I’ve started an online book club to discuss the works of Flannery O’Connor!
It’s almost a commonplace that hell is never mentioned in most Catholic homilies anymore, nor is it even alluded to. But it’s even more of a problem that heaven, while never mentioned by name (out of
embarrassment, I think), is even more misunderstood than hell.
As to the banishment of hell, you need look no further than today’s Mass readings, which feature Our Lord’s parable of the invited guests, many of whom ignore the invitation to come in to the feast. The parable ends with a stern warning about hell …
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mat. 22:11-14)
The text of this dramatic ending of the reading is bracketed by the bishops – which means it is optional for the priest or deacon to read it.
Our priest today opted not to read the conclusion of the parable, which served to achieve the obvious: the parable loses its sting, and in some ways is robbed of its main point.
His homily reminded me of what you’ll experience at most Catholic parishes at the Easter Sunday Mass. “Hey, everybody! Lent is over! We can go back to eating chocolate!!!” The Resurrection is shorn of its true joy and drained of any real depth, even psychological depth.
For our universe has been flattened. Banish the terrors of hell and you end up with a hole where heaven ought to be. “No hell below us, above us only sky,” as John Lennon wrote – though I’m not even sure the sky is up there anymore.
Heaven has become either an all-you-can-eat buffet – which is more of less what the wedding feast symbolized in Our Lord’s parable, according to our homilist – or a place where everybody is nice and smiles at one another – a kind of psych ward for lobotomy patients.
And while the Kingdom of God is among us, and we get glimpses of it in the unsung bravery and love of the many ordinary people in our lives, that fleeting sense of a “joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” is utterly absent from our typical notions of eternal life with the Holy Trinity and the saints.
I think this kind of culture – or, more accurately, this vapid lack of culture – which, aside from the sacraments, is the only thing put forward in the Catholic Church at the typical parish level these days – this kind of anti-culture bears this kind of fruit.
The transcendent exists. It is in a more fundamental way than we are – but if we can’t approach the transcendent (either heaven or hell) at church, then where can we approach it?
From an email to a friend …
In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates inferred that the major weakness of philodoxy is the inevitable capitulation to crowd-speak. Specifically, Socrates made fun of Protagoras’s homo-mensura, which asserts, “Man is the measure of all things.” For clarity’s sake, the homo-mensura can be interpreted as this: “The human-animal’s perceptions and opinions determine the value of all things.” According to Socrates, Protagoras may as well have asserted, “Pig is the measure of all things,” or, “Baboon is the measure,” since those creatures also possess “the power of perception.” Protagoras, foiled by his own maxim, is “no better authority than a tadpole, let alone any other man.” If Protagoras’s homo-mensura is truly so weak, why does anyone bother to uphold it? One possible answer: it makes crowds happy. As the ancient progenitor of truthiness and alternative facts, the homo-mensura helps sophists win over audiences. “Everyone’s opinions are meaningful and valuable! You can decide on any scientific, political or artistic subject for yourself!” (Cue applause.) The worst effect of the homo-mensura is that it renders futile any attempt to examine or refute “each other’s ostentations and judgements,” for each individual demands respect and narcissistic recognition. “This is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense,” Socrates decided.
I’m always crabby when I go to Sunday Mass. If I were the perfect Catholic, this would not be the case. But I am not the perfect Catholic.
For one thing, I don’t like doing anything on Sundays. For another, the homilies are always insipid and the music makes me want to throw things and hurt people. “You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat” – just typing those words has made me see red and froth at the mouth. Now I can’t get that terrible tune out of my head!
I’ve tried the Latin Mass, and at least the music is not awful at the Latin Mass. My wife doesn’t like the Latin Mass, so two Sundays ago, when she was out of town, I went to a Latin Mass parish without her. I noticed the guy five rows ahead of me was “packin'”. He had a pistol at his side, in a holster – two sons and a handgun. I did not notice, when I walked into this church anything like this …
… so I assume it was OK to be “totin’ some heat” at Sunday Mass. I suppose if there had been any Liturgical Abuse … this guy was prepared!
Anyway, last Sunday I went to our dreadful little parish church up the road, the one that was designed to look like a shopping mall, only a lot less beautiful. After the mushy and gooey “music minister” assured me that all were welcome in this place and that I would be raised up on eagle’s wings and before he told me to taste and see, someone stepped to the pulpit after the homily.
|St. Jeanne Jugan|
It was one of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
I love these women. We toured around with our show Little Saint of the Poor, about their foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, and performed at over 20 Little Sisters homes across North America. This is the most amazing group of women on the face of the earth. Most of them are older than the seniors they care for. One of them goes out begging every day, at every home, so that they can purchase the food the residents of their homes eat. They have stood up to the Federal government, who are trying to force them to pay, indirectly, for contraceptives for their employees. They are amazing.
The Little Sister at our parish spoke. This is, more or less, what she said …
I’ll tell you a little bit of my vocations story. I had everything, but I wasn’t happy. There was a hole, a hole that I couldn’t fill, a hole in my life, in my chest. I had cars, a nice job, everything in life – but I was single, I was lonely. I prayed to God – finally. I said, “God, please send me the perfect husband.” Well, you have to be careful what you pray for! Within twelve months, I gave up everything and became a nun – a Little Sister of the Poor. And He said, “Guess what? You’ve got the perfect husband! It’s Me!”
We take in the elderly poor. We care for them. We know they all have holes in their lives like I did – family divisions, loneliness, despair. We don’t care if they’re Christian or atheist, Muslim or Buddhist. We take them in and we show them love. We fill that hole. They become part of our family. We give them what they need, and some of them realize that and they’re very grateful. We don’t just give them care, we love them.
And then, when the Lord calls them – when they’re dying – we stay by them. We pray with them, we sing, we talk to them. We make sure they don’t die alone. This is the mission of the Little Sisters of the Poor. This is what Jeanne Jugan did, and this is what we continue to do today.
And I left Mass actually feeling good.
This is what we’re called to do – all of us. Answer the loneliness of others. Give them a share of our hope. Make them part of our family.
This is what we are all called to do.
From an email to a student …
Today I wanted to quote one short Bible verse that really struck home for me yesterday.
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. (Mat. 5:13)One of the versions of that verse at the link above translates it thus, “if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be salted?”INSIPID is a great word. It means not only “tasteless”, but stupid, inane, unable to cause excitement.The original Greek word in this passage (Mat. 5:13) is μωραίνω, a word that means both “tasteless” and “stupid” or “foolish”, and is a word related to the English word “moron”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, this word is translated as “stupid” or “foolish”.I’m sorry to say that almost everything we do officially as the Catholic Church is “insipid”.This is not true for EWTN or the American Chesterton Society, for instance, but it is true at 95% of the parishes I visit in my travels, and it is true in the lives of most Devout Catholics I know. The vast majority of Catholics I know do not know their faith, do not care about their faith, and do not practice their faith. The small percentage I know who are Devout Catholics tend to be INSIPID. They are like the architecture and music and homilies in the suburban Church.I am trying to be careful not to rant here, because it’s easy to get caught in a toxic mood about this sort of thing. But I am describing something very real and spiritually deadly.As a group, Catholics have become insipid. Why would anybody want to be Catholic? We have no character. We are inspired by nothing. We smile a cheesy smile, and our communion with one another is as lame as the “sign of peace” at Mass.I’m a crabby old man, but what I’m saying is true. We should be on fire. We have the strength of the cross behind us. We have a God who descended into the darkness and muck and mire of our worst sins to save us. We have a glorious rehabilitation at our fingertips. We have life and joy and the pungent taste of love, true love, love that fears nothing.If all your life you’ve been taught (as most Catholics have been taught), “Jesus was nice, you be nice, too,” you’ve been taught a lie. He loves us with a love that is not “nice”. He loves us with a love that would do anything for us. He loves us with a love that shocks and disturbs us. The cross is never “nice”.And that’s how we should love, too.Because we are the salt of the earth. And if we become tasteless, insipid, foolish, limp, lame, lifeless and dull, we are only fit to be thrown out and trampled under foot.
From an email to a friend …
This week, in my regular Scripture readings, I read Ephesians chapter 4, which is pretty much the heart of Paul’s theology of regeneration in Christ. It is the great and profound mystery that we don’t hear a whisper of from the pulpit – at least I haven’t in any single Mass I’ve been to in the last 17 years. But it is at the center of what the Faith is.
We are remade in Christ. As Christians, who we are is different from what we were. We experience a change in our being: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
I have never heard that mentioned at any Church I’ve been to, beyond the readings. It may be read by the lector, but it’s never preached by the priest or deacon. And it is as unbelievable as the Resurrection. “If Christ be not raised, then is our faith in vain, and we are the most miserable of men, and we are still in our sins.” If the Resurrection is false, then we are all fools and we should burn down the churches and stay in bed on Sundays.
