Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Laws of the Flesh

To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, I will know what God is.

We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.

I am always astounded at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul that she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but 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…

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Reflection – Again, much to ponder here. This will be my last day with Flannery O’Connor, in the interest of blog variety. As always when I am thoroughly enjoying an author, I want to just keep going with her, but too bad for me – gotta do something different, starting Tuesday (Monday is my day off, as you may have noticed).

Flannery is a deep woman, and she is going deep here. The idea that the true nature of the physical and the fleshly can only be understood in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ—events which we call ‘miraculous’ and in our modern scientific consciousness deem violations of nature and the physical—this idea has deep implications.

It means that it is the nature of the physical and of the flesh to be completed, fulfilled, by the reception of God, the receiving of the Spirit. Far from some weird and inherently violent imposition of the Divine upon our unwilling and resistant humanity, it is the very essence of our humanity in its physicality to be penetrated and permeated and utterly transformed by divinity.

I believe that. This means, then, that we cannot talk about who we are and what our nature is and what fulfills us and how we are to be happy and have love in our lives and all those good things that people (rightly) get very worked up about, and expect to get anywhere in our discussions unless we gain this transcendent and divine perspective.

We think we know what we need to be happy. We think we know what it means to be a complete human being with a complete human life. But our thoughts are so utterly mired in the level of ‘the laws of nature and the flesh’ as we understand them—and we don’t understand them, not really.

So we think… we have to have sex. Or we have to have an intimate sexual love relationship, to put it more positively, which may or may not include marriage as we currently understand it. Or we have to have maximum autonomy in our personal choices. Or we have to have access to whatever career we wish. Or we have to have a level of economic security or freedom. Or we have to have… well, sex! This one does seem to come up an awfully lot in our modern notions of the laws of the flesh and the physical and what they demand of us.

It seems to me that this is why the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience is so important in the world. Those of us called to this way of life are called to bear witness to all flesh that there is a whole dimension to human fulfillment, human freedom, human security, and human love that is utterly beyond our normal human understandings and what appear to be our normal human capacities. The joyful, faithful life of a poor, chaste, and obedient man or woman preaches the Gospel of Christ to an unbelieving world with a unique power and conviction.

But this Gospel of Christ is true for all men and women. We are called, all of us, to receive the life of God into our human flesh. The nuptial imagery that fills our scriptures and our spiritual tradition truly is the heart of the matter. We receive God, as Mary received Jesus into her womb, giving her own human flesh to the matter, but the deeper reality being the divine person in this flesh.

As we ponder questions of same-sex marriage and abortion and euthanasia (I know, a complete grab-bag of unrelated issues, but the news is full of them right now), we who are Christians need to at the very least go to this depth of understanding in our own personal being. How to communicate this to unbelievers or people in anguish or in anger is another story altogether, but we have to get there ourselves first, and I think we often don’t.

Happiness, love, fulfillment, freedom, the nature of humanity—all of it is only found in the communion of love of the Trinity which becomes our communion of love in the Church on earth (imperfectly), and in the kingdom of heaven (perfectly). And that’s all for now, folks.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

If It's a Symbol, To Hell With It!

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). 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 of life is expendable.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Reflection – Another famous and beloved quote from Flannery O’Connor here – if it’s a symbol, to hell with it! The ‘story’ in question is the early gem “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in which a little girl grapples with the question of purity of heart and sanctity, beginning with reckoning that she could probably make it as a martyr if they ‘killed her quick’, but coming to a deeper understanding of these matters through encounters with her two stupid Catholic schoolgirl cousins, a mischievous nun, and a hermaphrodite employed as a circus freak (it is an O’Connor short story, and it will get weird).

The climax of the story occurs at Benediction, as the girl’s fumbling, distracted and rather grumpy efforts to pray give way to the words spoken by the circus freak, “I am what He made me to be. I don’t question His ways. Praise Him.” Leaving the convent school, she is embraced by the nun who she had earlier fended off from hugging her, and the nun’s crucifix is mashed into her face, leaving a mark. On the drive home, the sun sets over the horizon, ‘blood red, like a Host.’

The story is immensely comic (unlike many of O’Connor’s stories, nobody dies a violent death!), but in it the very mystery of this gift of God is expressed in the deep symbolism of narrative fiction. The Eucharist, the very presence of God, the body and blood of Christ, is given to us: silly, grumpy, distracted, uncharitable, broken circus freaks. It is given to addicts and sexual deviants, misers and gossips, to the angry and the lazy and the gluttonous and the prideful. It’s even given to the few saints among us, who perhaps understand these things better than you and I.

