She touches the man who has murdered her son, her daughter-in-law and her three grandchildren because she recognizes him as her lost son. This recognition is too much for The Misfit, and he reacts in the only way he knows how.
If you want to hear O’Connor’s own remarks on this work, go listen to her speak about it before she gives a reading of this very story:
Many critics have realized, since reading Flannery’s letters in The Habit of Being, that Flannery O’Connor is writing about the violence of grace– that grace is not the stuff of fuzzy Christian consolation, but the terrifying love of God that seeks after what was lost no matter what cost to Himself–or the sheep in question:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world. (O’Connor, “On Her Own Work”)
I have found, in short, from the reading of my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (Ibid)
Perhaps that is all that can really be said about a story like this.
Sufjan Stevens wrote a song called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” On this album, he also includes a track entitled “In the Devil’s Territory.” Both are nods to O’Connor.
Perhaps, sometimes, only art can explain art.
Indeed, his whole album, entitled “Seven Swans” provides a very O’Connor-esque perspective on life and faith.
So go check out Sufjan’s response to O’Connor’s story:
He very rightly points out that most of the people who are attempting to salvage or defend or praise the humanities are doing it in the wrong way. They say things like: studying the humanities makes us critical thinkers! The great books help us to be better businesspeople! The liberal arts “free” us and make us nicer! Companies are actually looking for English majors who can string a coherent sentence together! All this reading and writing pays off.
Perhaps you are already seeing the ridiculous mistake.
A taste of Bauerlein’s analysis:
In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. (Bauerlein, “What Dido Did,” The New Criterion)
Yes, this is the problem.
When I worked as a marketing intern in the Admissions Office at UD, I encountered it frequently. How can one possibly market a Catholic liberal arts education in this economy? How can we show parents that spending their money on us will be worth it? What accolades can we cite? What statistics do we have? What successful graduates can we laud?
Bauerlein also points out that not only are the anti-utilitarians making utilitarian arguments, they are also missing the real thing itself. What do they mean by “the humanities,” exactly? What subjects? What books? They avoid that rather obvious question altogether.
The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. (Ibid)
My guess is that this is because “the humanities,” if you sat down and tried to name the authors you meant by that euphemism, are mostly dead white men (with notable exceptions). And in today’s culture, it is very unpopular to extol the wisdom of dead white men.
Moreover, the “outcomes” these humanities defenders insist make the vague and undefined humanities worthwhile are also always too vague and undefined to be convincing. (“Critical thinking skills?” What is that anyway? And didn’t we learn that in high school? “Global citizenship?” “Being more human?”) Nobody will argue with these noble outcomes, but nobody will sacrifice a $100,000 a year paycheck for them either.
Pardon yet another quote, but I think Bauerlein just might be referring to UD students here:
People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days. (Ibid)
Although we spend a lot more than “a month” there. Ahem.
Interestingly enough, I think his main point here has a lot to do with the problem I was exploring in my Dissecting the Frog post. As English teachers, how do we balance inspiring our students to experience the mystery of the story, and at the same time demand rigorous analysis, while never turning that story into a mere specimen to be picked apart so that it is no longer recognizable? I don’t know how, exactly. I’m fumbling my way toward it.
Another part of the problem I have noticed is this: as Flannery says, “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it” (Mystery and Manners, via goodreads.com). The problem is that high school is democratic — it is for everybody. Increasingly, and perhaps for all practical purposes now, so is college. So how do you teach art to everybody? To the students who don’t want to be there and who could care less about art?
The wide-eyed optimistic teacher in me would say, “But they do care. They just don’t know it yet! Or maybe they don’t right now, but they will, once I show them how beautiful Homer is. Because they are human and they are drawn to goodness, beauty and truth.”
The first few months of teaching in ACE almost cured me of that delusion, though strangely I still cling to it.
In class, the other day, I was trying to get my kids to get beyond their hatred of reading anything remotely challenging so that they could see, for a moment, the horror of Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy. So I told them to stop, put their pens down, pick their heads up, and look at me. Then, silently calling upon the Muses to sing in me the wrath of Achilles, I described the scene to them in my own clumsy words.
In that fifth period class, there was a long silence afterward– especially because I tried to draw for them Priam and Hecube and Andromache with little baby Astyanax staring down from the wall, transfixed in horror.