And – crazy as the Resurrection sounds – even crazier is the belief that our natures are being remade. “You have been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him in faith.”
And even more difficult for modern Christians: we are all supposed to be growing into Christ.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Growing up as Christians, becoming “mature”, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”, no longer “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
We are not only to mature in Christ as individuals, but as a Body, conforming ourselves to Him who is our head, Jesus. When we mature in Christ, the Church matures in Christ, and we grow into the fullness of Him as a Body.
The “fullness of Christ” to which we are to strive is (in this passage from Ephesians 4) derived from the Greek work πλήρωμα (pleroma), meaning fullness and completion and final perfection. In Colossians, Paul uses this word to extol the divinity of Jesus: “For in Him dwells all the fullness (πλήρωμα) of God in His body”.
Pleroma is a mature completeness, and in Christ it is the fullness and completeness of a man who is God.
But this is lacking in our whole vision of our faith.
Today a friend told me about an atheist she knows who now wants to pray and be Christian. My friend kept giggling and talking about the “miracle” of this atheist’s conversion, but there was no hint of the reality of it. It’s as if the game is won. The story is over. He’s Christian, no longer atheist. End of story. Ta da!
But what of the reality of who this man is? What of the struggles and disappointments he’s bound to face? What of the next step, maturity in Christ? Who can lead him from infancy in the gospel to maturity, “attaining to the fullness (πλήρωμα)”, so that he is not “swept by every wind of doctrine blown by the cunning and craftiness of others”? Somehow my friend sees this as a game, as a switch you flip, as a yes that drowns out the no, as a complete victory, rather than a wobbly and tentative first step toward the light that is still far away.
I am reading Flannery’s O’Connor’s letters. I was bored until her correspondence from 1955. Before then, she was writing to friends about money, book deals, things she was reading. But in 1955, she took up a correspondence with a woman from Atlanta, a Pagan pantheist / agnostic who is referred to as “Miss A.” Suddenly Flannery confronts the Big Questions and the result is awesome. Here are some selections from Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence with “Miss A.” …
… our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works. This is one reason I am chary of using the word, love, loosely. I prefer to use it in its practical forms, such as prayer, almsgiving, visiting the sick and burying the dead and so forth.
… 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 …
One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.
As for Jesus’ being a realist: if He was not God, He was no realist, only a liar, and the crucifixtion an act of justice.
Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.
That last one is great. Eric Voegelin was all about contemplation of God, and he thought dogma got in the way of that. But Flannery says dogma “preserves the mystery”. And yet how many Christians use dogma as something that incites to further prayer or wonder? Many use dogma as the end of the question, not the beginning of it.
More from St. Flannery …
Whether you are a Christian or not, we both worship the God Who Is. St. Thomas on his death bed said of the Summa, “it’s all straw,” – this was in the vision of that God.
And here we have her using a metaphor that I have also used. Of conversion or membership in the Church, she said …
I suppose it is like marriage, that when you get into it, you find it is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work.
Now that is brilliant – from a woman who was never married. Marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work. That’s very true indeed.
Flannery is reluctant to write about purity, calling it the most mysterious of virtues.
… 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.
Elsewhere she says of purity …
… it is an acceptance of what God wills for us, an acceptance of our individual circumstances.
And then she throws off lines like this. She says she does not like to write about “the poor” …
I won’t say the poor, because I don’t like to distinguish them. Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.
I love that! And she also says some very evocative things like this …
… I have come to think of sleep as metaphorically connected with the mother of God. Hopkins said she was the air we breathe, but I have come to realize her most in the gift of going to sleep. Life without her would be equivalent to me to life without sleep and as she contained Christ for a time, she seems to contain our life in sleep for a time so that we are able to wake up in peace.
And this is perhaps one of the greatest lines in all of literature, and it’s so typically Flannery …
Well, God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to.
Yes indeed. Well, God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to. That’s perfect theology and perfect poetry and perfectly vernacular. That should have gone on her tombstone.
And let me quote at length from her letter to Miss A. of Dec. 16, 1955. She speaks of how she strives in her stories for the moral sense to coincide with the dramatic sense, and then she says this …
… the devil’s moral sense coincides at all points with his dramatic sense.
