Yesterday would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 90th birthday. I always thought it was so appropriate [read: providential] that she was born on the feast of the Annunciation, when God became incarnate. In fact it was her stories and letters that first really helped me to appreciate the Incarnation and Catholicism’s insistence on the sacramentality of the world.
I read C. S. Lewis long before I read O’Connor, and yet for all of his generous help to me in navigating Christianity, and his beautiful exploration of Christianity as a story in the Chronicles of Narnia, “Myth Became Fact” and other writings, I never really got the sacramental approach from him. It was in O’Connor’s bizarre works that are almost overwhelmingly “of the flesh” that I began to experience Christianity in a new way.
Christianity always seems to struggle in every age from gnosticism – from a desire to separate the body and the spirit. Flannery O’Connor’s writings are a very strong antidote for this chronic malady, I think because she herself was struck by the Church’s teaching on sacramentality and had to overcome a certain natural resistance to it:
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. (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)
When I was a junior in high school, I chose The Violent Bear It Away as my novel to read and to write about for the major paper we were writing in English class. This novel disturbed me and irritated me to no end (it still does), but I was arrested by how the moments of grace in the book were not abstract but firmly grounded in earthly imagery–fire and blood and bread and landscape. In this powerful scene, the protagonist, a young boy running away from his calling to be a prophet, is coming to terms with the fact that the mysterious “hunger” inside of him which has haunted him throughout the story cannot be satisfied:
He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood. (O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away)
Reading Flannery O’Connor is very much like reading the Old Testament. There is violence and sin and some very unlikable people — and yet somehow it is only in this broken realm that grace chooses to work.
Oddly enough, that previous sentence also aptly describes the Catholic Church. It is not noble and abstract, nor clean and tidy, nor even very holy (except insofar as it is the vessel of the Holy Spirit). Rather it is full of violence and sin and some very unlikeable people. And yet somehow Christ has chosen to work his grace in it and through it.
As Flannery says, “Sometimes you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it.”
I love that. It comforts me when I’m impatiently enduring a banal liturgy or rolling my eyes about my Catholic friends’ Facebook posts or gaping at the comment some cardinal made or fuming over yet another scandal.
And of course I too am sometimes (perhaps oftener than I think) the cause of someone else’s “suffering from the Church”.
But Flannery understood this and explained it beautifully in her sharp, concise way: “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it” (Ibid).