Yet my words are not Homer’s — and they are not even Edith Hamilton’s. But what do you do when your students won’t even bother reading Hamilton’s?
“Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty” (Bauerlein).
Yet not all of them will choose to participate. Not all of them will care. Most of them will never bother with “the humanities” because they are “boring” and “I don’t get it” and “this is hard, Ms. Shea.” And maybe it is not even right of me to demand that they care. I am sure that God does not want everyone to be an English major. Scientists, politicians, and businessmen are noble professions too.
But perhaps some of my students will care, no matter to what vocation they are ultimately called — and these students may not always be the ones you (or I) would expect.
As Flannery says,
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose via goodreads.com)
The only thing Flannery wanted us to be haunted by is Jesus, as she so disturbingly and movingly describes in Wise Blood:
Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. (O’Connor, Wise Blood, via goodreads.com)
I need to go read her first novel, Wise Blood, again– but even as a Catholic I am afraid. That’s when you know you’ve confronted good literature, when it makes you afraid–not in the superficial sense, but the deep sense. Afraid because when you read it you have to face the truth whether you like it or not.
I just read another article about this new book that has been published, consisting of her personal prayers she wrote while she was in her 20’s — that is, my age.
The author Cybulski says, quite rightly: “The journal is a cry of the heart so deeply intimate I wondered at times whether I should be reading it at all.”
That’s why I haven’t read it yet. Having read her letters several times over in The Habit of Being, I am pretty confident that Flannery would really hate it if her private prayers were published. Hans Urs von Balthasar might describe it as a violation of the unveiling of being — a kind of violation whereby the truth is forced or snatched from someone without her consent. (The Greek word for Truth – aletheia – means “unveiling” or “disclosedness”).
Then again, however, Flannery in heaven may not care very much or may, indeed, be quite open to the idea if she knew it might help those of us bumbling along the road down here.
But I haven’t read the letters yet. It seems indecent. But if I am really honest with myself, I would have to say that I am afraid to read them.
I remember reading Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light in the midst of a time (a very long time, mind you) in which I was really struggling to believe in God. This book was a very painful sort of comfort, and I highly recommend it–but I recommend it with fear and trembling, because if you really read it, that’s how it should affect you. Mother Teresa was one of the holiest women of the 20th century (and, perhaps, ever). Even most nonbelievers accept that (except silly people like Christopher Hitchens). Yet her belief in God, though the center of her life, was also most certainly the most painful part of her life. Joy and sorrow are not two separate things here.
And I suspect the same is true of Flannery O’Connor. You get hints of this struggle all over the place in The Habit of Being and in her fiction, which is populated by all sorts of nonbelievers–whether they be outright honest atheists, amiable agnostics, or Pharisaical Christians of the most disgusting type.
One of her characters, Hazel Motes, experiences a radical de-conversion in which he abandons his biblical faith. He is tired of the demands of Christ. He is tired of running from Christ. So he decides to begin his own Church Without Christ (a rather interesting version of the New Atheism a’la Dawkins et. al) and proceeds to preach his new disbelief with abandon. He says, “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything.”
As you read, however, you see he is still running.
See if you can hear the echo of O’Connor’s own possible struggle with faith in his tirade:
“Leave!’ Hazel Motes cried. ‘Go ahead and leave! The truth don’t matter to you. Listen,’ he said, pointing his finger at the rest of them, ‘the truth don’t matter to you. If Jesus had redeemed you, what difference would it make to you? You wouldn’t do nothing about it. Your faces wouldn’t move, neither this way nor that, and if it was three crosses there and Him hung on the middle one, that wouldn’t mean no more to you and me than the other two. Listen here. What you need is something to take the place of Jesus, something that would speak plain. The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus! It needs one that’s all man, without blood to waste, and it needs one that don’t look like any other man so you’ll look at him. Give me such a jesus, you people. Give me such a new jesus and you’ll see how far the Church Without Christ can go!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood via goodreads.com)
Notice, that what bothers Motes the most, (and, I suspect, Flannery), is that to some people, “the truth don’t matter to you.” They just don’t care about what’s true. God exists. Whatever. God doesn’t exist. Whatever. It simply just does not matter to them. And that’s what’s really horrifying. Because of course it matters. It’s really the only thing that matters–either side you choose.
But back to her published prayers.