The devil understands, in other words, the deep connection between our acts (good and evil) and the consequences of our acts. We would rather pretend as if that connection did not exist. The devil is braver than that, and peers right into that connection, delighting to send souls to hell.
And here she is speculating on the General Resurrection.
As I understand it, the Church teaches that our resurrected bodies will be intact as to personality, that is, intact with all the contradictions beautiful to you, except the contradiction of sin; sin is the contradiction, the interference, of a greater good by a lesser good. I look for all variety in that unity but not for a choice: for when all you see will be God, all you will want will be God.
This is why, I would add, we are to be Salt of the Earth. We are to become more distinct and individually flavorful, not less.
And she includes this in her Dec. 16 letter, one of her most famous quotes and the one thing that people know from her letters …
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life, reviewed in Time.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, 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 with 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 is expendable.
The Body and Blood of Christ is Love Incarnate. As is marriage, which “is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work.”
Compare Tolkien …
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth … which every man’s heart desires”
If we consider that human existence is constituted as a tension of longing or striving toward conscious participation in reality and that this striving proceeds through reflective mediation in consciousness, we might diagram the total pattern in the following way: The line with the arrowhead in this picture represents the tension of existence both as experienced on the level of immediacy and as articulated in consciousness through the medium of symbolization. “R” stands for reality, in which the inquirer is immediately involved through his participation in existence and which he also comes to know reflectively. As such it is intended to embrace all that is, including the entire process represented in the diagram. The figure in the middle marked with “S” is in the shape of a lens. “S” stands for symbol; this may take the specific form of visual symbols, myths, ideas, philosophical propositions, and so on. It could even take the form of dance or liturgy. Whatever its form, it functions to represent some aspect of the reality attended to through it and to direct inquiry toward that. This is why it is represented in the diagram as a lens; it is not, when it is functioning properly, an object of attention in its own right, but serves as a focusing device to direct attention beyond itself toward the object of interest. It is only through that lens or medium that human existence can attain consciousness and reflective knowledge of the real, even when what is inquired into is human existence.
It is the diagram as a whole that depicts psyche. The symbol psyche refers to the entire process of participation in reality, its symbolization, and the tension that moves and guides the process.
The other aspect of this diagram is the “lens” of symbolism or representation. Beyond the most basic level of the senses, consciousness only seems to function via symbolism (including language, rational thinking, story, art and myth). If the symbols become mere doxa, superficial appearances or representations that no longer represent, signs that point to nothing beyond themselves, to no greater aspect of reality, if the map becomes more important than the road or the journey’s destination, then we have a kind of anti-Mary (not unlike antichrist). As Mary is the lens whose soul “magnifies the Lord”, she represents how living and loving symbols and beings can show us God. The antimary would be any symbol or being that becomes opaque, allocating God’s glory to itself and blocking the light beyond.
Dear Ink Desk Readers,
I thought you might like my videos for my Homeschool Connections courses. Here’s the whole playlist – https://www.youtube.com/
And be sure to sign your kids or grandkids up for Homeschool Connections!
There’s a Life Magazine special issue out about Mary.
At the end of the main article, the writer laments, “If only we had a simply human Mary, that would be enough.”
My reaction: We do have a simply human Mary. No orthodox Christian has ever believed or taught that Mary is anything other than human. So that should be enough.
My wife’s reaction: For people, it’s never enough.
And that’s really it. That’s what it’s all about. We’re a mess. Insatiable, unhappy, lost – in need of a Savior (though that’s not a politically correct thing to say).
You may choose to believe the Gospels or to think of them as mere myths, but what they present in perhaps the most telling and compelling way in all of literature is human nature in its truest form.
The Father’s call throughout the Old Testament, through the voice of his prophets, is “Repent! Stop doing evil, do good and turn to me. Otherwise you will face disaster.” That’s the message of the Son in the New Testament as well, but we don’t want to hear it.
We’d rather have the Buddy Jesus, the Jesus-as-Inner-Self, the Vague Jesus, the Jesus of our Own Desires, the Jesus we can make jump and entertain us.
We don’t want a Jesus whose first words are (as in the Gospel according to Mark): “Repent and believe!”
And the Gospels simply tell us what we do when we are given “enough”, when we are asked to repent and believe. What do we do when we are given all that we need? A loving God, a good man, a man who walks the earth healing and forgiving and asking us to do the same? What do we do?
We torture Him, mock Him and kill Him.
No work of literature before or since has ever shown so clearly the Resistance in our Hearts.