All are made the temple of the Holy Ghost. All are called to be fit temples, suitable temples, which means the constant battle against sin in our lives. But the field of this battle lies deeply in the way of acceptance, of abandonment to divine providence, of realizing that it is into my face and your face, as they are, the real reality of what you and I really really are, that the Cross of Christ has been ‘mashed’. The mark of the Crucified One has been imprinted on your soul and on mine… not the way we would have it, but according to the precise configuration of your life and mine, the battle we have been given to fight, the burdens and wounds we have been given to carry.

If it’s just a symbol, to Hell with it, really. This is why the Eucharist must be the true body and true blood of Jesus. He has to really come to us, not in some vague notional way, but physically and utterly. Because the reality of our life is lived there: in our physical concrete circumstance. We don’t live our lives notionally, but in our bodies, in time and space and history. If Jesus does not come to us bodily, in time and space and history, He’s not very real, then, is He?

But He does. He is not a symbol. He is the Lord, and is given to us that we may praise Him and bear witness to His provident love. How crucial it is for us to believe this, live it, and find some way to proclaim it to all the freaks and failures, the sinners and stumblers, the addicts and deviants and all the poor struggling people, who are all of us, who are all of us.

It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is the hope of the world.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Faith Comes, Faith Goes

[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.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Loving Wingless Chickens

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern condition, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty.

To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; 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, but I you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

The notice in the New Yorker [a review of her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find] was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Reflection – This is mighty profound stuff here. Often when people quote Flannery O’Connor, this one letter to her friend who chose to be anonymously identified as ‘A’ in the collection comes up. It is packed with gems: a generation of wingless chickens… you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it… the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable… if you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time as you struggle to endure it.

I write this post with some difficulty. I am aware that my blog readership is largely American, while I am Canadian. The United States Supreme Court yesterday struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, largely paving the way for a wholesale legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the nation. In Canada, we crossed that particular Rubicon quite a number of years ago. I am aware of the pain and distress of many of my American Catholic friends, and I share it with you, along with the real fears of religious persecution that in my view are anything but fanciful.

So… what to say. I deliberately looked for this letter of O’Connor’s, because I think she is pointing out the way we have to walk in our difficult times. That is, we have to go deeper. The time for superficial Christianity is over. And by superficial Christianity, I do not only or even primarily mean rote prayers and mechanical routine. I don’t even primarily mean lukewarm compromising practice of faith and morals. All of that, yes, but really what I mean is that we have to plunge into the depths of Christ in these matters. We cannot stay on the surface, railing and ranting about the evils of the government or of society, or railing and ranting about the evils of the bishops and the clergy, or floating along in some haze of unawareness of any of these evils, or looking for easy answers in the surrender to the spirit of the age or the retreat into a cozy Catholic enclave.

All of that is, or at least easily can be, superficial Christianity. We need to plunge into Christ. We need to plunge into the passion of Christ—his passionate love for the world that led him to die for the world, his passionate mercy and tenderness that bore not a trace of sentimentality or laxity.

We need to become lovers. The flocks of wingless chickens have increased in the sixty years since O’Connor wrote this letter. People believe love means you can do with your genitals anything you please; people believe that what is a clump of cells in the womb is turned into a baby by the mere act of locomotion a few inches down the birth canal; people believe any evil can be justified if it accomplishes something good, something we really, really want.

The moral sense has decayed and degraded, and it is hard to see how or where it will end. We need, not to rant and rave and rail, but to love. Only love creates, and what is needed now is not endless wrangling and controversy, but a new creation. Only love can make the beauty and truth of the good visible, and that is the pressing urgent need of our day. We need beauty, and only love is truly beautiful.

And it is the Church, with all its faults and failures, that feeds us with Love each day in the body and blood of Christ. So it is the Church that alone makes it possible for us to get through these hard times. And that is my word today for my American readers, and for the rest of youse guys, too. God bless you, and keep your chin up.

Update: Welcome, Sheavians! I just finished writing a whole series of posts, further reflecting on same sex marriage and the challenges of loving as we try to present the Church's views on the matter. Click on the 'same sex marriage' label at the bottom of this post if you are interested in seeing what I have to say.