[This letter was written to her friend ‘A’, who was a convert, who had decided to leave the Church].
I don’t know anything that could grieve us here like this news. I know that what you do you do because you think it is right, and I don’t think any the less of you outside the Church than in it, but what is painful is the realization that this means a narrowing of life for you and a lessening of the desire for life.
Faith is a gift, but the will has a great deal to do with it. The loss of it is basically a failure of appetite, assisted by sterile intellect. Some people, when they lose their faith in Christ, substitute a swollen faith in themselves. I think you are too honest for that, that you never had much faith in yourself in the first place and that now that you don’t believe in Christ, you will believe even less in yourself; which in itself is regrettable.
But let me tell you this: faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will. Leaving the Church is not the solution, but since you think it is, all I can suggest to you, as your one-time sponsor, is that if you find in yourself the least return of a desire for faith, to go back to the Church with a light heart and without the conscience-raking to which you are probably subject. Subtlety is the curse of man. It is not found in the deity.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Reflection – O’Connor’s compassion and concern for her friend is very touching in this letter, as it is touching in many of the letters in this collection. Her friend did indeed go on to have a most difficult life, which ended in suicide some years after Flannery’s death in 1964 from lupus.
‘A’, because of her keen intellect and deep spiritual hunger, brought out of Flannery some of her most profound reflections on faith and life. ‘Faith comes and goes’ – this alone is something to ponder quite deeply. Our interior experience of faith, of course, is what is meant here. The theological virtue of faith infused in us in baptism is a bit more durable since it is God’s and not ours primarily.
But our inner experience of certainty, of the reality of God, of the truth of what we say we believe and do really believe, in spite of all our struggles and sins—this comes and goes, rises and falls. And this is why our decisions about religion and its practice, the Church and our fidelity to it, simply cannot rest primarily or solely on our current emotional and psychological experience.
Yesterday I wrote about the wingless chickens and our experience of what I guess is a calamitous loss of faith and turning away from God and the Gospel in our world today. Today, then, I want to highlight this whole business of returning to God and to the Church with a light heart. This is really important, you know. We can contort and twist ourselves into a terrible mess of complications and difficulties. Some of them are real; many of them exist only in our own minds.
But God doesn’t need us to have everything figured out before we can return to Him. He doesn’t need us to be perfect—He needs us to make an act of will towards Him, that’s all. His grace rushes up to meet us, like the Prodigal Father to the Prodigal Son. Mercy—that’s the key to enduring this world of ours and our own complicity in it, our own failures to believe and love in it.
In this midst of all our complex times and their complex questions and the complex emotions and the whole general tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive ourselves about God and the moral law, we need to remember that God Himself is supremely, sublimely simple. He loves us; He wants us to receive His love; His grace will help us to repent what needs repenting, change what needs changing, and do what needs doing, with great tenderness and compassion.
The way back is there for all of us. The Prodigal Son didn’t agonize about where to find a dry cleaner to get the pig muck off his clothes or try to sort out exactly why and how he did what he did. He was hungry, so he went home. We too can go home when and as we please, and this Simple God will welcome us. And that is part of the message of love and hope we need to carry to the world in our time.