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.


  1. I have become a big fan of Miss O'Connor. Her fiction can be puzzling and unsettling, but I love her personal letters.

    1. Yes, puzzling and unsettling are good words for her fiction... in a good way, I think. Actually her letters help a lot in figerrin' out what she's trying to do. Glad to 'meet' (cyber-style) another fan!

  2. Father Denis,

    I know this is going to shock you about me ,)....but I have always struggled with..well orthodoxy. This one passage when I read it years ago...this passage (and Marie Javora) really opened a door for me. When I looked I saw rules and structure and when she looked she saw God and a way to love God. Tremendously helpful.

    Also, she has a way of being realistic about it all..which also helps me. I have found Niebuhr helpful in the same way ( is he of the same vintage?) also Mertons Conjectures of a GuiltyBystander has been helpful.

    Um, I thought I had ordered your book I choice and have been waiting sort of anxiously for it to arrive but a couple weeks have I plan to look into it. We are going to Cana in July, are any of your books at MH? I was thinking we could save on postage... Also, are you doing Cana this year?

    Bless you

    1. I count it among the great blessings of my life that I was introduced to O'Connor when I was a wee lad of 19 here at MH. Her, Ruth Burrows, and of course MH and Catherine Doherty got me so sorted out at such a young age on so many subjects. Saved me a lot of time and heartache.
      I'm at Cana week of July 14. Your week? It'll be great to see you, and we can get the problem with the book sorted out then. Pax,

  3. I haven't read O'Connor in decades. I'm inspired to pick her up all over again. I imagine I will be reading her with new eyes and definitely a clearer mind.

    1. Great! One of my long-term dreams is to write a book about Flannery O'Connor's fiction. I also would love to delve more into her short stories on the blog if I can figger out a way to do it. Glad you're going to pick her up again.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.