From the article:
It is the rare 22-year-old who describes God as “the slim crescent of a moon . . . [which] is very beautiful,” while viewing herself as “the earth’s shadow . . . [which threatens to] grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.” Flannery confesses to being “afraid of insidious hands . . . which grope into the darkness of my soul,” begging God to be her protector, shielding her against those things which would tear her away from Him. (Cybulski)
If that isn’t faith, I don’t know what is.
And I am afraid like Moses was afraid of the burning bush. You see it, you can barely believe it, you clumsily take off your sandals–aware that your filthy feet are still touching Sacred Ground–and you know that if you come any closer you will probably be burned by something or Someone more terrible than you had supposed.
I will read that book eventually. Perhaps soon.
“I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually . . . I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God. Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” (O’Connor, from her prayer journal via goodreads.com)
Try inserting your vocation in place of “artist.”
I must write down that I am to be a teacher. Not in the sense of educational frippery but in the sense of academic scholarship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually… I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God. Dear God please help me to be a teacher, please let it lead to You.
Because to read something is not necessarily to understand it. Partly, of course, because when you’re young, you always understand less than you think you do. But mainly because, to understand someone, it’s not enough to sit there tapping your foot while he talks. You’ve got to listen, rather than merely waiting for a pause so that you can insert the response you’d already formulated before he even opened his mouth. Andwhen you’re a young man who thinks he’s got the religious question all figured out, you’re in little mood to listen — especially if you’ve fallen in love with one side of the question, the side that’s new and sexy because it’s not what you grew up believing. Zeal of the deconverted, and all that.
You’re pretty much just going through the motions at that point. And if, while in that mindset, what you’re reading from the other side are seemingly archaic works, written in a forbidding jargon, presenting arguments and ideas no one defends anymore (or at least no one in the “mainstream”), your understanding is bound to be superficial and inaccurate. You’ll take whatever happens to strike you as the main themes, read into them what you’re familiar with from modern writers, and ignore the unfamiliar bits as irrelevant. “This part sounds like what Leibniz or Plantinga says, but Hume and Mackie already showed what’s wrong with that; I don’t even know what the hell this other part means, but no one today seems to be saying that sort of thing anyway, so who cares…” Read it, read into it, dismiss it, move on. How far can you go wrong?
Very, very far. It took me the better part of a decade to see that.
This is also why I have added a new component to teaching essays. After teaching them the basics, I have begun to force them to dedicate their first body paragraphs to the opposite opinion–to whatever they are arguing against. And I don’t mean a paragraph that rattles on and on about their own ideas. I mean a paragraph that explores the other side and explains what that side’s strongest arguments are.
Because, I have found, you never really understand something until you try to explain it (read: teach it!) to someone else.
See Feser again:
Naturally, I had already long been aware of this sort of argument. The difference was that when I had first thought about it years before I was approaching it as someone who had had a religious background and wanted to see whether there was any argument for God’s existence that was really persuasive. Russell’s retort to Copleston, to the effect that we can always insist that the universe is just there and that’s that, had then seemed to me sufficient to show that the argument was simply not compelling. We’re just not rationally forced to accept it. I had, as it were, put the argument on trial and it had been unable to establish its innocence to my satisfaction. But now I was approaching it as a naturalist who was trying to give my students a reason to see the argument as something at least worth thinking about for a class period or two. I was playing defense attorney rather than prosecution, but a defense attorney with the confidence of someone who didn’t have a stake in his client’s acquittal. Already being a confirmed naturalist, I could be dispassionate rather than argumentative, and could treat the whole thing as a philosophical exercise.
And from that point of view it started to seem that Russell’s reply, while it had rhetorical power, was perhaps not quite airtight philosophically. Sure, you could always say that there’s no ultimate explanation. And maybe there’s no way to prove otherwise. But is it really true? Is it really even more plausible to think that than to think that there is an explanation? Guys like Rowe and Taylor, by no means religious fanatics or apologists but just philosophers entertaining a deep question, seemed to take the question pretty seriously. Interesting, I thought. Though for the time being, “interesting” — rather than correct or persuasive — was all I found it.
Because really, in matters of religion, philosophy, or even just in-class essays, we are talking about what is true. And if we really want to know what is true, we cannot be afraid of empathizing with our opponents — and really trying to listen to what they say.
(And then after that I was at the Hofbrahaus. Ahem.)
It was the very end of the famous (in the UD world) “10 day”–that fabled time during our Rome semester in which the campus was closed to us and we were told to go have some adventures. And boy, did we have some adventures!
Sidenote: By the way, this is one of the many reasons I love UD. They push us to go beyond our comfort zones and to not be afraid. We can read Nietzche (and even like him, and some of the things he says) and still be Catholic. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
I was in Munich, this day, five years ago, after having spent three days in Paris and a day before that in Lourdes and the days before that in Barcelona, Spain.
On my third day in Paris, the eve of All Saints’ Day, I had gone to Notre Dame Cathedral for the Vigil Mass. Actually, we barely made it to Mass on time because we had spent the day exploring Versailles. I remembering running from the metro stop to the cathedral, and being astounded that, although the choir was singing, no one had begun to proceed down the main aisle. For some strange reason, the Mass had started late and we were therefore on time.
It was one of the many little things on that memorable trip that added up to grace.
My grandfather had died earlier that year, and I had been struggling for months trying to really accept it. For the first time, death had become real to me. And yet, during Holy Communion that evening, with the choir’s voices swelling behind me and lifting up my grief to the highest parts of the cathedral, I felt very close to him, and very aware that in the Communion of Saints, he was with me. I remember walking down the aisle of Notre Dame for Holy Communion and asking him to help me.
I love All Saints’ Day. I don’t think we really think about it enough, or what it really means. Or at least, not until someone whom we love dies. Then, I think, we begin to see it.
C. S. Lewis, for many years already an apologist for Christianity, became far more convincing when his wife died. In his amazing book, A Grief Observed, he shares his pain and brings some real clarity to what is at stake when we talk about death, and the saints, and heaven. He gets to the heart of the matter – of the fear we all feel when we encounter death. Is it The End? Is there really a Heaven? Or do we simply just stop existing? Were the saints wrong after all? Is there Nothing?
What about the people we love who die?
These questions only start to really matter to us when we face death for real:
If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can’t believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
All Saints’ Day is about this frightening experience. In it, the Church affirms that, not only the somewhat distant halo-bearing statues and stained-glass images, but also the living and breathing people we knew and loved for years, are still real. More real, in fact, than we are now — even as we struggle to remember them as clearly as we would like – that face, that laugh, that way of saving something just so, that odd habit, that wink.
This solemnity is about all the uncanonized saints. This solemnity tells me that yes, in fact, I may meet C. S. Lewis himself someday — and Flannery O’Connor, and my great-grandparents, and all the people whose words I have read or whose stories others have told me or whose faces I have seen in photographs and icons, but who have remained for me silent witnesses.
Two of my friends who I was traveling with, Rachel and Teresa, had to bolt out of the cathedral after Mass to catch their overnight train to Munich. They were late. Far too late.
But so was the train.
I remember thinking, rather stubbornly, that my grandfather had to exist still, because I knew I was still his “sweetheart”–as he used to call my sister and me. Not even death could change that.
I’m not saying it was (or is) easy for me to believe this. I think atheists and agnostics have the wrong idea if they think that believing in heaven or in God is easier than not. As O’Connor says,
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
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. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, my emphasis).
One of my friends on our ten day journey was struggling a lot with faith, and with believing in particular providence (the idea that God actively intervenes in our day-to-day lives, rather than in a more general way). Yet I think those ten days gallivanting around Europe did more to lead her to convert to Catholicism than anything I ever could have said or done. Throughout our Rome semester, I prayed for her at the tombs of many saints — in particular, the tomb of Saint Monica (Saint Augustine’s mother), in Rome.
We probably have no idea how many saints are paying attention to us right now, and how God gives us grace through them.
My favorite image from Narnia is the scene in The Last Battle where Tirian stumbles through the stable door and finds himself in the “Real Narnia,” and sees for the first time all the old heroes he had only heard of in stories – and his own father, and all those whom he had ever loved. One of the other characters says,
I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in! (Lewis, The Last Battle)
And to any of you who are grieving the loss of someone dear to you, and are confronting death face to face, I think ending with Lewis’ words is best. Here, he describes an experience that happens to him many months after the most harrowing stages of his grief. Excuse the very long quote, but it is worth it:
… Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. … And suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’
Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)