Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Faith, Not Feelings

To get back to all the sorry Catholics. Sin is sin whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us. I think of the Protestant churches as being composed of people who are good, and I don’t mean this ironically. Most of the Protestants I know are good, if narrow sometimes.

But the Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is a constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good…
The things we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature.

Further it is not at all possible to tell what’s going on inside the person who appears to be going about his obligations mechanically. We don’t believe that grace is something you have to feel. The Catholic always distrusts his emotional reactions to the sacraments.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Reflection -  Well, time for something completely different this week on the blog. Someone asked me the other day how I figure out what to blog about next (she used the phrase ‘it seems kind of random’). Like all artists and creative people and towering intellects, I responded with an embarrassed mumbled ‘Idunno’ and slunk away as quickly as possible.

Anyhow, what I do know is that the blog lately has been awfully papal and political, and it’s time for a break. If we’re finding Christ in Ten Thousand Places, it’s time to look somewhere else than Vatican City, and find him talking about something other than law, politics, and justice.

Enter Flannery O’Connor! For those who do not know her, she was a Catholic author from the Southern USA, the state of Georgia to be precise. She wrote two novels, but is more known for her short stories, two collections of which were published in her life time. Her fiction deals in large with the theme of God’s grace coming to people who don’t particularly welcome it. As such, ‘grace’ comes on the heels of violent death, fire, general havoc and mayhem. She herself contracted lupus in her early adult life, and died in her mid-30s. Her life of faith and art was lived in a context of physical suffering and infirmity which she bore with uncommon grace and stoicism.

Thomas Merton, looking for another author to compare her to, had to reach back all the way to Greek tragedy and Sophocles. I didn’t understand the comparison until I read Sophocles and said ‘This is just like a Flannery O’Connor short story!’

She also was a great letter writer, and her correspondence has been published in various volumes, the largest and most comprehensive of one is quoted above. Since it is impossible to excerpt a short story and have it make the slightest sense, I propose to blog random quotes from O’Connor’s letters for this week, and see where it takes us.

This letter is from her correspondence with a Protestant minister who was interested in having a little ecumenical dialogue with her. Most of the time, her Catholicism was expressed in the mode of fiction: her sacramental imagination and sense of the drama of human sin, freedom and dignity suitably expressed in the narrative form. But she was a skilled apologist for the faith if need be.

Here we see on display her utter unsentimentalism, united with an unwavering faith. We go to Confession, receive the Eucharist, say our prayers, not because these things ‘feel’ good to us, but because they are true. We are in the Catholic Church and strive to be faithful to its doctrines and laws, not because when we look at the Church we see happy smiling people living lives of undefiled virtue.

Uh, no. Our faithfulness to the Church is because the Church is Christ’s Church, and He wants us to be faithful to it as He is faithful to it. Period. End of story. Nothing more, nothing less. We can have wonderful popes (I think popes of the last century have been fantastic), wonderful bishops (I love my bishop! No, I’m not pandering – why do you ask?), and live among wonderful Christian people. We can also painfully and tragically lack all of the above. While the emotions are real and the wrong of ‘sorry Catholics’ is a terrible thing, it makes no real difference in terms of the call to be Catholic and to fully commit our lives to living as faithful Catholics.

In our times of sexual abuse scandals, divisions, intellectual confusion and personal brokenness, it does seem to be hard for people to get to that clarity about the Church and the faith. So it’s good to read O’Connor who has this clarity, leavened with no small amount of Southern humor. Let’s see where she takes us this week (Idunno yet!).

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