St. Flannery’s Epistles to Miss A.

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”

Rod Stewart and Sub-creation


Between December, 2007, and June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine has featured rock and roll legend Rod Stewart.  Since December, 2010, those features have been cover stories, the magazine falling open at the centerfold to reveal stunning photographs of his model railroad.  In his autobiography, Rod (2012), he subtitled his chapter on model railroading “In which our hero owns up to a habit most shocking and time-consuming.”

As habits go, it is time-consuming, but not all that shocking.  Consider it in the context of what in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.”  Tolkien referred to the Primary World, created by God, and a Secondary World, created by the author of a fairy story.  That sub-creator uses imagination to make a credible world of inner consistency, taking elements of the Primary World into the realm of fantasy.  “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World,” Tolkien said, “but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone, and wood which only the art of making can give.”

Here Tolkien purists could object, since Tolkien insisted that the imaginative work of sub-creation requires words; in painting, for example, said Tolkien, “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy.”  Tolkien’s essay, though, must be read with caution:  In it he muttered against automobiles and other developments of modern life, including “railway-engineers,” meaning designers of trains and their rails, bridges, and stations.  Still, all such literary Neo-Luddites ignore the fact that their verbal creations (or sub-creations) will be published and distributed by means of modern technology.

It might be amusing to pine for the days when one’s writings were copied by hand onto parchment, but those days are gone forever, as dead as the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States.  They are as dead as the era of horses and buggies and steam locomotives.  To dream for their return joins the delusion that for a man to be authentically Catholic, he must affect a taste for whiskey and cigars.

Like any good historian, a model railroader studies the past, he doesn’t live in it.  (Nearly all model railroaders are men.)  Most model railroaders strive to create miniature versions of trains and towns in the era of steam and coal.  Rod Stewart’s model railroad, called the Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad, aims for a time around 1945, when steam engines were phasing out and diesel engines were coming to the fore.

Stewart’s Grand Street and Three Rivers is in HO scale, meaning three millimeters equal one foot.  That scale is the most popular size for model railroads, and American companies such as Atlas and Bachmann produce model trains and buildings in HO scale.  Next in popularity is O scale, twice the size of HO scale; put another way, the H in HO scale refers to its being half the size of O.  The Lionel train set going in circles under a Christmas tree is in O scale.

For their sub-creating, however, avid model railroaders desire more complexity than a basic circle or oval.  Their layouts have multiple tracks, with bridges and tunnels, sidings and landscape, and even at a small scale like HO, model railroads necessarily occupy a lot of space.  For example, HO scale trains need a turning radius of eighteen inches.  According to the June, 2017, Model Railroader magazine, Stewart’s sub-creation is 23′ by 124′, covering much of the top floor of his house in Los Angeles.

While the name of his railroad is fictional, it runs through a setting meant to evoke a city in Pennsylvania.  To conjure such a scene, Stewart spends hours making model buildings suitable to the time and place.  Like many model railroaders, he improvises for realism, modifying or combining commercially available kits, a process known in the hobby as kitbashing.

Here again, the sub-creator’s sense of reality intervenes:  Heljan, Hornby, and Kibri are, respectively, Danish, British, and German companies making accurate scale models of trains and structures typical of railways and locations in their countries, but their products would be out of place in a model of an American city around 1945.  As Tolkien said of fairy stories, the sub-created, secondary world must be true within itself.  More appropriate for the self-contained little world Stewart works on would be model buildings made by American companies like Walthers and Woodland Scenics.

Needless to say, such a hobby calls for stability, and model railroaders tend to pride themselves on their carpentry skills and their ingenuity in constructing the framework to support their track, buildings, trees, and trains.  Making it all work takes electricity, in some cases snaking hundreds of feet of wire into elaborate configurations to operate the trains and to illuminate buildings and tiny street lights.  How to build and wire and otherwise outfit one’s model railroad is where monthly magazines like Model Railroader come in, and more recently, hobbyists have been helping one another through web sites and YouTube videos.

Prominent among the latter is jlwii2000, a channel by James Wright.  An officer in the United States Air Force, he reviews products relevant to model railroading and shows progress on his ongoing layout, his HO scale model railroad taking up a large part of his basement.  Since his job has frequent re-assignments, he has devised ways to make his sprawling sub-creation break down into sections and become relatively easily transportable.

As Wright, Stewart, and other married model railroaders will attest, this “habit most shocking and time-consuming” asks a lot of patience of spouses, although Stewart concedes that his wife welcomes some time to herself.  Mention of spouses alludes to another aspect of this hobby:  Its demographics are aging.  A point worthy of national news, on 11 February, 2016, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the greying population of model railroaders.

One way to attract youngsters into the hobby involves a range of HO scale models based on a children’s television show, Thomas the Tank Engine.  From the make-believe island of Sodor and its talking trains whose good intentions nevertheless often “cause confusion and delay,” kids may someday grow up to model real, albeit defunct, railroads, like the Southern Pacific or the Pennsylvania.

They will find it a satisfying contemplative activity.  As Stewart wrote in Rod, “It’s pretty addictive—and totally absorbing.  The world disappears when I’m doing it.”  Tolkien would understand.

Death Comes Alive in New York City

The experience of seeing my verse drama, Death Comes for the War Poets, raised to life on stage in New York City had a profound impact on me which I endeavour to express in my latest article for the Imaginative Conservative. For those within distance of NYC, I urge you to get tickets before the run ends on June 24.
Here’s the article: