Thanksgiving Thoughts

“[I]t all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

She wrote that somewhere around 1946 when she was just 21 or 22 years old. Flannery’s Prayer Journal, which was never intended for publication and which I finally read only with great trepidation and shyness, has so much to say about thanksgiving, and grace, and vocation.

In the journal she is continually begging for the grace to be a writer. She is sure, at this early stage in her life, that this is her vocation – that this will be her way of giving herself to God.

Her cause for canonization should have been underway for years, in my opinion, but as far as I am aware it is not.

I’m sure, if she heard me say that, she would send me some incendiary remark in a wryly composed letter with lots of “innocent spellings”.

She continues, “My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly.”

Thanksgiving as self-sacrifice. Like the Eucharist.

They say the saints are more keenly aware than the rest of us of sin.

What’s so interesting, reading this journal, is looking at it with the perspective of the years of suffering Flannery was about to endure. She did not know, at this time, that she would contract the disease that killed her father and eventually die from it at only age 39.

And yet, when you read some of the prayers, it’s almost like God answered them by sending her lupus. And that she knew, even in her early twenties, that the life of holiness she so desired was only possible via suffering. And that her longing to be a good writer would never really have been fulfilled had she not suffered.

G. K. Chesterton also has some beautiful things to say about Thanksgiving. I saw this on the IgnatiusInsight page a couple of days ago, and immediately I thought how Flannery-O’Connor-like he sounds here:

A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.

turkey
source: Ignatius Press facebook page

 

Flannery has similar things to say about peacocks.

The beautiful thing about giving thanks for things is that you really only begin to understand them when you notice how grateful you are for them. Like the turkey. You could pass by a turkey farm, but if you stopped, got out of your car, and gazed at a turkey like Chesterton suggests, the beauty and absurdity of this strange-looking animal might start to dawn on you. The longer you looked, the more mysterious this bird would seem. The fact that it has become the traditional sacrificial lamb of our yearly American holiday would only increase this sense of strangeness. And if you looked long enough, you would finally forget about yourself and you would just be totally given to the being in front of you.

The turkey’s goodness is very much tied to its death and consumption by us. It’s very humbling, because of course we do not deserve it.

Chesterton also says,

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I think that what Flannery and Chesterton are getting at is that the gesture of gratitude and thanks is actually the truest response toward life. No matter how little we may initially feel we have to be thankful for, and no matter how irritating cliches about ‘be thankful for what you have’ and ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ can be, if you stop and seriously look around you, at the couch you are sitting on, or the hum of the heater in your house, or the cup of coffee by your elbow, you may begin to see it.

It is an act of sacrifice to give thanks, because you have to give up your sense of discontent, your sense of wanting other things, of wanting some other life or some other place, and ultimately you have to give up even your sense of yourself. When you are really thankful, you are not thinking about yourself at all anymore, but the goodness of being.

Even babbled thanksgiving “once over lightly” is better than none at all, and I am going to really give it a try this year.

“Christ-Haunted” and Flannery-Haunted

She would probably hate that title.

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)

Flannery O'Conner
source: ahsartgallery.blogspot.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.

Anyway –

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 article I read is very good, and you should read it too: “7 Reasons to Read A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.”

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.

Yes, afraid.

47027-ExcellentQuotations.com-Mother-TeresaI 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.

Amen.